Analyze This

“Can’t you ever just enjoy wine without analyzing it?” My mom asked snarkily one night at dinner. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy wine. She loves it, but for some reason, she balks at the idea of thinking about it. What’s strange is that she is, for all intents and purposes, the reason for my culinary obsessions. She’s taught me everything I know about cooking, and over the years cultivated my desire to eat and appreciate great food.

If we, as an example, were eating strawberries, she would likely comment on the ripeness of the berries. If I were to respond with: “who cares, they are strawberries; just eat them”, she would take issue – as anyone who knows what a good strawberry tastes like should – with my statement. But when I comment on the ripeness of a wine, on the other hand, she’s quick to roll her eyes and call me a snob.

This got me thinking about palates in general, and how often I encounter people who have highly tuned palates towards one kind of food or drink, yet seemingly forget these palates when scarfing other similar things. The obvious example in the wine world is Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library TV. Gary is most well known, of course, for his gregarious video podcasts with excellent insight on wine, but ardent followers are also familiar with his enthusiastic love for terrible junk food. In one classic episode, Gary pairs wines with sugary, artificial cereals such as Captain Crunch. Though foods of this type surely have a nostalgic appeal to Gary, it’s seemingly impossible that someone with such a finely tuned palate could continue to stomach them, no matter how much he liked them as a kid. Yet Gary insists that the pairing (Riesling, IIRC) is outstanding. (Jeff nods his head in agreement.)

What is it then, about palates, that allows someone to recognize the quality in craft beer, or artisanal cheese, or fine wine, yet also act as if frozen chicken fingers are some kind of delicious treat? My mom unwittingly may have come up with the answer: It’s the analysis. This analysis doesn’t have to involve writing a tasting note, or probing the depths of one’s mind for tertiary flavors (a sure sign of Oenopheliosis). It simply involves paying attention to what you are consuming.

The connoisseurs’ ritual of wine drinking forces us to slow down, to pay attention. First we inspect the wine. Then we swirl and sniff it. Only then do we begin to taste. But, instead of glugging it down, we sip it, then swish it in our mouths, or some version of the sucking in oxygen trick (this ritual will hereby be known as the 4S, for swirl/sniff/sip/suck). Though each technique has a specific purpose, combined they play an even bigger role: forcing us to slow down and pay attention to each flavor or texture we encounter.

I tried an experiment once with chocolate. I got three bars – Hershey’s Special Dark, plus two of a gourmet brand, which were 70% and 85% cacao. I asked some friends to eat a piece of each, in the order listed above, making sure to let the chocolate melt on their tongues instead of chewing it. Once they were finished with all three (and surely noticed how the cocoa flavor intensified), they tried the Hershey’s again. Invariably, every face turned. Something that seemed delicious beforehand now tasted only like imitation vanilla.

Yet these people previously thought the Hershey bar tasted good. I did too. I still eat them sometimes, even, when I’m craving chocolate and they’re on hand. I just make sure to chew them quickly, without thinking too much about it.

It’s hard to slow down in today’s world. I don’t practice what I preach – I scarf down just as many – if not more meals – than I linger over, but I am here today to acknowledge how bad of a habit this is. If we can train ourselves to slow down even sometimes, with some foods, when we have the chance, it’ll start to creep into our lives more and more, and become easier and easier to do well.

Though in a perfect world we would treat all foods and drinks (even water sommeliers are starting to appear, believe it or not!) with the same attention to detail as we give wine, that may be unrealistic in today’s fast-paced world, so instead I’ve come up with a list of suggestions based on my own successes. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments below.

Beer: Let’s start obvious, shall we? Not that there is anything wrong with slugging back some lager while mowing the lawn, but many of today’s craft beers will benefit from proper glassware, proper serving temperature (a little warmer than right out of the fridge), and the 4S technique (that’s swirl/sniff/sip/suck, for those of you just catching up).

Coffee: Though a coffee mug is not exactly the best vessel for the swirl, the 3S is still quite possible, and really does bring out the secondary flavors. I drank a coffee recently that had an unmistakable lime flavor, which, other than seeming a little out of place in my joe, made the experience interesting and unique. Had I just slurped it down in a morning-induced fog, I never would have noticed.

Olive Oil: Tom Muller, the author of Extra Virginity, a phenomenal book about Olive Oil for any fans, calls EVOO “fruit juice”, because it is, after all, the freshly squeezed juice of a fruit. We typically eat EVOO as a food, of course, not as a drink, but there are professional EVOO tasting panels all over the world that treat oil like wine. They pour it into a tulip glass, warm it with their hands, and then 4S it. If it doesn’t burn the throat, it’s not really EV.

Cheese: It’s all right there really, in the colloquialism “stinky cheese”. Be sure to smell your cheese before you eat it, especially if it cost more than $10 a pound! Chew slowly. Try different pairings.

Bread: Rip open a loaf of bread (the rougher, the better), and stick your nose right in the crumb. Taste just the crust. Taste just the crumb. Dip them both in great EVOO. Repeat.

The list could go on… honey, salt & pepper, charcuterie, etc, etc. What are your suggestions?

Originally published on PA Vine Co. Sep 18, 2013