Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
April 4, 2004 Fighting the Palate Doldrums
My palate's numb.
My brain is dead.
I care not what wine
Helps us break bread.
Cabernet, Merlot or Zin
It's hard to tell the difference in
The same old thing day in
Day out, a writer's greatest sin.
Seuss I'd rather read than Jancis,
While my little daughter prances
Across the room with elfin grace.
(Or hurls a tantrum in my face.)
"Is that Char'nay?" she asks,
Peering into my glass.
"It's water," I reply,
Then gulp down the very last.
Maybe it's the weather, which has been really lousy for the last, oh, year or so. Maybe it's the accumulated weight of other demands on my time and attention, a story too long, too personal and too irrelevant to relate here. Tax season probably has something to do with it. But I'm going through one of those phases we all have from time to time when my brain and palate seem to be on autopilot. Food is fuel. Wine is medicine. Everything tastes the same. Heck, I'm even trying to write verse.
The Washington area received the jolt it needed to get out of the doldrums when Saint Joe Gibbs agreed to return and coach the Redskins. Minicamp even sent a shiver of excitement through this town that no political scandal could rival. I, too, have indulged in Super Bowl fantasies (Hey, we were the last team to beat the Patriots!), but I really need more to rejuvenate my palate. With no trip to wine country in my near future, I must do it myself.
Food service professionals cannot afford to fall into a rut of routine. Diners will notice (or critics will point out) if a restaurant loses its edge, either in cuisine or in wine service.
The main idea of vacations is to get away and "recharge our batteries." But there are other ways to sharpen our palates and reawaken our senses. My friend Dick Rosano, who writes for Wine News, Chili Pepper and other publications, and who teaches wine at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, recommends sitting down with a table full of fruit - any fruit whose flavor has appeared in a wine tasting note. By concentrating on the flavors of each, we refresh our "palate memory" for that hint of peach in a Chardonnay, say, or the blackcurrant of Cabernet, the bing cherry of Sangiovese. It's a healthy exercise, to boot.
José Ramón Andrés, the indefatigable chef and co-owner of Jaleo, Café Atlántico, and Zaytinya in D.C., offers wine lovers an unusual way to rediscover their palates. At minibar, his six-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Café Atlántico, Andrés offers a parade of small dishes, many with exotic flavors that challenge our preconceptions of food, such as a chocolate truffle filled with melted foie gras or a lollipop of cold foie gras dusted with toasted corn nuts and swathed in cotton candy. His treat for wine lovers is a "deconstructed glass of white wine," sort of a component tasting on a plate. A gelée is made from slightly fermented white grapes to represent a neutral wine, then small nibbles of twelve flavors found in various wines are arrayed around the plate like numbers on a clock. These ingredients range from diced apple to vanilla bean, passion fruit or pomegranate seeds. As each element is tasted against the base of the grape gelée, the diner gets a sense of how that flavor appears in wine.
"The idea is to be very open to wine, without being afraid of saying or thinking the wrong thing about it," explains Andrés, who won the James Beard award as Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region last yeat. "When someone says they taste lychee in a Gewürtztraminer, they mean they taste some exotic fruit that they experienced at some time in their lives. The idea of the deconstructed white wine is to trigger those memories, but also to give people a reference point for flavors they may not have been able to identify before."
Andrés calls the dish "white wine from the chef's perspective," and admits that it will never be finished. "The flavors that come out of white wine for me are unlimited, because as I experience more wines I expect to discover additional flavors to showcase."
(My profile of Andrés and the deconstructed white wine appears in the April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine.)
Graham Beck Brut Non-vintage Sparkling Wine. ($13) Every day can be turned into a celebration by the magic of bubbly. But most sparkling wines are too expensive for everyday drinking. But here's a traditionally styled sparkling wine from South Africa that fits the bill with great balance and enough complexity to keep you coming back for more. An equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, made in the traditional Champenoise method, the Graham Beck could fool a Champagne lover into thinking he was spending more.
Recommended for: Celebrations, aperitifs, and most appetizer dishes.
© 2004 by Dave McIntyre
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.