Class makes senses of wine tastes

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009 - 3:31 pm

It's Sunday morning, just starting the second day of a weekend class covering the sensory evaluation of wine. The first thing we're doing today is tasting some acid levels.

I'm thinking this may be a problem. I just bit my tongue.

This can happen, particularly when you eat and talk at the same time, and even more particularly, if you're me and rarely stop eating or talking.

I like lots of the people in this class, which is offered by UC Davis Extension. I also liked the muffins on the snack table for the pre-class mingle. You can see how I'd get into this fix.

And now we've got wines in front of us with extra acid dropped in. We're supposed to rank them by acidity level.

I taste the first. Ouch.

I taste the second. Ouch.

I taste the third. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

OK, at least that's a clue.

The good news for me and, at a lesser level, for everyone in this class is that it's so smartly run and so enjoyable that you'd have to work hard to not learn something from it and to not have fun.

And trust me, I tested the system. The class started Saturday morning. Thursday, I caught a cold. So my nose is stuffed and my tongue is sore. Seriously, how bad am I at this?

Yet in a way, all of that made me a perfect student. The class is taught every few months by John Buechsenstein, a respected winemaker and 30-year wine educator. He's also a witty guy and a man with the casual, engaging style of someone who's spent a lifetime in the wine world.

The class is open to everyone and is one of a range that UCD Extension offers about winemaking, wine appreciation and the wine business. (More info can be found at http://extension.ucdavis.edu/unit/winemaking or by calling 800-752-0881.)

Although this was an introductory class aimed at pretty much anyone interested in wine, a tad more than half of the 60 people were in the wine or food biz, including a chef from New York and a young couple opening a winery -- wish them luck -- in New Jersey. There were also plenty of people in various stages of happy wine fandom.

Tools for judging wine

One Fair Oaks couple -- Beth Palmieri, a sales director for Revlon, and her husband, Scott Evans, a counselor at Del Campo High School -- fell squarely in the likes-wine-still-learning category.

Palmieri said she's getting laid off soon and wants to learn enough to get back into the wine industry, where she started her professional life. Evans was there because Palmieri wanted to take the class, and he got the class as a Christmas present.

"Who gave who the present?" I asked.

"That's a good question," he said.

They were at my table, so became part of my team in the tasting exercises that were designed to help us practice, practice, practice, which may have been the single most prevalent theme over the two days.

The class's goal, simply enough, is to teach people how to think about evaluating wine -- and, really, tastes in general; many of the principles apply to all food -- and to give us some tools to do that. Even more simply, it's about the search for quality and how anyone can recognize what it is in some wines they like so they can find it again.

Buechsenstein said it starts with developing a vocabulary for describing wine, and not the dopey kind of descriptions like "wistful exhilaration" or, I dunno, "stingy sensuality" that you find in bad wine writing. Buechsenstein also bans what he calls "Y words," including "yummy" or "yucky." Those don't describe anything.

Instead, this is about getting a checklist in your head of the components and tastes of wine. Experienced tasters go through checklists on acid, sugar and tannin levels -- the building blocks of a wine's structure -- and the basic flavors common in most wine. For non-pro wine drinkers, that will help them ID not just wines they like but why they like them.

"The main thing," Buechsenstein told the class, "is to think about wine as food. Push the button in your brain that puts it in that food context."

'Taking a picture of odor'

And that takes some practice. Here's why. In simple terms, maybe 80 percent of what we think of as the taste of wine comes from our sense of smell. Our olfactory system takes in those smells both before and after we swallow, and we're capable of picking up thousands of different smells.

As Buechsenstein described it, the brain translates the input from the olfactory system "by taking a picture of the odor and searching its files, looking for a match."

So for starters, if you put lots of wine smells into your brain's filing system, you'll more readily get matches. Or put another way, the more often you smell straw or raspberry or cassis (more on that in a moment), the more easily you'll recognize it.

But there's a complicating factor.

"Our brains are hard-wired to send odors through our brain's emotional center before they go to the logic and language center," Buechsenstein said.

In short, it was a survival mechanism. Out in the wild a few million years back, our ancestors didn't stop to deconstruct smells. No one said, "Are you getting lion? I'm getting a hint of lion. Or maybe that's saber tooth. Anyone getting saber tooth?"

Instead, the smell went straight to the emotion center, which hit the panic button and shouted to the legs, "Flee." Now, we more modern tasters are fairly unlikely to get eaten while we're opening wine, so when we smell it, we have to practice going through our aroma checklists.

Buechsenstein talked about a recent study that took eight regular folk and eight sommelier types and hooked them up to a functional MRI that displays which parts of a brain are active.

The researchers dropped some wine on the tongues of the regular people. Their pleasure centers lit up. But wine on the tongues of the sommelier types got their logic centers firing.

"Those guys went right into their checklists," Buechsenstein said. "For them, that's instinct."

Drill instructor

And that gets back to practicing. Buechsenstein had the class go through a series of drills, from that acidity test to identifying flavors and, of course, smells.

In one of the smell drills, we sniffed eight reds, all enhanced to emphasize a particular scent. The one aroma the class in general -- and certainly me in particular -- had trouble with was cassis, a black- currant-flavored liquor and a common aroma in reds.

It was a good example of Buechsenstein's point. It's a smell many of us weren't really familiar with. After that drill, he passed around a glass of cassis to help us put it into our brain storage files.

But even when I got the glass, I was missing the cassis smell. "I'm incompetent," I told Palmieri and Evans. "All I'm getting is some pepper."

"Uh, Rick," Palmieri told me gently, "you don't have the cassis. You have the one with pepper."

Right. Well, there you go. Knew it wasn't there.

Putting knowledge to use

Epilogue: It's the evening after the class. I'm out to dinner with a group of friends. We have bottles of zinfandel, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon on the long table. All are delicious.

I'm annoying my wife and friends by making them practice identifying smells. They're pretty good at it. I'm getting better, but there's one fragrance I'm certain I'm smelling in every wine.

"Hey guys," I ask the gang, "are you getting the cassis?"

TAKE A SNIFF OF THESE SCENTS

To look for aromas in wine, it helps to have a checklist in your mind of what you might find. Here's a starter checklist of basic scents in many red and white wines. They're from the UC Davis Extension class that is an introduction to the sensory evaluation of wine. Not all of these are in every wine, or even in any wine, but they are a starting place. They offer a rudimentary list to run through when you smell and taste wines.

Common white wine scents:

Asparagus

Banana

Butter

Floral

Grapefruit

Green olive

Pineapple

Vanilla

Common red wine scents:

Cassis/black currant

Bell pepper

Black pepper

Eucalyptus

Oak

Raisin/prune

Raspberry

Strawberry

WANT TO GO TO SENSORY SCHOOL?

Next class: April 25-26 (Saturday-Sunday), 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Where: Da Vinci Building, 1632 Da Vinci Court, Davis

Fee: $550, includes two lunches and all wine.

Details: http://extension.ucdavis.edu/unit/winemaking, or call (800) 752-0881 or (530) 757-8777.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Rick Kushman



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