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The Tasting Experience

I’ve written before about how winemaking is the convergence between art and science, equal parts cooking and chemistry. Our taste bud’s receptor cells bond momentarily with the specific and identifiable chemical structure of the liquid, but in that instant the sensation of those neurons firing in our brain is translated into our conscious perception of the taste of the wine something transcendent occurs. That perception is inherently subjective and it is then, when the science is elevated to the status of art. In that moment, too, the nuances of the wine drinking experience become blended, like Red Rex, with neurons triggered by all manner of other sensory input from our surroundings: Our perception of wine is intrinsically related to circumstances in which it is enjoyed.

A wine enthusiast knows that their palate is easily influenced by wines enjoyed earlier in the night that are still lingering on the tongue. It helps tremendously to chew on a piece of bread to clear your palate. If you’ve ever seen a jar of coffee beans in a tasting room and wondered what the story was, it’s a similar idea. You just sniff the beans to clear out the sinuses. It actually works amazingly well! In the same way that food usually tastes a bit strange right after you brush your teeth, that garlicky Caesar salad has the same effect of the subtleties of wine, though you may not necessarily realize it.

Yet beyond muddling different foods and wines that may cloud our palate’s perception, which is perhaps a more conspicuous effect, there also is the ambiguous influence of present moment: What mood you are in when you taste the wine; the setting in which it is enjoyed; the company that you share the experience with. Subconsciously, all of these factors impact the verdict.  It’s true that wine changes dramatically over time, and that individual bottles of wine can vary. Next time you have an experience where you tried a wine once and didn’t like it, yet on another occasion reversed your stance, consider that perhaps it wasn’t the wine that changed, but it was you.

When we created our tasting room in Deerfield’s cave we understood that the atmosphere of the room itself is intrinsically related to the wine drinking experience. Instead of a long wine bar where you stand shoulder to shoulder with other guests, we created an open and inviting space with deep couches and comfy chairs, arranged in a way that you can enjoy the company of your friends. The people you share your experience with are equally important, and that’s why we have a staff that is friendly and knowledgeable, because while wine is a truly fascinating topic of conversation, it’s mainly about having fun!

The Composer's 5th Symphony

I’ve often talked about how winemaking is the meeting ground between art and science, how chemistry aids us in our understanding of the craft but at the end of the day it’s all about taste. Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining Winemaker Robert Rex and the Custom Crush Winemaker Cecilia Valdivia as they sat down to begin formulating the blend for the 2007 vintage of Deerfield’s immensely popular Red Rex. For those of you not familiar with this particular wine, I’ll summarize by saying it is a mega-blend, the likes of which would only be produced in California because it breaks all the rules. In this blog I wrote about how unlike Coca Cola, two vintages are never the same. For this reason Robert never follows a set formula, he simply seeks to make the best possible wine from the grapes Mother Nature deigned to give us. And so the character of the wine can change dramatically though the goal remains the same: To produce a complex, approachable, full-bodied wine that covers every inch of your palate. This year’s Red Rex is a fascinating blend produced from 7 varietals, 17 vineyards, and no less than 25 different lots (individual batches of wine). While this may seem like an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” blend, in fact the exact opposite is true: Each component was carefully considered and selected because it will add a specific desirable feature to the finished wine.

So where does a winemaker start? Well of course, it starts in the vineyard. All of the grapes from the different vineyard produced separately as their own wines. As these wines are made, the winemaker becomes intimately familiar with each of them. So on paper, Robert first begins to plan out which wines he thinks ought to be included in the blend and in what amounts. A Cellar Rat has a busy day carefully pulling samples from all 25 different lots. Then a representative blend of all the wines is made. Next comes the fun part – we tasted through every single lot of wine so Robert could reassess each component of the blend individually. The only way to improve your palate is by practice and yesterday I felt as though my palate had a crash course that would normally have taken months or years. Tasting each wine and comparing and contrasting them with the others really allows you to see how each one is different and learn what your likes and dislikes are. Also certain factors alter your perception so having a winemaker there to explain what you’re experiencing is invaluable. For example, higher acidity can create the impression of high alcohol when in fact that is not the case. Having the lab results of the actual amounts of acids, alcohol, pH balance and residual sugar is helpful too because it allows you to understand the correlation between the various components.

After every instrument was individually experienced, we next listened to the whole concerto. It was incredible how it was possible to detect and pick out the individual characteristics of the different wines we had tasted earlier even though they were present in such miniscule amounts. Now that the winemaker has a better idea of the wines and how they harmonize, Robert will tweak the ratios of the blend and come back for round two with his adjustments. This time instead of tasting every component we will taste several different versions of the blend to fine tune the orchestra and find the one that works best. I expect that the 2007 Red Rex will receive a standing ovation when the house lights come up.