The Terroir of Tasting

I believe that where and when we taste a wine will have an effect on how we perceive the wine. The physical conditions and environment of the person along with those of the wine will influence perception. I call it the “Terroir of Tasting”. How can wineries better prepare their own wine shops to have better tasting terroir for their customers? The same is true for music – listening to a song at a loud concert with all of the sensory stimulation that comes with it (light show, smells, other people, etc) is very different from listening on an iPod in the dark – so why not for other experiences like wine?

Don’t agree? Try pouring a glass of your favourite wine into the most suitable stemware that you own. Turn on some appropriate music, light some candles, maybe prepare a little food to compliment the wine, and then… take that wine and drink it while sitting on a bucket in a broom closet with the door closed.

Not the same experience, is it?

“The wine tasted different at home than it did when I tasted it at the winery,” said more than a few customers to me over the years while working at a wine store. There must be reasons for that and it may help understand the terroir of tasting a little bit more. It’s not a scientific study or anything (this is a wine blog after all, not a peer-reviewed academic journal) but are a collection of observations based on my own experiences. Just like in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, science generally proves what art has already figured out first. A great article recently in The Guardian also touches on this subject as well.

So, why do the wines sometimes taste different when you get them home? Let’s explore…

1. Travel Shock

Wine bottles get shaken up a lot while they are travelling. While there’s nothing scientific to prove that the wine is somehow different after arriving home, I think it’s always a good idea to let the wine rest for a while (maybe a couple of weeks) before opening it after coming home from your wine country excursion. Just like wine, we can be travel shocked in a way as well. Having a glass of water is a little boring during a meal but I’m pretty sure most people think it tastes pretty amazing after a vigorous run or a workout.

2. Decanting or Ageing

Sometimes wines poured in a tasting room have been open for a little while. They may have been exposed to oxygen for an unknown amount of time and anyone who has worked in a wine shop pouring the same wines each day for years knows that the same wine will change as it is being pour throughout the day. (I always used to feel bad for whoever had to taste the top 2 inches of wine from a freshly opened premium bottle of Cab Franc at winery where I used to work.) It may be that you, as the wine customer, tasted the wine at a point that you really enjoyed.

While I’m on the subject, glassware is also hugely influential on how a wine will be perceived. Notice I didn’t say how a wine will taste. Some styles of wines just show better in some types of glasses. I did a podcast about this early on using a Pinot Noir and the results were astounding even though we were all a little sceptical that it would make a difference at all. I’ve visited a couple of very promising new wineries and been very disappointed because, for whatever reason, they skimped on the glassware or were using glasses that were entirely inappropriate – wrong size or shape for the portfolio, or just plain cheap. I’m not saying that every winery has to have Riedel Vinum XL’s or anything but if the winery plans to sell a $45 meritage as the top end of their portfolio, it won’t show very well in a $3/stem thick-walled wine glass they bought in bulk at Canadian Tire.

3. Palate Fatigue

20141108-213136.jpgEven professional tasters admit to palate fatigue. Everything starts to taste the same and none of it is good. Or at least the distinguishing flavours are a little more blurred than they would have been. Tasting the wines at the 7th winery of the day is going to be different than if it had been the 1st winery that day. It’s not rocket science to figure that out. Wine makes us hungry and after we’ve had food, our tastes seem to settle down a little.

