Tastebuds Suck! Long Live The Olfactory Bulb

Those of you who follow me on Instagram or Twitter will know that I’ve recently returned from a press trip to South Africa to attend the bi-annual Cape Wine fair. It was a fabulous trip until I came down with COVID-19 near the end of the trip.

Up until now, I have managed to avoid getting the disease. With so many people around me having gotten it in the past year or so, I was starting to believe that I might be one of those folks who can’t get it. Turns out I was just being properly careful, and despite my care, my luck ran out in South Africa. At an event where I was wandering around a big hall filled with thousands of people spitting and talking without masks. Go figure.

The worst part about coming down with COVID was that I had to cancel the last section of my trip: several days of individual producer visits that I had painstakingly arranged ahead of time.

The second worst part about getting COVID was the brief 36-48 period in which I was totally and completely anosmic: I completely, utterly, totally lost all sense of smell.

Of course, this was a relatively common, if mysterious, side effect of COVID-19 early in the pandemic. I know I read plenty of stories about it, and the about the efforts of those affected to regain their sense of smell following their infections. And of course, several of my wine colleagues around the world experienced this.

But it seemed to me, anecdotally speaking, that with the most recent variants and waves of COVID, anosmia was not a commonly reported side effect of the disease. So it took me a little by surprise when on the second day of my self-isolation in Cape Town, I stuck my nose into a jar of Tiger Balm ointment and got…. nothing.

Now, I’ve had bad colds before, and frankly, I’ve been more congested at other times in my life than I found myself in the midst of COVID. On all those occasions, however, I could smell something. In this case, it was as if someone had simply disconnected my nose from my brain.

If it hadn’t been associated with all the other nasty symptoms of COVID, and if it hadn’t also been a little scary for a guy who depends upon his nose a little more than the average person, the whole experience would have been amazingly fascinating.

We all know intellectually that most of what we taste is aroma. After all, our tastebuds really only give us sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. It’s one thing, however, to know this theoretically. It’s quite another to experience the world of food when those five taste sensations are ALL you’ve got to work with.

Yes, folks, for those of you who haven’t had the “pleasure” of COVID-induced anosmia, let me tell you. Life with only your tastebuds really, really sucks.

Potato chips? Faintly salty cardboard.
Pastries? Faintly sweet cardboard.
Orange juice? Ever-so-faintly sour liquid cardboard.
Chicken noodle soup? Cardboard strings in lightly salty water.

Interestingly, spiciness which I (erroneously it turns out) tend to think about as more of a physical interaction than an aroma, was completely absent, too, as an order of extra spicy chicken curry delivered to my room irrefutably proved (chunks of soft cardboard in a faintly salty slurry of…. cardboard).

Much to my relief, the complete anosmia lasted only around 2 days, after which I felt like my nose was back working at roughly 50% capacity, or close to what I’ve experienced with the average bad winter cold. After a week of testing negative, I felt like I was back to about 85% of my aroma-sensing capacity, with the notable exception of spiciness, however, which has been one of the last sensations to return.

I’m now a little more than two weeks into testing negative for the virus and I feel like I’m back to perhaps 90% of my previous olfactory strength. I’ve been resuming my winetasting activities with some relief and relative confidence, and I have been trying to smell as many intense smells as possible, a sort of ad-hoc regimen resembling the recovery techniques I’ve read about for those whose anosmia didn’t disappear after a couple of days.

More than anything, however, I now have even greater respect for all of our olfactory equipment, which, it seems, deserve a hell of a lot more credit for making life good. Because it turns out that a life with only tastebuds wouldn’t be much of a life at all.

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2022 Wine & Spirits Top 100 Tasting: Oct 13, San Francisco

I like to say that there are wine tastings, and then there are wine tastings. The annual Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 Tasting is quite possibly my favorite big public wine tasting each year in San Francisco. Why? Because the quality of wines poured at this event is always second to none. Some of them are wines that many of us rarely get the chance to taste because they are either too expensive or too difficult to find. Many others are simply just great examples of their particular region or grape variety.

