Wednesday, May 29, 2013

You Say Slicer, I Say Meat Shaver

One is bound to encounter new and different terms with which to describe familiar things when travelling the world.  Sometimes the terms are created on purpose to hide the familiar from view; other times, it’s a simple location-specific difference.  For example, while I would call a certain delicatessen apparatus a ‘meat shaver,’ on account of its role in shaving meat (specifically smoked meat), others would call this apparatus a ‘slicer,’ since I guess it can slice almost anything (though, to get a little Aristotelian for a minute, smoked meat is the most perfect purpose of such an apparatus). This is just a little case of location-specific difference. 

However, if I'm thinking of terms created on purpose to hide the familiar from view, I think about Riquewihr, Rhododactylos, and Centime, three intriguingly unfamiliar wines made from pretty familiar grapes.  (How’s that for a segue!)

Centime (2011), created by Two Shepherds from a vineyard in the Russian River Valley, is an orange wine.  Rather than going in-depth on orange wines, I’d like to direct you to WakaWaka Wine Reviews for a really great series that explains them thoroughly, if you’re interested.  All I’ll say here is that orange wines are essentially white wines fermented on skins, and look like a blanche beer.  You know that softly yellow, cloudy appearance that blanche beers have?  Orange wines share this, but with a wider range of possible colours, from lightly golden to vibrant coral, and a similar array of cloudiness, from almost-clear to opaque. 

Centime is pale gold and quite clear.  Looking at it all by itself, one would not likely spot it as an orange wine right away.  Made from a blend of Marsanne and Rousanne (Rhone varietals), this wine is perfumed and quite complex on the nose.  It smells of flowers, mandarin oranges, and dried apricots, with some implied sweetness.  The palate doesn't totally reflect the nose, with flavours of roasted radishes, citrus peel, spices, and a tang of bitterness.  It’s quite acidic, but fleshy in the mouth too, which comes from the time it spent on skins.  I think that this wine is great for people who are curious and want to experience new styles; it isn't something I would introduce to people who are just getting into wine, or who don’t have much interest in exploring wines.  It's delicious, but I wouldn’t describe it as easy-drinking; it’s for those times when you want an adventure, not for when you want to relax in your favourite chair. 

Riquewihr and Rhododactylos are both made by the Scholium Project, which you can read about here and here.  My understanding is that the goal of the Project is to take usual and unusual grapes from small vineyards in California and make something unexpected.  This seems to be achieved mostly by making wine in a very non-interfering way.  Non-interfering winemaking (or ‘natural’ winemaking) more or less holds that each adjustment that a winemaker makes in the process of growing grapes and making wine interferes with the end product of the grapes, and changes the wine that would be produced if the grapes were left to their own devices.  While this point is pretty obvious, folks in the natural wine camp view winemaker influence in a negative light and seek to get rid of it as much as possible.  This is interesting given that the end product of fermenting grapes is vinegar (delicious vinegar, of course), and that the creation of drinkable wine entails the role of winemaker to watch it and interfere with the ferment process before it gets gross.  While it’s unpleasant to ‘taste the winemaker’s hand’ – to taste lumber or added tartaric acid, for example – it’s equally unpleasant to taste wine that hasn't been controlled in the making, and becomes volatile and unbalanced.  Non-interfering may sound lazy or easy, but it's actually a fine balance and a big gamble.  The path of the non-interfering winemaker resembles a tight-rope rather than a boulevard.

The Scholium Project’s Riquewihr and Rhododactylos are good examples of non-interfering winemaking done right.  I’m not sure that I should go and spoil the surprise of what these wines are made from; the Scholium Project purposefully presents the terms of the wines in a way that hides the familiar from view, perhaps in order to challenge the taster’s ideas about what specific grapes taste like and are capable of making. The grape varieties aren’t even listed on the label.  Hmmm, what to do… Oh screw it, I’ll tell you.  

Riquewihr (2012) is an aromatic, perfumed, smoky-smelling Gewurztraminer, named for a gorgeous commune in Alsace known for its Riesling – tricky tricky!  The spice on the palate and smoke on the nose led me to guess this variety, but otherwise the wine isn’t what I would consider typical.  It’s got touches of fruit and a round body, with hints of juicy sweetness.  It’s complex, layered, and integrated.  The integration of its components, especially the alcohol, makes this wine very pleasant to drink. 

Rhododactylos (2012) is enchanting.  It’s a white-gold wine with the most delicate touch of pink that seems to float just beneath the surface.  Rhododactylos means ‘pink-fingered,’ and I’m not sure if it’s named after its amazing colour, or after the Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, or maybe both.  This wine was originally sold as a rosé, but the winemaker changed the label to read ‘white wine’ after being told it was too pale to be rosé.  It’s made from Cinsault, a large, black, thin-skinned grape that is also delicious to eat.  Despite delicately pressing the grapes, the tinge of pink comes into the wine from their skins. My overall impression is that Rhododactylos is soft, elegant, and delicate.  It has light, airy red fruit and tingly acid on the palate, with a refreshing radish and watermelon finish.  While it isn’t the most complex wine I’ve ever had, I found myself going back to it after tasting other wines.  I could envision myself on a very hot, humid summer day finding comfort in a chilled glass of Rhododactylos on the patio.

