Monday, April 18, 2011

A Dog's Nose For Sniffing Wine

I like to think I've taught Bluey (the Australian Shepherd who runs this place) something about wine tasting while he's taught me a few things about wine & cork sniffing. I'm not exactly sure how many thousands-of-times more powerful a dog's nose is to ours, but I've learned to trust Bluey's judgement of wines by the number of times he smacks his lips, the higher number of licks correlating to better wines.

I have never tasted "chocolate" nor "espresso" in wine (although I do not deny their existence), and I'm the first to admit that my palette is unsophisticated. I know what I like and that's good enough for me. As a winemaker, my aim is to make wines that I (and Bluey) like. And if you like our wines, follow-me. I know I liked those bottles of 10-year old Chateau Montelena Cabernet I won in bets from Coyote Karen and Celestial Sandra last year, and I know that I liked that Chateau Brion I tasted in 1976 at a tender young age. Although you're unlikely to find me on a wine judging panel with Robert Whitley (though we're both from San Diego), I have developed an uncanny ability to identify "salt" in wine (this is handy when evaluating grapes from Guadeloupe Valley) and to identify "oxidized" wine, which some of you may refer to as "corked."

How is it that Mr. Unsophisticated Palette can identify bad wine faster than a Bloodhound can sniff out beef jerky at JFK customs? Because I've made my fair share of bad batches (let's just call those learning experiences) and I know what a good wine gone bad tastes like. Furthermore, when we moved inland to the country and experienced our first heatwave and I left a 5-gallon carboy in the garage of our first batch of 2004 Syrah, our neighbor, a member of the Royal Order of Wine Tasters of Burgundy, was diplomatic enough to observe, " Reminds me of medicino." I quickly became all too familiar with what high heat and insufficient sulfites can do to good wine. Another formative moment in the development of my nose was when Joe the Wino gave me a case of 1970 Chateau Lafitte for Christmas one year with the level of wine below the neck. When poured it revealed a light, brownish, color -- that wine and its aroma defines oxidized in my mind. (By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of that wine, thinking back to the year 1970 when it was harvested and what on earth I was doing way back then, but the taste was well past its prime.)

So on a visit to New York City last weekend I sat down at a counter inside Eataly, a new, fashionable Italian all-in-one cafe, delicatessen & restaurant establishment that's great fun, and noticed Italian Nebbiolos on the menu. They were pricey, but in the mood to splurge and as a maker of Nebbiolo wines for Bishops, company CEOs and women who trade hugs for wine, I ordered a glass for $25 (that's $25 a glass, not for 750 ml). The waiter brought a bottle to the table and poured a taste that resembled the off-color rust of that 1970 Chateau Lafitte wine more than the purple majesty of Blue-Merle's Nebbiolo and a taste quickly confirmed my suspicion. "That's oxidized," I told the waiter, who took the bottle to the Maitre d' for evaluation. The Eataly's service was fantastic and the staff fetched a new bottle that was better and later as I was eating the waiter came back and told me yes, the wine was corked (what about those people who had spent $75 on the wine before me?) and then the Maitre d' came by and told me he had tasted it too and yes, it was off. What did they expect? Of course the wine was no good -- I have too much experience making no good wine. When Mario the proprietor reads this and invites me back, I propose carrying a 2006 Blue-Merle Nebbiolo with grapes grown by Camillo in Guadeloupe Valley (Cetto Winery) and let's have a shoot out of the Blue-Merle vs. Eatly's $50/glass of old world Nebbiolo. If I loose, I'll pay $50 for his glass. If we win, Mario should pay us $250 for our 5-glass bottle plus Bluey's airfare.

We'll need a neutral judge for this shoot-out and I have the perfect person in mind: Mademoiselle Salud Scents, the world famous scentologist who has created a line of fragrances that combine the building blocks of wine essences: fruit, flower, citrus, pepper, et al. I wonder if the Scent Sommelier could fashion for me an aroma that evokes that elusive wine delight, chocolate?

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