The event has increased its focus on food over the years, and now features tasty bites from the magazine’s top restaurant picks for San Francisco, which means that when you need to take a break from drinking great wine and get something in your stomach, you don’t have to settle for mere crackers and cheese. No, you can feast on slow-roasted pork shoulder and polenta or freshly shucked oysters, for instance.

Held at the top of the Metreon building in San Francisco, which is a great event space, the tasting has plenty of space to spread out, and great views of Yerba Buena Gardens and the city skyline. Dare I say this is the one wine tasting event that is worthy of being a date night?

2022 Wine & Spirits Top 100 Tasting: Oct 13, San Francisco

Whether you’re there to flirt with a date over fine wine, or to anti-socially taste and take notes on new and exciting finds for your cellar, it’s an event worth going to. It’s also an event worth planning to go to, if you get my drift. It sells out, so you’d be wanting to get your tickets to this event now.

As usual, a portion of the proceeds will benefit Baykeeper, an environmental non-profit focused on the health of the San Francisco bay ecosystem.

2022 W&S Top 100 Tasting
October 13, 2022
6:00-8:00 PM
METREON San Francisco
135 4th St #4000
San Francisco, CA 94103 (map)

This event nearly always sells out, and with good reason. Purchase tickets in advance (with a discount) online. A basic ticket will run you $145, and for an extra $50 you can get in 30 minutes early and not have to fight the crowd to taste Penfolds Grange, Cristal, or that Grand Cru Burgundy you wanted to try.

Also be aware that people tend to dress up a little at this event, though no matter what you wear I recommend it being dark in color to ward against unforeseen splashes of red. As with all such public tastings I recommend a good night’s sleep, snacking in between tastes, lots of pre-mid-and-post hydration, and spitting to ensure you enjoy yourself and remember the experience.

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Family Winemakers Tasting: August 21, Oakland

Way back when hundreds or even thousands of us all gathered fecklessly in enclosed spaces without masks, pressing the flesh and cavalierly spitting liquids into big pails, there were a couple of wine-tasting events that were could-not-miss affairs for me in San Francisco.

One of them was the annual Family Winemakers tasting. Fifteen years ago, this was one of the few public wine tastings where you could find small, artisan producers who made only a couple thousand cases of wine a year pouring their wares for the public.

The tasting used to feature more than 100 different producers, and at one point it proudly boasted of being the single largest public tasting of California wines in the world.

These days, the luster has come off of this tasting a bit. It is no longer the place where you can find most of the up-and-coming small wineries in California. But the organization still counts among its membership some really excellent wineries, and 60 of them are going to be pouring their wines on August 21st in Oakland.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating in this context again: such public tastings are one of the single best ways that wine lovers can educate their palates, not to mention discover new wines and wineries to love and patronize.

So if you want to spend a nice afternoon doing such things on Sunday, August 21st, I highly recommend it.

If you’re interested in the list of participating wineries, it can be found here.

2022 Family Winemakers Tasting
August 21, 2022
12:00 PM – 4:00 PM
BLOC15 Event Center
252 2nd Street
Jack London District
Oakland, CA 94607 (map)

Tickets can and should be purchased in advance online. My usual tips for such tastings apply: get a good night’s sleep, go with food in your belly, wear dark clothes, leave the perfume/cologne off for the day, and spit your wine if you want to learn anything (or even remember the experience).

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2022 Petaluma Gap Wind to Wine Festival: August 13, Petaluma

When it comes to the relationship between place and the wine in your glass, there’s an awful lot of talk about geology and soils, about sun exposure, and overall temperature ranges. But one thing that sometimes gets left out of the conversation is wind.

One of California’s newer growing areas was defined in part by wind, and the wineries that populate the Petaluma Gap AVA, want to show you what that tastes like on August 13th, when the region hosts the Wind to Wine Festival.

Spanning parts of Marin County and southern Sonoma County the Petaluma Gap AVA stretches fro the northwestern part of the San Pablo Bay out to the coast. Its boundaries are shaped in part by the cold winds and fog that flow in through a gap in the coastal mountains.