4. Bombardment of the senses

Wine tasting is really a multi-sensory experience. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was intently interested in creating works of music that encompassed more than just listening to sound. Schafer (in the late ’70’s) listed the traditional Catholic Mass as a true multi-sensory experience because it involved all of the senses (sight – the beautiful church, smell – incense, taste – communion, sound – music, touch – kneeling) and this was a huge influence on all of his works. His best music had to be experienced in person and some of them sound utterly ludicrous without the proper context. Hearing 12 trombones perform around the edge of a lake in the wilderness is vastly different than listening to the same music on an iPod while waiting for the bus in the rain in Vancouver. (A completely random example that I may or may not have experienced myself…)

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

I’m amazed at how little thought goes into the acoustic environment in a wine shop. Live music can make it feel more like a special event and some wineries have really built a tradition with having regular live entertainment. I created a whole project designed for performance in wine shops and have personally seen what adding music to the mix can do to lighten the mood. Thornhaven, Dirty Laundry, and Sonoran in Summerland and Hester Creek in Oliver all have regular music performed throughout the summer months. There are probably others who have live music but these wineries have been doing it for a long time. Does that effect the tasting terroir? You bet it does.

Colours help as well. Is the environment bright or subdued? I’m amazed at how many so-called ‘architects’ or ‘designers’ think that dark brown or black is an appropriate colour for a wine bar. Thankfully we’re seeing this change with the newer, more thoughtfully designed spaces like the bright white spaces of Painted Rock in Penticton and Liquidity in Okanagan Falls. Other wine shops have more earth-toned ambiance that also work well. I love the differences between each wine shop because it really expresses the different personalities of each location. Rustico‘s shop is an old-time saloon, cluttered with wine, signs, and products everywhere and it’s great. Meyer Family Vineyards is surrounded with windows that show the vineyards rising up all around them and it’s spectacular when tasting around that focused tasting bar. Ancient Hill‘s wine shop is a classically grand and has unique views without loosing its cosiness that really contributes an elegance to the wines.

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape '12

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape ’12

The only sense that needs to be restricted is the sense of smell. A stinky wine shop will not sell much of anything although neither the customer nor winery owner will be able to put a finger on why. Possibly the only thing aromatic that I can think of that will enhance the experience is a yeasty, cellar aroma which is part of the wine’s own natural habitat anyway. Terravista in Naramata has their tasting platform (it’s a piece of glass across some barrels) in their tank room and it’s a cool experience tasting the wine steps away from where it was made surrounded by all of the sights, aromas, and ambiance of the cellar. I remember tasting the first vintage of Painted Rock‘s Syrah outside of their old, tiny tasting room after it had just rained – the smell of wet earth lifted the syrah right out of the glass. It was an unbelievable experience.

Scented products like soaps or incense have no place in the wine shop to be sold as gifts. Those scents are distracting and can interact quite badly with the wines. I did a test at a wine shop where I worked some years ago: An otherwise beautifully scented soap turned an otherwise beautifully scented Pinot Gris into the pleasant smell of rotting flowers instantly. We opted not to carry that product.

Unless all of those winery smells are exactly the same at home, it’s likely that these differences will influence how you perceive the wine once you are home from your trip to wine country.

5. Context

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

Church and State’s comfy tasting bar

Then there is the context of the wine drinker and the wine itself – where are they in their day? Is there an optimal point for both to get the most out of wine? This is a big part of what intrigues me about what I do in wine sales. Wineries sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by not taking into account the ‘terroir’ of their tasting rooms. They can’t control the timing (when a customer will actually taste a wine or how many wineries they’ve already been to) but they can be aware of their tasting room environment. There is one other thing that can be either beneficial or detrimental to a customer’s wine shop experience and it’s something that I’ve found that I am tolerating less and less the more wineries I visit.

The tasting bar. There’s just something about it that has always bothered me. In terms of efficiency (getting the most customers through the bar quickly) it’s hard to beat. But I don’t have a bar of my own at home and if I did, I’m not sure that I would drink my wine standing up at it. When I go to bars, I usually get to sit down rather than stand. After visiting a half-dozen wineries, I find standing at them to be kind of tiring. None of this occurred to me until I stopped working at a winery with a tasting bar and started at another winery without one (FYI – Black Hills). It was a truly enlightening experience because I realized that the customers were getting an entirely different experience without having to stand uncomfortably at a tasting bar. They could relax, listen, have a proper conversation, and actually take the time to enjoy the wine rather than “splash and dash” through a portfolio of 8 wines in 5 minutes before hitting the road. Black Hills isn’t the only one doing this. Culmina has sit-down guided tastings and you can also sit down at both Church and State‘s and Painted Rock‘s tasting bars. Mission Hill and Hester Creek both have tours or experiences that feature guided tastings in different locations away from the typical tasting bar. Did all of these wineries really put a lot of thought into their customer’s tasting terroir when they deigned their building or set up their wine shop? You bet they did and it shows.