Marsanne, Rousanne, Gewurztraminer, and Cinsault could hardly be more familiar than they already are.  While it's not overly common to find Marsanne, Rousanne, or Cinsault all by themselves, they're master blenders, and appear in all kinds of wine from the Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon, South Africa, Australia, and the U.S.A.  If you happen upon any of these Two Shepherds or Scholium wines in travel or restaurants, I recommend trying them out.  It's always good to have your ideas of the familiar shaken up a little.

Monday, May 27, 2013

First Reflections on California Wine Country

Palm in Sonoma's centre square
I tell you one thing, this trip really would have been useful to me if I'd gone last year, before my sommelier exams. Spending the last seven days driving around Sonoma and Napa Counties, I have a much better understanding of the area.  I studied maps of AVAs and read about the climates and weather patterns, but now I get it.  There is no substitute for going to a place to experience it yourself, but sometimes that is not in the cards.  I learned the following things on this trip (plus other things that I'll talk about in future posts), which I think would have been useful to me prior to the certified exam, and which I think will be helpful to me in the future if I decide to go further.

On the highway, heading through Carneros
Napa and Sonoma are really close together, and really small.  It's hard to get a good sense of the size of a place and the distances between them when you're staring at a map.  With all of the different AVAs packed into these two valleys, and the length of them on the page, I had envisioned a much greater distance from San Pablo Bay to Mendocino.  In reality, it's only a couple of hours, and travelling from Sonoma-the-town to Napa-the-town only takes between 30 and 45 minutes (depending on your driving).  The drive through Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena takes no time - they are practically on top of one another.  I didn't have a good sense of their smallness or exactitude before this trip.

Looking at Howell Mountain from Diamond Mountain
Speaking of smallness and exactitude, I realised that there can be no quick learning mechanism for Sonoma and Napa.  This relisation makes me want to lie down for a while.  Two of the most challenging parts about learning wines from California are that so many grape varieties are grown, seemingly all over the place, and that differences between the wines from the same varieties in neighbouring AVAs are very, very fine-grained.  I tasted wine all week, and I'm convinced that it did not help me refine my ability to distinguish Russian River Valley from Dry Creek Valley, or Sonoma Coast from anywhere else.  We were there, I saw them.  I saw the hills and the valleys.  The wine is a different story.  People like to talk about the differences in elegance, alcohol, finesse, acidity, and all these things in the different parts of Sonoma or Napa, but the thing is: no AVA produces typical-to-regional-generalisation wines all the time.  Due to the lack of AOC-type delineations for style and varietal in wines from a particular region, I think that in order to really get a grip on Sonoma or Napa, perhaps more than any other place, you have to know each wine-making house.  Nothing larger than the vineyard-winemaker combo will give a consistent idea of what character the wine will have, or what blend it will be, or how much alcohol it will have.  Doesn't that make you want to take a nap?  I'm sorry.  On the up-side, field trip!

Finally, (and specifically for non-Americans) things are not pronounced as you think they are.  Minus my pronunciation of 'Jacuzzi' (ya-koot-zee < no, not really), I was wrong all week.  Take this one: St. Helena.  You probably made 'Helena' sound like a woman's name, and that's where you're incorrect.  In this case, 'Helena' rhymes with 'hyena':  Hell-ee-na.  Practice a bit, it's hard.  Ukiah is pronounced 'you-kai-ah,' and Lodi 'low-dye.'  Yountville was a good one; I heard it pronounced two ways, both of which were different from what I thought.  My final decision was to pronounce it 'Yoont-ville' (the other option was 'Yawnt-ville,' which I love for its Southern drawliness, but only one person said it this way).

If you're wondering where all the wine is, oh, it's coming.  First, Two Shepherds orange wine, then some Scholium Project. After that, Donelan, some wines shared with the Dirty and Rowdy winemakers, eggs and Pinot Blanc, Corison Cabernet, and finally a couple special bottles shared by Elaine and I.  It might take me a couple of weeks, but I'm going to write it.  Promise.

Monday, May 20, 2013

California Posting Preview

Well friends,

I have a lot of posting to catch up on.  Instead of jumping right into that now, I'm going to post a great photo of the Golden Gate Bridge that I took today, and leave you with the promise that I will be posting great things about great wines in the extremely near future. 

I'm visiting my friend Elaine in Sonoma this week, and already have gotten to try a couple of new kinds of wine and purchased a couple more bottles.  The week is shaping up to be great!  I can't wait to tell you about the wines, but I do have to admit right away that many of them will be hard - nay, impossible - to get in Ontario because of the LCBO rules.  I'm sorry about that.  Maybe one day we can remedy this.

