Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, November 6, 2014; written by John Cesano
Wine tasting is daunting for some folks. If you have never gone to a winery tasting room, for a wine tasting, the uncertainty of what to expect, can be a little scary, even intimidating.
Beer is simple, you go to the corner store, grab an ice cold six-pack out of the cooler, pay for it, take it home, open a bottle, and drink it. No one is judging you. It is just beer in a bottle, and then in your belly. Food pairings are not much of a concern with beer; chips, nuts, pretzels will all do just fine.
If you watch Frasier and his brother Niles in reruns, then you might think wine is pretentious and that the little rituals might trip you up and make you look foolish. Put any such concerns out of your mind.
For the most part, wine – to me, and to many Italian Americans in northern California – is food. Wine is just one more ingredient, or dish, among many, in a larger meal, and wine should complement your food and make it taste better.
One of my favorite things about a Chef’s Wine Dinner at a good restaurant, like Crush or Patrona here in Ukiah, is that perhaps six wines will be poured and perhaps ten food dishes will be served, and you are afforded the opportunity to try sips of different wines with different foods to see what pairings work for you, a wonderfully playful experiment of trial and error, or better yet trial and delicious success, over an entire evening…well, that is a great way to be awakened to the wonder of food and wine pairings, surrounded by 70 other people having the same sensory overloading experience, oohs and ahhs, and, as the evening goes on, groans of delighted contentment, everywhere.
The next of these opportunities is next Wednesday, November 12, 2014, when Chef Jesse Elhardt and his team at Crush pair mushroom dishes with the wines of Cesar Toxqui Cellars, at what I consider the premier event of the entire 2014 Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine & Beer Festival. Surprising no one, I have my ticket already. Tickets are $65 in advance, or $75 at the door, and include food, wine, tax & tip.
Similarly, the premier event of the 2015 Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Festival will be the McFadden Farm Winemaker Dinner at Crush on Wednesday, January 21, 2015. This dinner will be a crabapalooza, and as crab costs more than mushrooms, tickets are $75 in advance, and also includes food, wine, tax & tip. There will be no tickets at the door, as this event will sell out.
Contact Crush by calling (707) 463-0700 to make reservations for either of these two great opportunities to play with food and wine!
Visits to winery tasting rooms should be as much fun, or certainly more fun than they too often are, I’ll admit. If you are a novice, and want to feel comfortable, come and visit me at the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room in Hopland. I’m in most every Tuesday through Friday from 10-5 each day, and my incredible team handles most of the other days. We’re the top rated tasting room in California by the San Francisco Chronicle, because we want you to enjoy yourself, because we give you an experience, and because we treat you with respect.
First things first, wine tasting should be complimentary. This isn’t liquid gold and rubies, it is fermented grape juice, and I am thrilled to do away with the pretension of Napa County for visitors to our humble tasting room. If you value your juice too greatly to pour a taste of it, or don’t know how to add the cost of samples to your cost of goods when setting prices, then Napa County is one county south, then another east. That said, while wine tasting is complimentary, tossing a bill or two in the jar is never frowned upon.
Next thing, and perhaps the most important thing to know: the dump bucket is your friend. I like to pour through all available wines, usually about a dozen, give or take, and if you try to drink a dozen pours then you will be drunk. I pour an ounce of wine in a nice big glass, and if you swirl the wine then you can break free some of the aroma molecules, and put your nose into the glass, and slowly sniff in all the smells. Then take a little sip, and see what flavors the wine has. The wine flavor will taper away, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly, and more flavor notes may be found here on the finish. Finally, dump the remaining wine from the glass into the bucket.
I let people experience the wine before I share the notes that the wines present to me. I also tell a little story about each wine, and put our wines in context by describing our farm, our growing choices, the winemaking styles, and much more. A visit with me can often last an hour, and involve a dozen wines, but a mere sip of each wine means less than an ounce consumed and critical judgment is still intact, so wine buying or wine club joining decisions are about the wine and not the result of alcohol making your decisions for you.
Here’s another thing that is important to own: you are the boss of you, you are the ultimate judge of what you like and do not like. I pour Gold medal, Double Gold medal, Best of Class and Best of Show wines. I have wines that professional judges unanimously voted Gold, in competition after competition after competition. I pour great wines, AND YOU ARE FREE TO NOT LIKE THEM. Not everyone likes everything, and with 12 wines to pour, there is a great chance you’ll find one or two, or all 12, to like or not like.
As I pour, I do mention foods that each of the wines I pour pair well with, often sharing recipes, because a wine at first taste that was just good can be the best wine you’ve ever tasted when it accompanies the right dish.
After running through all of my wines, with the nosing, sipping, and dumping, I always ask visitors if they would like to revisit any wines, because sometimes one sip just isn’t enough. I also like to recommend other wineries to visit based on what my visitors liked most, and perhaps a local place to eat between wine tasting visits.
I write about wine because I do not want anyone to be intimidated by it. I pour wine in much the same way. Nicely enough, there are many other incredibly friendly and fun folks pouring wine throughout Mendocino County, and every one of us would love to pour wine for you. We’re gentle with first-timers; if you haven’t been wine tasting yet, give it a try.