The Petaluma Gap AVA, outlined in white. Map courtesy of the TTB AVA Explorer.

The Petaluma Gap is home to a few wineries (most notably the venerable Keller Estate, photographed above by George Rose) but many Sonoma County and a few Marin County wineries source their fruit from this area of rolling hills. The region is known particularly for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Syrah is playing an increasingly important role as well.

On Saturday, August 13th, at the historic Gambonini Family Ranch just outside of the town of Petaluma, the Petaluma Gap AVA association will be putting on a tasting of more than 70 different wines grown in the region by more than 20 different producers. There will be live music, food, and “storytelling,” which as far as I can tell is an opportunity to get to know some of the producers a little better in an intimate setting.

In all, it sounds like a fairly idyllic way to spend a Saturday afternoon in August.

2022 Wind to Wine Festival
Saturday, August 13th
1:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Gambonini Family Ranch
7325 Old Lakeville Road #3
Petaluma, CA 94954 (map)

Tickets run $65 for basic entry, and if you pay $95 for a VIP ticket, you can get in an hour early. You can purchase tickets in advance online, though some may be available at the event. Check the weather before the event, as it might be pretty hot. Dress accordingly, stay hydrated, put some food in your belly, and spit your wine so you can explore everything the tasting has to offer.

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2022 Taste of Sonoma Celebration: June 25, Santa Rosa, CA

Let’s hope the warm weather is here to stay for a little while in California, if only because it makes events like the Taste of Sonoma celebration so much more pleasant. Taste of Sonoma, back again like so many things in this changed world, used to be the annual Sonoma County wine event. Let’s hope it continues uninterrupted from here.

Set up on the extensive lawns at Kendall Jackson’s main wine estate just outside of Santa Rosa, the event is a grand tasting extravaganza, providing attendees the opportunity taste wines from more than 90 different wineries, nosh on food from several different food trucks, and (for a nominal extra fee) attend seminars and guided tastings on different aspects of Sonoma wine.

Provided the weather looks good, its generally a delightful way to spend the afternoon, not to mention get a sense of the recent vintages from Sonoma and discover new wines and new producers that might be your next favorite. The wineries pouring range from big to boutique, and there are a number of excellent names on the list, including folks like DuMOL, Aperture, Smith Story, Woodenhead, Keller Estate, and more.

2022 Taste of Sonoma Celebration
Saturday, June 25
11:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Kendall Jackson Winery and Gardens
5007 Fulton Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95403 (map)

Tickets for the event will run you $195 per person, with VIP tickets (which get you early access) for $225. Both of those tickets may be available on the day of, but the prices go up considerably, so you’ll want to buy them online in advance.

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Taste Natural Wines from Women Winemakers at WINeFare: June 4, San Francisco

It’s been a long road to get here. And let’s be clear, we aren’t anywhere close to being where we need to be as a wine industry regarding representation and equality. But we have definitely reached a point where there seems to be a lot more attention and interest in wines made by those who have historically been minorities in the wine business. And that’s a very good thing.

Pamela Busch has been championing the under-represented side of the wine business for a long while in San Francisco as the owner of not one, but two of the city’s most iconic wine bars in the past 20 years. But she really got serious about it in 2013 after launching her company The Vinguard, which was focused not just on small, independent producers of natural and sustainable wines, but specifically sought to showcase the work of women, non-binary genders, and persons of color.

Under that mission, Busch launched an event she calls WINeFare, which seeks to amplify women’s voices (and work) in the natural wine space. It’s a tasting and showcase of more than 40 female producers, many of them with tiny production levels, and some of them just starting out.

The next incarnation of this tasting takes place on June 4th in San Francisco and promises to be a cornucopia of women-made wine, ciders, rice wines, and more. If you’re interested in natural wine, this would definitely be an event to check out. And even if you’re not a full naturalista, an event supporting women winemakers is worth the trip.

WINeFare Tasting 2022
Saturday, June 4, 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Haight Street Art Center
215 Haight Street 
San Francisco, CA 94102 (map)

Tickets to the event are $45 (a pretty good deal, as such tastings go), and there are discounts for those who are essential workers, students, seniors, or those who have attended the event virtually in the past two years. Purchase them online in advance, as the event may sell out.

