There’s an episode of Spongebob SquarePants where he and Patrick Starr must somehow pass through the perfume section in a department store. Mind you this makes no sense given that the show takes place in Bikini Bottom, which happens to be underwater. But as they say, movies are magic. And anything is possible in cartoons. So our favorite sponge buddy and Patrick had to make a quick and awkward trek while scores of perfume samples are being squirted at them. The trip is short but perilous, with the two almost overwhelmed with clouds of Lilies of the Valley and Eaux de Auntie’s Unmentionables.
Whenever I think of this particular episode of Spongebob I’m reminded of Viognier. The best Viognier-based wines are from Condrieu in France’s Northern Rhône Valley and can command serious prices. However, the grape is now cultivated all over the planet. In some cases, it’s farmed en masse almost like table grapes. As you can imagine, the quality with the latter can be lacking, sometimes considerably.
Regardless of locale or price point, the one thing all Viogniers have in common is floral qualities. They smell like flowers, as in rose, honeysuckle, narcissus, and more. These floral aromatics come from chemical compounds called monoterpenes, which are found in the Viognier grape as well as other so-called semi-aromatic and fully aromatic grapes like Gewürztraminer, Torrontés, and Muscat in various forms.
That’s more information about a white wine smelling like flowers than you ever wanted to know. But it’s this very floral quality in inexpensive Viognier that reminds me of the SpongeBob episode. Also the many times I’ve passed a perfume counter in Walgreens and been assaulted by an overpowering cloud of screechy scents, only to scamper to another aisle and bounce off a force field of TCA emanating from a rack of belts and purses.
The Spongebob-Viognier connection came to me one time when I was helping judge a big wine competition. On the morning of day two, the panel I was chairing was tasked with blind tasting over 50 current release Viogniers priced under $15. In short order I was right there with Spongebob just trying to get past the perfume counter. But it got worse. By the end, it was like being stuck in a truck stop café where all the waitresses reeked of cheap perfume, bubblegum, and cigarettes.
Over the years, random wine associations like the Spongebob episode have occurred to me from time to time. I’m not sure if my industry compadres experience likewise. Maybe they do, but they just don’t talk about it. Regardless, my associations usually take the form of a simile or comparison between a certain wine and a completely unrelated thing.
These associations may be a result of my not getting to wine as a career until my thirties. And after seven years of college down the drain studying music history and music performance. All of which which meant my sensory mainframe had been previously programmed to all things auditory. And my hard drive already had an entire other field of endeavor installed with reams of information. So unlike many other MS students, who now are typically average younger in age, I had a strong frame of reference in a completely unrelated field. Which may explain why I sometimes create random associations with various wines. I may be wrong here, but I think it’s true. Regardless, here are a few of the random wine associations I’ve made over the years.
Zinfandel: Frat Party in a Bottle
To me, Zinfandel has always had the potential to get out of control. That’s maybe because clusters of Zinfandel grapes ripen unevenly, meaning there can be green shot berries and raisins on the same bunch. Take the average of the two and the alcohol can top 15% after fermentation. Hence the frat party thing. But maybe Zinfandel is also the perfect speed dating wine where the goal is to make a strong impression in three minutes without offending anyone and then vacate the premises immediately.
Red Burgundy : The Expensive High Maintenance Girlfriend/Boyfriend You Can Never Afford
Top Grand Cru Burgundies are the most expensive wines on the planet. I just now looked on winesearcher.com and the 2018 Romanée Conti from Domaine de la Romanée Conti will set you back at least $9K a bottle. Price aside, expensive Burgundy, like an impossible girlfriend/boyfriend, has the capacity to amaze every once in a while, but to monumentally disappoint more often than not. There’s an old age concerning Burgundy that says nine out of every ten bottles are disappointing. But the tenth bottle is so astounding that you empty the bank account to buy another ten bottles. Then at some point your pockets are empty and the boyfriend/girlfriend stops returning calls.
Châteauneuf du Pape: A Picnic Gone Wrong
Many moons ago when I was studying for the tasting exams, I continually struggled with getting Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas. Both are blends from the Southern Rhône based on Grenache. The blend part of the equation should have been my clue from the get go. Finally, one day after missing a call on a Châteauneuf for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that the wine didn’t taste like any one thing—as in a single grape. Instead, it tasted like a blend. I know what you’re thinking. Doy-yoy. The good news is that from then on, I got the wine. And the picture of the wine, so to speak, that came to me that day was the following.
Imagine that you and friends decide to go for a picnic and watch the sunset. You find a suitable spot, light a fire, and then spread out a blanket. Then various victuals including roasted meats, smoked fish, tapenades, chutneys, and other condiments are set out. Bottles of vino are opened and poured. You watch the sunset and everyone is having a grand time as it gets dark. Until a wild beast of some sort starts making a racket in the bushes nearby, which freezes conversation instantly. The menacing snarling noises keep getting louder with the beast seemingly getting closer. Suddenly, someone in the group freaks out, gets up, and runs away. That sets the entire group off, which does likewise, running for the cars and then speeding away.
