'You're all super-palates, you know," said Jeff Morgan to the crowd gathered in the San Diego Art Institute's Palette dining room. "If you weren't super-palates, you wouldn't be interested enough to sit here and listen to me talk about how to taste wine." Morgan — winemaker, author, teacher, and former West Coast editor for Wine Spectator magazine — was running a tasting/class on how to taste like a pro, hosted by the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. He had finished taking us through a preliminary rundown of How to Evaluate (primary: body, texture, acidity; secondary: aroma, flavor, finish). He had given us tips on sniffing, sipping, and spitting. Now it was time to put our noses to the rosé: Morgan's SoloRosa, a blend of pink wines made from Atlas Peak Sangiovese and Lodi Merlot. "What do you smell?" he asked the roomful of super-palates.
"Strawberries," came an immediate reply.
"Okay, strawberries. What else?"
"Apricots," said someone else.
"Apricots? Okay — well, could be. Nobody's ever wrong. If you think you smell it, you probably do. We don't all taste the same; not everybody has the same sensitivities. Some people have receptors that pick up apricots more easily. I don't tell people that they're wrong. I get strawberries too, and I get a hint of citrus."
On to the sipping and spitting. "This is what we call serious rosé," said Morgan. "It's got flavor, it's got concentration. But let's talk about body. Would you say this is a full-bodied, lush wine?"
"No. This is a light-bodied wine. It's very bright and fresh on the palate. My mouth feels bright and zippy; you can feel that acidity. What do I taste? Now I'm really getting that citrus — grapefruit and lemon. And I still taste it.... It's long on the finish. That's a 91-point wine to me — okay, a 92, because it's my wine. If you want to give it an 89, that's all right. It's not an 85, which it's been scored, but Bob Parker gave it an 88, and I'll live with that. Scores are crazy. They're great when you're hitting high, because it helps you sell wine. But it's so subjective -- it's all over the board. So let's not worry too much about scores."
Next we tried Morgan's reserve rosé, made from straight Sangiovese. "We found it so intriguing that we kept a small portion back; we didn't want to lose it in the blend. I'm trying to show you that all pink wines do not taste alike." He sniffed: "I get a little more red fruit in this, not so much citrus."
I suggested an herbal note. "Maybe," he replied. When we tasted, he noted that the wine was "a little bit richer, with a little rounder acidity.... It reminds me more of a red wine; the first one reminded me more of a white. I'm getting more raspberry-cherry flavors, and the finish is a little softer...I can still drink this with all sorts of foods — even a steak, if I didn't feel like having a red wine that night."
(Wine and food pairing was to be the second part of the evening — then, we would be allowed to swallow. For now, however, it was sip and spit. "I want to commend you on your self-control, your restraint," said Morgan. "You're not drinking, you're spitting, and I appreciate that. When I was a much younger man, I was a pourer for Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World wine class. He would tell people to spit, but after two or three hours, it was a riot in there. I appreciate your attention and your willpower.")
We sniffed and sipped on, through a bone-dry domestic Gewürztraminer made under the ZMOR label. ("Everyone thinks, 'Oh, Gewürztraminer, that's a sweet wine.' Good fresh acidity but thick and rich on the palate and long on the finish....") Then a basic Pinot Noir from Cartlidge & Browne. ("Very cherry-driven; I wouldn't say there was a lot else...if you're going to force me to give scores, it's a good 85, 86 kind of wine. Very, very nice wine, and it's a great deal" — $15.) Finally, we arrived at Morgan's showpiece: the Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon he produces in partnership with Leslie Rudd.
"This is the 2004. Let's smell it."
"Oak" was the first descriptor called out.
"Damn straight you smell oak, because I'm paying $1000 a barrel, and I want you to smell some oak. I don't want you to smell a two-by-four; there's bad and good oak. Good oak is sweet; it'll give you a little crème brulée aroma, or coffee." (It's worth noting that after a bit, the oak stepped into the background where it belonged.)
Morgan was pleased. "I'm biased, but in my opinion this is a great wine — and in the opinion of some great critics and some other winemakers. I wasn't trusting myself — you get so close to your wine that it's hard to have an objective opinion. I went and got a hold of all my favorite Cabernets..." "Which Cabernets?" asked the audience. "I didn't have Harlan, because I couldn't find the same vintage. But I had Colgin, Grace Family, Screaming Eagle, Switchback Ridge, Gemstone, Raimey, 100 Acre.... We had a blind tasting with 15 sommeliers, winemakers, a couple of masters of wine. The one that came out on top was the Gemstone. Second was Switchback Ridge. I think three was Colgin. Then, tied for fourth, was Covenant and Raimey. That said to me that at least I was on the right track."
A brief discussion of price — "$28 is expensive for a rosé, but it's not expensive...
there are a lot of $35 Chardonnays out there that shouldn't be.... The prices are often connected to what it cost me to make the wine" — and we were given leave to drink as the cheese platters came out. "Don't touch the cheese and fruit!" warned Morgan. Then he softened. "You should do exactly what you feel like doing; these are only guidelines. But let's just talk about cheese and wine. Most cheeses are higher in acidity and have fruity, nutty components. I would say that high-acid white wines would go best. Red wines are much more difficult to pair with cheese — except for Port with very rich, aged cheeses like Cheddar."
The idea of high-acid wine for high-acid cheese illustrated a general principle. "Similar styles of foods tend to pair well with similar styles of wines. It's a very vague sort of proposition, which means you can really enjoy lots of wines with lots of things." (The principle even admits of its opposite: pairing through contrast.) "You can have one dish that you love work out well with different wines. If you love roast chicken with garlic, try it one week with a Gewürztraminer, another week with a rosé, another week with a red wine. They will all work, but the dish will change — the wines will highlight different elements." Case in point: our slice of game hen. "The Gewürztraminer is really fruity, and the game hen is pretty salty — fruit and salt work well together. The Cabernet goes well with the rosemary on the game hen. And the Pinot Noir is a lighter style of red that will work well with poultry."