Monday, November 29, 2010

Wake Up And (Try To) Smell The Roses

Whenever I have the chance to travel, eat out at a restaurant with a thoughtful wine list, or just visit a nice wine store I am reminded of one idiosyncratic feature of being a winemaker; the high-risk of developing a narrow palate.  Actually, narrow is probably not even the best word to describe the phenomenon so much as 'oblivious' or 'ignorant.'  It is not that we consciously decide to be ignorant in what we are tasting, no one would ever consider that a valuable mentality, so much as a narrow 'house palate' sneaks up on us.

It goes without saying that as individuals, we all have preferences when it comes to what we like to taste or not in anything from wine to cheese to breakfast.  These individual differences are what make anything interesting, but they can become a major problem for winemakers when the preferences take precedence over what consumers taste and desire.  At Fox Run, we have a strong preference for a tight-wire balance between sparkling acidity and dryness with our rieslings in particular.  To many consumers, these rieslings would seem far to dry to be enjoyable and we have to keep that in mind and push our personal opinions with sugar in riesling.  (As part of this balancing act we do end up rewarding our palates with our Reserve Rieslings, that are labeled as such because they suit our stylistic preferences with the understanding that they will not be appropriate for everyone.)

This difference between the palate of the winemakers and the consumers extends in many directions; tolerance of oak, tolerance of tannic structure, understanding of aging potential (i.e. how long a winermaker versus a consumer would age the wine), etc. etc.  A more fundamental problem with the house palate, however, is when it ends up becoming so firmly entrenched we are blinded to realities in the wine instead of preferences.

There are a multitude of flaws that can plague wines of every type that have to do with the winemaking; as opposed to something such as a corked wine which is beyond the control of a winemaker once the wine is in the bottle.  Nevertheless, there have been just as many cases where a winemaker is so used to tasting their own wines that they don't recognize that flaw as out of the ordinary.  This has far less to do with preferences than it does with lack of tasting variety, and in the past few years it is a problem that everyone from winemakers to owners are understandably keen to avoid in themselves and their staff.

Finally, slightly larger in scope than the house palate, is another preference set that has a more nuanced impact across an entire area; the regional palate.  The regional palate issue, however, is not restricted to those who work in a winery but can hold sway over an entire consumer base.  The general idea is that one's palate adjusts to the particular expression of grapes in a region or style that is consumed most often, and learning to get beyond that can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.  This is probably a topic for another blog post due to how fascinating and far-reaching its impact can be.  Instead, I'll leave it for now with this question that has been bothering me; why do so many people pride themselves on enjoying a multitude of cuisines from high to low brow, yet just as proudly proclaim a very narrow perspective in wine?

By: Kelby Russell, Winemaking Team

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  1. Thought-provoking question, Kelby. I wonder if feedback from the right focus group could help the "house palate" issue. We hobbiests can easily obtain peer review of our products, but not sure if it is prevalent for winemakers. Your products go before potential consumers every day, which helps pay the bills, but what does that tell you? There are contests you can enter your wines in, but they still might not answer your question. Maybe a consortium of local winemakers (and possibly other educated palates) where each takes their turn in the barrel (so to speak). The feedback from such a group might be just the thing to broaden that palate.

  2. Yowza, sorry for the delay in responding!

    You actually hit the nail on the head with your comment here, in that the best way for winemakers to get beyond the cellar palate is to taste with other winemakers who can be honest with you. We are fortunate in the Finger Lakes that this is not only a possibility (as opposed to many wine regions in the world where winemakers sign contracts that restrict their ability to communicate), but commonplace. At Fox Run, due to the openness that Peter so firmly believes in, we have winemakers drop by from around the Finger Lakes all the time to taste with us - and they know that we want their opinion in full. Too tart, too phenolic, remind you of PVC tubing? The best thing is for us to be told that.