Photo by Josue Michel on Unsplash

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Book Update and Talking Wine Tasting at My Fitness RX!

A quick update to talk about some things on the book front!

Firstly, an enormous THANK YOU to all of you who have supported, purchased, and reviewed my new books. You people RAWK IT. Currently, both titles have 4.8-star reviews on Amazon. Mad love, respect, and props to all of you for making that happen!!

Secondly, I recently spent some time chatting about wine tasting and the new books with my friend Tanya Stroh, Certified Personal Trainer and host of My Fitness RX. You can check out my appearance on the episode at https://youtu.be/YOmlyghMJJE?t=441, in which (fair warning!) you also get to see my COVID SIP hair stylings (wines tasted in the episode: Rob Rubin Russian River Valley Chardonnay, and Pam’s Unoaked Chardonnay from Sonoma County).

Cheers!

Upscale your palate! My new books are now available from Rockridge Press!

Copyright © 2020. Originally at Book Update and Talking Wine Tasting at My Fitness RX! from 1WineDude.com - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

Virtual Wine Tastings: Stop Overthinking It

Skip the overthinking & have some fun for a change!

Normally, I don’t write articles like the one that you’re about to read. I prefer the über-niche, unsung, bit-more-geeky stuff here on 1WineDude. But considering that most of us are home-bound during this time of Coronavirus, and that I just published a book (well, two books, actually!) directly related to putting wine in your mouth and organizing wine tastings, it seemed like the right time to tackle the whole How The Heck Do I Pull Off a Virtual Wine Tasting With Friends? topic.

First things first: Don’t sweat it

I’ll start with the most important bit of advice that I can give on organizing a virtual wine tasting, and work backwards into the specifics from there: chill out, folks. If you’re worrying about how to pull off a virtual wine tasting, you’re already overthinking it. The wine market is already way ahead of you on this, and has done most of the heavy-lifting for you. It has never been easier (or cheaper) to pull off a wine tasting without actually leaving your house. Seriously, relax. Focus on learning and having fun, the rest of it really is just small stuff, not to be sweated too much. I’ve done so many of these virtual tastings during Shelter-in-Place (most of them organized directly for media folks like me), and none of them have been even remotely (ha-ha!) difficult. In fact, the most trying aspect is remembering when and how to mute/unmute yourself during the video call.

Option #1: Leave the heavy lifting to someone else

If you’re less inclined to bother with specifics, and are ok with spending more of your hard-earned cash in exchange for convenience, you can simply organize some like-minded friends and all sign up for one of the ever-increasing virtual tasting opportunities being offered by wineries and wine brands directly. You sign-up, pay, and they effectively handle the rest, sending you the wines, organizing the video chat, and walking you through a tasting. The downside is that you’re likely limited to only that brand’s wines, and will have to pay a bit more for their time. But otherwise, there’s very little downside to this fun and buzz-inducing experience (and they only thing you have to worry about is dragging your butt to bed later if you’ve over-indulged).

Option #2: Do it yourself

Pick a theme, and get The Guide

Virtual Wine Tastings: Stop Overthinking It

This is a lot easier than it at first might sound. You’ll want to pick a theme for your tasting and have a guide as to how to organize the lineup of wines in terms of tasting order and general set-up. Somewhat shamelessly, I’ll recommend that you pick up my book, which has done a lot of the hard work in choosing wines for you, with 30 themed tastings in it (all indexed – hey, it’s an inexpensive way to get a serious head-start there!). Additionally, the entire 5th chapter deals exclusively with how to plan and organize your own wine tastings. When going virtual, you need only have to have all of the participants roughly follow the same rules (importantly, the tasting order). Worried about the vocabulary you might have to tap into during the actual tasting? Well, I’ve got a book for that, too. The point is, you have a lot of resources to assist with this.