Until later in the week - or at least a day or two!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sugar, Cocaine, and Shoes

united nude Mattijs shoe

I'm at the Canadian Obesity Network Summit, in beautiful Vancouver, BC.  The sun is shining, the mountains are quietly watching, and the cheeky blue heron in the harbour is eating her breakfast.  I'm thinking about money. 

I've been learning intensely interesting things about obesity, and about the complex nature of our (humans') relationship with food.  There's a lot of blame that lands on heavy people for their weight, as if there is something obvious that they could be doing about it and that they're just not doing it, or not doing it right.  People love this vantage point - just stop eating so much, or this kind of behaviour, and you'll be fine - because it puts all of the work on the heavy person, and leaves industry, society, and biology totally alone, whistling and avoiding eye-contact in the corner. 

This is what's both obvious and fascinating: our drive for food is not in our control.  The obvious part is that we get hungry and need to eat things.  The fascinating part is that the most ancient part of our brains - the limbic and mesolimbic regions - are maniacally bent upon getting us food, and not healthy, low-fat food, but fatty, salty, sugary food. 

One comment from a speaker that really stuck out for me yesterday was that to this area of our brains, which responds by releasing dopamine and endorphins and making us feel super good (our biochemical rewards), sugar is as powerful and pleasing as cocaine. 

In my own case, I would amend this:  Sugar is as powerful and pleasing to my brain as cocaine, and designer shoes.

You see, a lot of what we've been hearing about so far is the addictive nature of foods, based on the ancient evolutionary drives of our brians (even fruit flies have mesolimbic regions).  As someone who is super fortunate to have both a healthy relationship with food (thanks Mum and Dad) and also no physical, hormonal, or thyroid problems (thanks body) I don't have to worry too much about my learned behaviours surrounding food.  I will probably for the rest of my life be an "afternooner" - a person who is most likely to get my extra calories in a day between 3:30 and 4:30 (thanks after-school chips and Much Music), but that's OK. 

However, that doesn't mean that I have nothing to learn about my behaviour patterns.  We could apply this reward principle to pretty much anything we do compulsively or semi-compulsively.  Could be smoking, could be drinking, could be eating candy... or it could be buying things. 

What made me really think about this is the Cycle of Disconnection.  Here's how it works:
1. I am the problem.  Begin here, by thinking that you are doing the wrong things, and hate yourself right now.
2. Do something self-harming (however defined).  This reduces stress and promotes calm emotions - could be gambling, gaming, eating disorders, drinking, etc.
3. Feel better - you're doing the thing that makes you feel OK.
4. Feel worse - you're doing the thing that makes you feel OK and it makes you feel like a shitty person that you feel OK doing that.
5. Feel depressed, lack of control, loss of motivation.
6. Start at #1 again.  I am the problem.

Here's how the Cycle of Disconnection applies to me and my spending habits:
1.  I am the problem.  Enter Counter-Dialogue: "Get a handle on your finances like a fucking adult, already.  They're not really that out of control, just stop putting things on your visa."
2.  OK, I've stopped putting things on my visa.  It's all paid off.
3.  I feel really good.  Enter Permission Thoughts: "You know... my visa is clear, so though I don't have the money in my bank account right now, I am getting paid next Friday so I can afford this and will just pay it off next week right away."  Repeat this step three or four times.
4. I feel like shit.  I'm stressed out because I loaded my card, somehow without even knowing I was doing it, and now I'm going to be squeezed on that incoming paycheque and have to spend the next two weeks totally broke.
5. Feel depressed, lack of self-control, loss of motivation to pay off my (unrelated) line of credit, and insurmountable (in this moment) school debts.
6.  Start at #1 again.  I am the problem.

Except for replacing 'self-harm' in #2 with 'pay off your credit card', this is totally accurate and describes at every point my EXACT thought process.  It's amazing to have it so clearly laid out for me.  When one presenter described permission thoughts, I saw my own mind clearly in that moment, and was glad to see it. 

The Cycle of Disconnection doesn't only describe addictive behaviours; it certainly shows us our patterns.  This cycle would work as well for someone who was chronically late for work, and for someone who was cutting, with the modification of #2. 

I have no idea if this information will be valuable to me in changing the way I cycle through this sequence, but at the very  least I know what I'm up against.  This cycle isn't fully in control of the conscious mind.  The original drives at #3, before the permission thoughts come in, start with external cues as a low-level want.  The want can be up-graded or down-graded by other cues, or by our consciousness.  An example of this given by a speaker was of a smoker on a 12 hour flight: ask them 5 hours in if they're craving a cigarette, and they'll likely say no.  The reason is that the subconscious wanting of a cigarette can only make it to the wall of consciousness, where the brain's reasoning centre (frontal lobe) says, "oh well... on a plane," and the wanting sinks again.  The impossibility of fulfilling the want actually makes it go away, rather than making it worse.

So does that mean that I have to cut up my credit card?  I don't know, I really like collecting air miles....