Midwestern girl, me. The first wine I put in my mouth flowed from a silver chalice in the hands of a Lutheran pastor. We’ll call him Greg.
About my “confirmation, the Lutheran coming-of-age rite, and subsequent first communion,” I recall three things.
One, I was feeling angelic in a white confirmation gown over a new dress.
Two, Pastor Greg was young, blonde, godlike in build, thoughtful and humorous in perfect proportions. Six young girls in my communion class all had a crush on Pastor Greg.
Three, I remember the flavor and feel of wine in my mouth. There was something sensual about the bitter fruit, the astringent pull of alcohol on my tongue. Welcome to the adult world. This is how it’s going to taste, the blood, paired with thin bland wafer, the body.
A party followed my communion event. Now an adult, I was entitled to drink alcoholic beverages. A glass of wine was poured for me. Grown-ups chuckled when I got a little tipsy.
Germans. Northern Wisconsin. I was 12.
Pastor Greg showed up and didn’t drink wine. Beer with tomato juice was his beverage of choice. This seemed odd to me. I was familiar with the drinking habits of adults, and no one mixed substances in beer. Only in gin, which apparently tasted great with tonic water and limeade. (Mom!)
But here was Greg, the Reverend, drinking whatever he wanted. If you invited him to your party, you’d make sure that you had beer and tomato juice.
Wine Tasting Lesson No. 1: Tastes vary by individual and environment, by nature and culture.
My tastes didn’t refine much over the years. High school friends in the early 1980s drank Boone’s Farm (strawberry) and Miller Genuine Draft, sans tomato. After high school, I spent about a decade in a non-drinking cult. My reintroduction to wine started with malt beverages called “wine coolers,” like Bartles and James Fuzzy Navel, and progressed to Fetzer’s Gewürztraminer, which is made from actual grapes.
Then came a big-girl trip to Sonoma. A tour of historic Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857, a California historical monument, included an instructional wine tasting. My husband and I sat at a table with a tray of bread, cheese, salami, slice of lemon and pieces of dark chocolate. We tasted several wines, whites and reds, pairing them with various food items for diverse effects.
We learned about acidity and tannins. In pairing wine with food, seek equilibrium. Sweetness balances mouth-puckering sharpness. Protein mellows tannins. Almost no red wines are drinkable if you’ve just put a sour lemon in your mouth.
We were brand new to the wine world and drank in every detail. Then, because we were drinking, we forgot most of it. The wine educator’s most important lesson, though, was a comforting affirmation we pass along to others.
“The good wine is the wine you like,” he said. That’s Wine Tasting Lesson No. 2. Simple.
I like deep, dark complex red wines. Invariably. Problematically. Wines I enjoy pair best with juicy steaks and zesty ribs, which I rarely eat. Some beloved zins and tempranillos pair nicely with pasta in tomato sauce. That works. But when I eat pasta every night, I get puffy.
Shellfish, steelhead trout? Fish slims. I can get away with a light red grenache or maybe even barbera. Don’t cringe. Salmon pairs well with a barely there pinot noir. All good things.
What about veggies? Salads, overall, taste nasty with red wine. I know this. And yet I drink reds and eat greens.
While writing this column, I’m enjoying some spinach with a dressing made from raspberry and onion. A bottle of Foris Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, purchased on a trip up to the Rogue River Valley in Southern Oregon? It’s open. I swallowed some while cooking. Yum. But that was before the salad. Woe to the forgetful me who washed down the leaves with a sip of cab. Bleagh.
The good news: It takes less than 10 minutes to eat a salad. The wine will wait. Then a bite of cheese will shift the taste atmosphere.
As a matter of fact, in the time it took me to think up the words “taste atmosphere,” I consumed the last of the vegetation. Took a bite of savory Swiss. With proteins coating my palate, I tasted the wine again. Gone are the sharp edges. A sliver of salami, and the wine’s just fine. This one’s a bit chalky, with lots of minerals, and slightly grassy hints of “clover and pine.” We visited the Foris Winery this winter, and all the wines we tasted had an earthiness.
Wait, earthy. Clover? Should not this wine pair with things that grow in the dirt?
Trying to work out the logic, I turned to an expert, award-winning wine writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who says that the rule of serving wines and foods with similar flavors does not apply easily to salads.
“We drink meaty red wines with meaty red meats, and creamy white wines with creamy poultry or shellfish,” Grumdahl writes. “But what exactly do you drink with a nice salad—a shot of gin in a tumbler of wheatgrass juice?”
Grumdahl recommends a few whites that’ll do. But that does not help me, the joiner of reds-only wine clubs.
At home, meh, not a problem. No social pressure. But I also order the wrong wine at restaurants. At one schmancy place, I ordered a glass of red before dinner started. My waiter argued with me: Wouldn’t I prefer the white for the seafood starters? No, I would not prefer the white. This was one of those places that had pre-set the table with wine glasses that match the varietal. The huffy waiter plucked the sauvignon blanc-appropriate glasses off the table and came back with bulbous goblets for my red. He was rolling his eyes on the inside. But it was my dinner.
At one time, I’d make excuses for my ignorant wine choices. So the waiter would understand that I’m not completely ignorant. Lies! “I know,” I’d say, “that this wine isn’t just right for that, and thanks for your fine advice, but I want this wine, and, yeah, I’m going to eat that wrong thing.”
Now I barely bother. I’m polite, and I order what I want, no matter the dirty look from foodie waiter who’s offended I’m not drinking Riesling with the Asian chicken salad. Yes, the merlot won’t be dandy with the citrusy marinade and slivered, lightly charred whatsis. Leave me alone.
And that’s Wine Tasting Lesson No. 3: Judge not that you be not judged. Own your likes and dislikes. Let others own theirs.
This applies when your date thinks the pink zinfandel is glorious. When your dinner guest asks for some Sprite and ice to put in a Napa cabernet. When the pastor dumps Clamato in his beer.
Leave us alone.