Get the wines

The best way to get the same wines to everyone? Give everyone the same shopping list, and have them check a website such as Wine Searcher to find the best combination of retailers and prices. Many will deliver directly to your door, depending on where you live; it doesn’t get much easier than that.

Get connected

Sign up for a video meeting service, and organize the date/time for your tasting session. In 2020, you will almost certainly be using Zoom, the video service that has just about cornered the virtual meeting market during Cornavirus. If you’re one of the 20 or so people who’ve yet to use, there are no shortage of handy primers available online for how to set it up and get started. As a matter of perspective, during her first ever Zoom call my mother (in her 70s), without any assistance, went from not understanding how to start her video feed during a multi-person Zoom call to effectively utilizing her phone for the video stream and her laptop for the audio stream separately, to make up for the limited bandwidth provided by her aging DSL connection. You’ll be fine.

Hope this helps! Cheers!

Upscale your palate! My new books are now available from Rockridge Press!

Copyright © 2020. Originally at Virtual Wine Tastings: Stop Overthinking It from 1WineDude.com - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

Want To Taste Wine? Sign This Waiver

As Wine Country re-opens throughout California and visitors return to tasting rooms once again, beyond mask-wearing employees and lots of hand sanitizer, they may encounter something unusual before sipping and spitting: legal waivers to sign.

I chronicled my wine tasting experiences at newly reopened tasting rooms in both Napa and Sonoma in my monthly column for Jancis Robinson which was published yesterday, and one of the things I encountered in both places was the stipulation that I sign a legal waiver before being permitted to taste wine.

This, dear friends in the wine industry, is the opposite of hospitality, and a surpremely bad idea that should be halted immediately.

Why?

Because forcing customers to sign away their legal rights and make attestations as to their health before entering your facility and tasting your wine is not about keeping them safe, it’s about keeping YOU safe. And when you are in the hospitality business, and you find yourself forcing your customers to do something uncomfortable that is entirely for your benefit, you’re doing it wrong.

Just ask any of the restaurants who are opening up in your county. The idea of forcing someone to sign a legal document before sitting down to have a meal is patently absurd. I haven’t been out and about much since things started reopening, but when I recently sat down in a restaurant for the first time since the shelter-in-place began, I certainly wasn’t asked to legally attest to the fact that I had no symptoms of COVID-19 and agree that I wouldn’t sue the restaurant if I later became sick.

You want to take my temperature as I come in the door? Fine. You want to ask me to sanitize my hands? Great. Insist I wear a mask except when I’m eating and drinking? Great idea.

But don’t get the lawyers involved.

Here’s the way I see it: either you are comfortable enough with your ability to keep your customers safe and the risk of frivolous lawsuits (which by the way, could have happened before COVID-19, too) or you’re not.

If you’re not — if you’re truly frightened to death that there’s a significant likelihood that someone might catch the virus through no fault of yours and choose to sue you — then you should seriously consider whether you should be opening back up right now.

And lord knows, there are plenty enough signs that this re-opening may be too much too fast already. And there almost certainly will be a second wave.

I say this with the deepest compassion and empathy for business owners and their employees who are truly suffering right now. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have the government shut down your business and force you to furlough or terminate employees who, in this industry, probably feel like family. It’s heartbreaking, and I join many of my industry colleagues in demanding that the government take care of the hospitality business in the same way it has been taking care of the airlines and the banks and the country’s wealthiest corporations.

If you feel like you need some level of protection, work with your insurance companies and lawyers to find a way to do so in a way that does not impact the guest experience. For instance, here’s what I was greeted with when I pulled into Peju Province Winery’s parking lot last Wednesday:

Now I’m not a lawyer, and I assume this probably isn’t anywhere near as protective as a signed legal contract, but from a customer experience perspective, it’s miles better. Such signs have long been posted in wineries thanks to Proposition 65. There’s got to be an equivalent approach for COVID.

So I implore my industry colleagues in these trying times: don’t forget the principles of hospitality as you struggle to regain your footing. By all means, do what you need to to do keep everyone physically safe and healthy. That’s an important part of taking care of the guest. Forcing them to cover your ass legally most certainly is not.

