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Wine Tasting: The Progression of One’s Palate

Interesting read from Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines blog: Wine Flaws

Who among us is willing to admit that it was White Zinfandel that originally rocked our world?

I am. I admit it. White Zin switched on my light bulb.

It was on a trip to California, as a native of Maine on holiday in wine country. Actually, it was deeper than a “holiday.”  Jose and his boss were determined to move our family to California, so his company brought me here for a week of adventure. It only took one day in San Francisco to change my mind, but I still had seven more days. They were spent in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Napa, Sacramento, Chico, Lake Tahoe, Monterey, and Santa Cruz.

Honestly that’s enough to drive anyone to enjoy a bit of wine along the way, so we began in Napa at Robert Mondavi (for which I later became a wine educator), and then we went to Sutter Home.

It was completely at Sutter Home that I lost my heart to wine through White Zinfandel, and my palate changed forever.

Before WZ, I was merely tasting wine, trying to understand what the big deal was… Ordering and buying Merlot. (Wasn’t everybody?) I was pretending that all was well. It wasn’t. I really didn’t get what this wine thing was all about. I was raised like so many others, with Manaschewitz as our holiday wine. There were no other options for me to learn about wine as a liquid beverage to be enjoyed with food, family, and friends as a moderate daily beverage. (Not knocking Manaschewitz… It just didn’t do much for me as a kid, because it wasn’t mixed with water, as so many European families do for their children’s appreciation learning curve.)

In my “beginning to drink wine years,” when everyone was drinking wine  but it wasn’t the topic of discussion, I was having wine with friends, but not enjoying the tannins. Everyone else seemed to be okay, so I pretended that I enjoyed the wine, too. I was fooling myself in the process, though, because I thought I was supposed to like it. Everyone else did, and I didn’t want to be the odd person out, so I went along with the masses.

So, there I was… part of the crowd, having (not enjoying) wine. It wasn’t any kind of a cerebral thing. It was just a social mannerism for not wanting to be a misfit. There was no magic, but plenty of illusion.

Then came Sutter Home. I asked the question that most likely gets asked there (at least once a day), “If it’s pink, why is it called White Zinfandel?” White Zinfandel is perhaps where I should have really started ever so many years before Mateus and the Chianti bottles, which made such great candle holders after the parties were over and the drips down the bottle lingered as an art form.

Why did White Zin put me over the edge so quickly? It’s so, so simple, once it hit me.

[This image is the property of Ludovic Goubet, and was the actual inspiration for this blog posting. It reminded me of very tender moments with my girls.]

When a child is born into the world, a mother who practices natural life will hold that baby in her arms, perhaps a tear will trickle down her cheek as she looks at the miracle that she’s now holding outside of her body, as a marvel that is a lifeform that’s come from within her womb.

The very next step is to hold that child to her bosom and give that infant it’s first taste of life… Colostrum. This is a high carbohydrate food, with small amounts of lactose. Within three days, however, mother’s milk kicks in and “Hallelujah, here comes the nectar of the gods!” From that point forward, that child may go five months with nothing more than mother’s milk, that’s quite sweet (lactose).

Next, water is introduced. (I remember my girls letting that one drip down their chins with a look of, “Huh?” on their faces.)

And then it becomes juice. That’s an “Aha!” moment.

As children get introduced to their peers, Kool Aid and soda are offered. When late teens get hang out with someone who’s either legal or has a fake ID, beer seems to be their preferred next step. After after this one, wine becomes part of the mix.

Have you notice that until I wrote “wine,” it was all a lactose/sucrose/fructose evolution?

That’s what gave me my “Aha!” moment with White Zin… The residual sugar that finally made wine palatable for me, and I know I’m not alone, here.

Do I enjoy White Zin as my wine of choice now? Not really, but I do enjoy dry rosés. I don’t mind a bit of residual sugar in floral wines like Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, and I still appreciate what White Zin did for my palate. Late harvests and Sauternes are a trip. And, how about those Ice Wines and Ports!

I’ve gone from White Zin to Petite Sirah, as the founder and executive director of that group. That’s a huge leap, which tells me if I can do it, so will many people segue from White Zin to at least a great Chardonnay; if not more intriguing wines, like a superior Pinot Noir from the Santa Cruz Mountains or Burgundy.

Who can deny the beauty of this process at any stage?

Cheers to your health!

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6 Responses to “Wine Tasting: The Progression of One’s Palate”

  1. Janeen says:

    Like many, I probably had my first white zin sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, I don’t remember when, but there seems to be an assumption here that once we have been introduced to wine with white zin, we must ‘progress’ to something else, leaving our white zin drinking days behind in the dust. It seems to surprise a lot of people that I still enjoy a glass of white zin even after years of working and educating about wine. As a vegetarian I eat a lot of spicy ethnic foods, especially with lots of peppers, jalepenos, New Mexican chiles, cayenne, and Hungarian paprika so the sweetness of white zin balances really well with the heat of the spices. I have had friends suggest that I should ‘progress’ to off-dry riesling or gewurztraminer instead, but with all the complex flavors going on in many of the ethnic dishes I eat, the flavors of these wines seem to get lost anyway. I am not much of a beer drinker so white zin fits the bill perfectly.

  2. Jo says:

    Well written and great point, Janeen.

    Heat and sweet are a match made in heaven with food and wine (hence cerveza with Mexican food)… With the foods you’ve mentioned, I agree that White Zin is a perfect complement, with absolutely no need to move to anything else, if that’s your palate’s choice.

    A palate does progress, even with our leaning toward one brand of White Zin over another as a preference. That’s because we’ll still find one more pleasing than other, and that’s a progression. Progression doesn’t actually have to mean that other varieties are a necessary step, or that they have to be “drier” along the way; although, many of us have that happen, not all of us do.

    I applaud your statement about your palate’s preference, because you also validate anyone else who feels the same way. We’re all so unique… That’s what is so exquisite about this thing we love… wine…

  3. Lancers and Mateus did it for me. Graduated to Chablis Blanc and Hearty Burgundy from Gallo, then on to Almaden Grenache Rose and Mountain Burgundy. Drank Bordeaux soon after. I knew nothing about wine, but went solely on taste. Drank what I liked, and kept looking for new and more interesting wines.

    Now I’m a bit more set in my tastes. I love Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache, and almost anything Italian. But it’s still a discovery with each new bottle.

  4. Jo says:

    Larry, I agree. Wine is so subjective. Whatever works for me may not work at all for someone else… but the exploring and adventure… How wonderful is that!

  5. I can’t say white Zin ever rocked my boat. But I give it all due respect for bringing millions of newby wine drinkers in, who then graduated to Chardonnay and red Zin and everything else. So I give white Zinfandel 100 points as an entry wine!

  6. Jo says:


    For me, WZ was wine with training wheels… For others, like Janeen, it’s a wine of choice. That’s the most beautiful thing about wine… With peanut butter, it’s either smooth or chunky. With wine, there’s the full range.

    So, Steve, what was your entry wine, or your “Aha!” moment?

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