The next day you return to clean up the mess. In your absence, the mysterious beast–and no doubt others—made a feast out of your picnic. The blanket is bunched up and most of the food has been eaten. What wasn’t is mixed together and smeared all over. The blanket smells like dried meat, tapenade, animals, and pepper—exactly like aged Châteauneuf or Gigondas. The idea became my “picture” for the wine. It’s worked ever since.
Brut Zero Champagne: Penitent Socialites
Other than using larger glasses for service (even red wine glasses) and even decanting bottles, the most curious recent trend concerning Champagne to me is the popularity of brut zero wines. These non-dosage bubblies are bracingly acidic and bone dry. Personally, I find no pleasure in drinking them. And pleasure is what drinking Champagne should be all about. But brut zero Champagnes are all the rage with some of my younger compadres. They argue that the dosage, or addition of a tiny bit of sugar and wine just before the bottle is corked and labeled, can dilute the true expression of a Champagne and its terroir. Which is an ill-founded notion because Champagne as a wine is practically always a blend. Adjusting the sweetness level through dosage is simply a way of ensuring the wine is balanced.
Every time I taste a non-dosage wine I’m reminded of the once-popular trend of self-flagellation in the Catholic church. Where one would practice self-punishment through various means to atone for one’s supposed sins in the eyes of the almighty. Here behind the adobe curtain, the Penitentes were a religious order once known for their practice of self-flagellation, especially during Holy Week. Combine the self-flagellation thing with the idea that Champagne has long signified the good life and upper crust in society, and you have a unique mélange. Socialites wearing mohair sweaters instead of cashmere, and drinking bubbly that makes them suffer. It’s an intriguing idea.
Chablis: Dominatrix Wine
My first ever serious wine tasting was in the summer of 1987. I was bartending at Bentley’s in the financial district, a seafood/oyster bar. At the time, I had started to collect wine and was reading as much as I could about it. No surprise my base of knowledge at the time was California wines. I had barely dipped my toe into the enormous lake that was Europe and the rest of the planet. But I was bound and determined to learn.
One afternoon on my way to work I stopped at Singer & Foy, a now-defunct wine shop off Washington Square in North Beach, the City’s Italian neighborhood. The tasting listed in their mailer that day was, if you can believe it, several recent vintages of Premier and Grand Cru Chablis from Domaine Francois Raveneau. This was long before the brilliant wines of Raveneau attained cult status and became all but unobtainable.
I walked into the shop, the only customer at the time, and was greeted by owner Steven Singer. I told him I wanted to taste the Raveneau and he smiled knowingly as if I had just uttered a password and gained entrance into some kind of secret club. After sitting down, Steven set out ten glasses in front of me and began to pour wines from almost identical bottles replete with hard yellow wax capsules—the same yellow wax capsules knowingly loved and hated by sommeliers the world over. Hated because they’re impossible and very messy to remove. After pouring, Steven left me in silence with the wines and my note pad.
To this point, my experience of Chardonnay was limited to the new world, primarily California. I had never tasted a good much less great Chablis. But I clearly remember picking up the first glass, only to be greeted with a series of aromas that were alien to me. Not much in the way of fruit compared to the California Chardonnays that I was used to. I then took the first sip and the experience was like a combination of loud feedback on a public PA system and eating several whole lemons in rapid succession. That first sip of what was the 1979 Montée de Tonnerre was like someone had plugged a home electric appliance into my palate (waffle iron) and flicked the juice on with the expected results.
Nothing remotely similar had ever come across my vinous radar. Here was a wine that was immensely powerful, bare bones dry, and painfully acidic. In comparison, the Chardonnays of my previous experience were like going to a church social as a kid. Some of them had big hair, others wore lots of jewelry, while still others wore an alarming amount of perfume.
After taking that first sip, I put the glass down and looked at the other nine wines realizing that I was really in for it. But being of very stubborn Irish stock, I took a deep breath and resolved to get through the flight, and even more, to somehow make sense of it. I had, after all, paid my $15 (!). Somewhere around the sixth or seventh glass, I had two of my first wine epiphanies. First, that it was possible to come across a wine that was well made and an outstanding example of its type that you disliked—even loathed. Second, and more important, some wines simply don’t care if you like them or not. It was precisely at this moment that I dubbed Chablis and the flight of Raveneau “Dominatrix wines.” The wines truly didn’t care if I liked them or not. They also were completely unapologetic for their character. And they definitely would not be calling me in the morning.
That experience at Singer & Foy permanently etched Chablis in my brainpan forever more. Going forward, I would never have a problem recognizing it in blind tastings. But it took a few years for me to actually like the wines. Now—and to show you how one’s palate can completely change over time—it’s one of my very favorite white wines. I relish the sour lemon, saline-mineral, and bracing acidity. But I still wonder about Chablis. If it was a dominatrix, what would its name be? I know. I think it’s Lola.