December 10, 2008
Was blind, but now I see

Last night was all about sensory evaluation and overload, and some of the effects I'm still feeling today. My sense of hearing is a little wacky after Will Haven's pulverizing set at Harlow's, a benefit for Deftones bassist Chi Cheng. But before that concert for a righteous cause, I spent a great evening tasting at Rail Bridge Cellars, an urban winery just north of downtown. The event was a collaboration between Rail Bridge Cellars winemaker Jon Affonso and Donal Smith, wine merchant for Corti Brothers. The tasting was something of a one-night version of Donal's wine appreciation courses, which are generally held over three classes.

So about 30 of us, including my pal and collegue Rick Kushman, took a seat inside a somewhat chilly Rail Bridge Cellars. We were thankful for the heat lamps, but the setting was still communal and cozy, especially with a pour of Rail Bridge Cellar's crisp and green apple-ish 2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Jon then gave us a tour of the winery, explained his background and adherence to French winemaking principles (Jon's such a Francophile that he spent time there as a high school exchange student) and answered our questions about his winemaking style.

And then it was time for Donal's tasting seminar. The catch: we'd be evaluating all the wines blind. This is always fun, if not a little daunting to taste a wine and guess what's in the glass. I wondered, as the first flight was poured, if I was up to snuff. Was the Bee guy going to embarass himself? So Don takes us through the first flight, asking us to consider the clarity, color, nose, taste and so forth. Then he asked us what we thought the first wine was. The nose of stone fruit and a touch of pineapple, plus a little residual sugar on the palate meant one thing to me.

"Riesling!" I said. So did a woman at the table behind me.

"Chenin Blanc!" was the cry from another taster.

Chenin Blanc was correct, Don said. And that in the background was the sound of my wine ego deflating slightly. Wa-wa-waaaaa ...

The second set of flights started with an easier one. The buttery nose - something like a liquified version of movie popcorn - with a note of banana taffy screamed Rombauer chardonnay to both Rick and I. We were right on the $$$. The wine after that was a weird one, with a smell of canned pear juice but a taste that was pleasing and floral. Had no clue what this was, and didn't attempt to guess. A-ha, turns out it was an unoaked chardonnay from Bocage. I've had plenty of unoaked chards but never one like this.

I did a lot better on the last two flights, guessing correctly that we'd been served two glasses each of petite sirah and zinfandel. But figuring this out wasn't a slam dunk, especially with the petite sirah that had a few years of bottle age. The Michael-David Earthquake Zinfandel was easier to guess as an example of Lodi zinfandel, with its raisin notes and high alcohol heat.

And then we were served munchies from Corti Brothers deli and had an opportunity to mingle and drink more of the wine we'd previously tasted blind. Both Rick and I went back for the Dry Creek Vineyard chenin blanc, and as I drank it, tasted carefully so this varietal wouldn't stump me again. But it was all in fun, the way wine should be, and Donal's goal for all these guessing games is to give us the grounding to make us better wine consumers. And sometimes you need a little slice of humble pie to get there.

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