A lot of interesting conversations happen in a wine shop when customers aren’t around. Sometimes we sit with wine-sales representatives and have a friendly game of one-upmanship regarding who had the better meal with the better bottle of wine on Saturday. Sometimes the conversation is a bit more, ahem, colorful, and we discuss politics, and tariffs, and the infuriating notion that restaurants will always get better prices than retailers.
I recently had one of the most thought-provoking discussions I’ve had in years at the wine shop. An experienced wine importer and former general manager of one of the most-famous restaurants in California had just presented an incredible lineup of wines he hand-picks from various countries to distribute in the U.S. We tasted a sensational gruner veltliner/dry riesling blend called Tatomer Hinter der Mauer from the Central Coast of California. He said it was a Gemischter Satz.
I said bless you.
It was explained to me that a Gemischter Satz is an old Austrian custom of planting different but complementary grapes that are then all harvested and fermented together. It was my first time having a Gemischter Satz-style wine, and even though this one was not from Vienna, it had that signature crisp and zippy acidity, with beautiful white flowers and a layer of exotic fruits. You’d better believe it’s going to find a home in the wine shop.
Next, he poured us a couple of wines from Basilicata, Italy. Both were Aglianico del Vulture, but they came from different vineyards and were fermented in two totally different styles. The first one was bright and fruity with a slight tart and underripe edge, after being fermented in stainless steel; the fruit came from young vines. The other aglianico was from older vines, fermented and aged in French oak. We marveled at how different the outcomes were based on just a few choices the winemaker made—almost like comparing two siblings who grew up in the same house but are completely different from one another.
We swirled and sipped and chatted about the regions and the producers, telling stories of our favorite wines and experiences from these places. That’s the beauty of wine: It connects people. And the next thing ya know, the conversation took another turn—and we were on to a much-more hot-button topic.
Our importer friend began telling us about a wine-industry comrade who will only drink pinot noir. Now, he’ll drink pinot noir from anywhere, but he prefers Burgundy. Occasionally, he’ll accept a gamay, and in rare instances, he’ll imbibe a chardonnay. But that’s where the buck stops. Cabernet? Not a chance. Sangiovese? Nope. How about an enchanting blend from the Cotes du Rhone? Forget about it.
So, there we were, having just tasted three obscure wines that are beautiful and thought-provoking. We all began to contemplate: Is this guy missing out on the wonders of the wine world? Or is he becoming an expert on what he loves?
It was an interesting perspective. On one hand, I could understand; who wants to consume anything they don’t enjoy? Life is too short to voluntarily make yourself miserable. Besides, COVID has provided enough misery for even the most-masochistic people to be satiated.
But then I began to think about our palates. I began to think about my kids. I began to think about people who won’t eat certain things, because they taste “yucky.” Sure, everyone is entitled to their food and beverage preferences, but I also know that the more you expose your taste buds to certain flavors, textures and spices, the less “yucky” they become.
When I was a kid, I hated onions. I didn’t like how they took a dish that was supposed to be rich and creamy and added an unexpected “crunch.” Worse yet, I couldn’t always see them (those translucent little bastards!) so when an onion snuck onto my fork and made its way into my mouth … well, let’s just say that instead of getting to enjoy mac and cheese the way God intended, my mother went and ruined everything with an onion. The grand irony is, of course, that now I cannot fathom cooking anything without onions. But that’s because my palate matured. The older I got, and the more exotic dishes I ate, the more I appreciated all the different textures and flavors. Wine is no different.
How could you possibly know how much you like one wine if you’ve never had anything with which to compare it? How could you, as a wine-lover, deny yourself the hedonistic pleasure of discovering new flavors? It’s what I live for. I’m a flavor-craver. I taste everything. No, I don’t love everything, but I taste it.
They say everyone starts out drinking sweet wine—Boone’s Farm, or Ripple, or Mateus, or Bartles and Jaymes. Then we “graduate” to reds with high alcohol content and syrupy sweetness that masquerade as dry red wines. From there, everyone moves forward a little differently. But one thing is for certain: The person who tastes more is going to have a better palate than someone who is stuck on one wine.
Our conversation about Mr. Pinot Noir ended with some pretty cool analogies. My co-worker likened it to someone who would rather watch the same re-run television show every night than go out and see a live performance. I thought about steak. Could you imagine declaring that you were only ever going to eat steak for dinner? And not a variety of cuts, but you were only going to eat filet mignon? No rib eyes. No carne asada. No slow-braised beef short ribs over creamy mushroom risotto when it’s cold and rainy outside. It makes me sad just thinking about the depravation.
In short, we all agreed that the only way you can truly become a master of something as complicated as a beverage that can have 20,000 aroma compounds is to expose your nose to as much as possible.
So, here’s to all the wine warriors out there who continue to sip and explore and find their new favorite. I raise my glass to wine thrill-seekers. To those about to taste something new, I salute you.
Katie Finn is a certified sommelier and certified specialist of wine with two decades in the wine industry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.