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What Wine Tasting Rooms Will Be Like For the Foreseeable Future

No one knows for certain when Wine Country will open back up in California. As wine tourism represents more than $7 billion of the California economy and employs more than 375,000 people, it’s clearly high on the list of things to get re-started once the government has decided to loosen the current shelter-in place restrictions. California governor Gavin Newsom has indicated that the re-opening of businesses will move in phases, but the details of those phases are not concrete beyond the suggestion that Phase One will include reopening of some retail businesses that can offer takeout and/or curbside delivery.

Wine Country tasting rooms don’t quite fit that description. However, in addition to the statewide plan and guidance being provided by the Governor, individual counties are developing their own plans, and at least one of them, San Luis Obispo county, has suggested that opening winery tasting rooms would be included in their Phase One reopening plans, if given permission to do so by the State. So far, that county has had that permission to implement their own plan denied.

Counties around the state are doubtless hard at work developing their own plans for the eventual easing of restrictions, and so eventually, we will be able to leave our homes and head to Wine Country for a flavorful respite.

The (Immediate) Future of Tasting Rooms

When it finally happens, visiting a tasting room in wine country will look a lot different than it does today, at least as far as some guidelines published recently by the Wine Institute of California are concerned. These guidelines paint a picture of a very different type of experience than we might be used to having, though one that still promises to offer the kind of enjoyment people seek in their visits to wine country.

Even as I was writing this article, the announcement was made that Oregon will allow the reopening of tasting rooms, beginning tomorrow, May 15, with guidelines similar to those that follow.

1. Tasting by appointment only (MOSTLY)

The only way to visit a tasting room in California will likely be by appointment. Many tasting rooms in Napa were already by-appointment-only, by virtue of specific licensing requirements, but in many of those cases, someone dropping in could often easily secure such an “appointment” just-in-time. Such flexibility won’t go over well in our new normal. If you show up without an appointment in California, you’ll likely be turned away. In Oregon, people will be allowed to drop in without an appointment.

2. Small Groups Only

You’ll be able to bring a few friends, but not more. Party sizes will likely be restricted to six or fewer individuals in California, ten or fewer in Oregon. For now, Wine Country will see a continued reprieve from the dreaded-but-lucrative tourist buses.

3. Masks reQUIRED, Except When Sipping

Masks will be required in California, though only “recommended” in Oregon. While you will be able to remove your mask once you’re seated to drink some wine or eat, masks will be expected when you enter a winery tasting room and while doing things like walking around the grounds, or getting up from your table to go to the restroom. Winery staff will be required to wear masks as well as gloves.

4. Outdoor or Physically-Distanced Seating

No more bellying up to the tasting bar in your favorite little tasting room. Groups will be required to occupy their own individual table, and that table will need to be placed in such a way that keeps the group at least six feet from any other group visiting the same facility. Individuals within the same group will not need to maintain physical distance, but the winery will be required to arrange their seating so that groups can maintain proper distancing.

Those wineries in California that can provide outdoor seating that meet these requirements will likely be able to open sooner than those who cannot.

5. Wrap it Up Early (In CALIFORNIA)

In California, wineries will be required to stop serving alcohol and food by 5 PM. Oregon will be more lenient and allow service until 10 PM.

6. You Sneeze, You Cough, No Service

While no clear and definitive criteria have been offered, nor any specific guidance on how to monitor such things, wineries will be required to deny service to “customers displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19.” You can expect to see signage to this effect at wineries.

7. Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Speaking of signage. As we’ve now come to expect everywhere we go outside of our homes now, wineries will be covered in signs indicating proper physical distances, requirements or recommendations for masks, things you can touch and things you can’t and more. Hopefully they won’t have to block the view of the vineyards while we sit and sip.

What Wine Tasting Rooms Will Be Like For the Foreseeable Future

Despite all those changes and inherent restrictions, I suspect that Wine Country will find itself quite busy as it opens up even as shelter-in-place guidelines are still operating. Who wouldn’t want to get the hell out of their house and go taste some wine someplace pretty if they were able to do so right now?

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