A Change of Palate

By Ken Collura

Behind the cellar doors at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, where I worked as head sommelier, there were 36 vintages of Lafite-Rothschild, 34 of Haut-Brion, 33 Mouton-Rothschilds, 29 Latours, 21 Cheval Blancs, 20 La Tâche and 18 Romanée-Conti. From Napa, Bern’s offered 14 vintages of Opus One, 10 Ridge Montebello, 11  Caymus Special Selection and 12 Dominus Estate. This imposing arsenal was part of a dazzling array of over 500,000 bottles from the world over. It was (and still is) a sommelier’s dream. I was extremely lucky to have been associated with a list of its breadth.

Taking all this into consideration, I’m going to make a surprising confession: I’m not excited by these wines right now. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t wish to belittle their quality or the effort that goes into making them. They’re not what I want to drink anymore.

Say what? Take that man’s temperature! Is it time for the paddywagon and the guys in the white coats?

What’s the deal? I believe I’m in the throes of a palate regression. In attempting to assess how this happened, I’ve been entertaining a possible theory: I’ve gone face-first into the Invisible Wine Wall.

Maybe it’s something like that guy in the computer commercial on TV. He’s surfing the Net, then his eyes get really wide and a robotic voice says, “You have finished the Internet. There is no more. Go back.” Could I have reached the end of the Wine Universe and now must return?

There’s no doubt that I taste a lot of bottles, generally in the triple digits each week. I’ve become weary of big, huge, powerful, lush, tannic, fat and full-bodied wines. It’s clear as a bell, though: When wines are big and rich, they sell. They’re what the people want.

Winemakers know it, and go out of their way to fashion their releases to meet the demand. The wine media knows it, and they allot plenty of space to the coverage of these wines, giving them lavish praise. Restaurateurs and retailers know it, and they strive to keep their lists and shelves well stocked with the fashionable labels.

The major problem posed by “big” wines is their lack of compromise at the table. Their sheer weight and alcoholic kick can club an entrée into submission. Why force one component of your meal to become subservient to another? I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that the tastes and textures of the food you eat and the wine you drink should be compatible.

Possibly at the root of these concerns is the fact that many Americans simply don’t care whether their food matches well with the vino they drink. We say “The heck with all those Frenchy ideas about food and wine pairings, just bring on that 96-point 2003 Château Marquis de Sade, open it up and keep ’em coming.” We assume we are making a statement of rebellion against staid European tradition, but in reality, we are the dupes.

So, to get to the point: I’m drinking brisk whites, dry rosés and light, food-friendly reds, pretty much all the time. They pair well with everything short of Steak au Poivre and never fall into that “One Glass Wine” category — one glass and you’re done.

Here’s what’s on the rack at home. The grand majority cost less than $25 at retail:

For whites, Spanish Albariño; Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Riesling; Sauvignons from Chile and New Zealand; Pinot Blanc from both Alsace and Oregon; Loire Valley Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, and Italian Soave and Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

For reds, Cab Franc from the Loire, Cru Beaujolais such as Chenas and Chiroubles (but any of the crus will work); village Pinot Noir from tiny Burgundian towns like St-Romain and Santenay; Pinot from Oregon; Dolcetto and Barbera from Piedmont and Sangiovese from Tuscany and a few Tempranillos and Mencias from both Portugal and Spain.

No 95-point Parker wines in this group. Just good, solid drinking. Wines that will blend well with most dishes and not fatigue your palate. “Three Glass Wines” (three glasses and you’re looking for the fourth).

I’m not the only one who’s made this switch. I dine nearly every week with wine/restaurant friends. Winemakers, chefs, sommeliers, servers, etc. We consistently pour the bottles listed above. I can’t remember when a California Cab was opened.

Ken Collura is the wine director/sommelier/floor manager at Andina Restaurant in Portland.

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