Conclusions

It’s time that wineries in BC start to thinking about how they present themselves a little more. Some wineries have not really given the ‘tasting terroir’ of their wine shops much thought and it shows. I’m sure that most of the successful wineries have already done this and realize how important it can be to presenting their wines as best as possible. It can also be taken a little too far where the experience overshadows the wine by a long shot (where most people remember the experience but can’t recall anything about the wines).

If you are a winery, please take the time to consider how your guests are experiencing your wines. Little changes can make a big difference in sales.

If you are a tourist in wine country, take the time to appreciate the effort that a winery has put into their ‘tasting terroir’. Some of those special touches can be used at home to make your own wine experiences more enjoyable.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

The Golden Mile Bench gets closer to reality

cropped-dsc_3061.jpgThe news came down this week that the BC Wine Authority has approved the application for the Golden Mile Bench Sub-Geographical Indication (or Sub-GI) which will be the first of its kind in BC.

What this means is that for the first time, the large region that is the Okanagan Valley will now have a smaller region within its boundary. Subdivision of a GI has never happened before in BC and is a first step in the direction that many in the wine industry already acknowledge – that there are many distinct sub-regions within the Okanagan and some of them are unique enough to produce wines with distinctive and recognizable qualities. The Golden Mile Bench is going to be the first to recognized and will hopefully pave the way for some of the other distinct regions. Hopefully those will include the Black Sage Bench, Kelowna’s south-east bench, and perhaps even the Naramata Bench. I’ve always found that Gewürztraminer from wineries in West Kelowna taste very different from Gewurz’s elsewhere. Now whether or not the grapes are actually grown there is another story.

This is where these Sub-GI’s will become contentious among wineries. Will a wine made from grapes grown in a Sub-GI become inherently more valuable because it is from a smaller delineated area? How will that affect the prices of wines from other regions? Will a winery in Naramata really want to promote the fact that their best Syrah isn’t actually grown on the Naramata Bench at all, but rather is grown somewhere else in the Okanagan? The fact is that the Oliver / Osoyoos area accounts for over 50% of the grapes produced in the province according to stats compiled by the BC Wine Institute in 2011. A lot of wineries located elsewhere in BC get their grapes from the Oliver / Osoyoos area (most notably for red wine) but is that something that they want their customers to know?

Truthfully, I’m not interested in tasting a wine from a winery on Vancouver Island made from grapes grown in the Okanagan any more than tasting wine in France made with Italian grapes. I’m pretty sure that most other wine lovers are with me on that although how small to draw that terroirtorial line is unclear. It may be a bit unsettling to the wineries currently in production right now, especially those that have chosen to focus their portfolios on grapes or styles that are not appropriate for their actual location (quite a few of them from my experience). When more sub-GI’s make it into legislation, there will be some significant shifting of the BC wine industry’s tectonic plates as wineries seek to take advantage of these newly distinguished regions. Recently I’ve seen a couple smaller wineries around Kelowna dispense with their big Syrahs and Meritages (grown nowhere near their wineries) in favour of Pinot Noir and Rieslings grown in their contiguous vineyards. Both of those grapes are not only appropriate for their growing region, but are also proving to be distinctive in their own right, perhaps even warranting their own (possibly grape-specific) sub-GI.

Another problem is with wineries and vineyards already located off on their own in geologically unique, but remote, areas. Where will they fit in? Wineries like River Stone, which shares a fence with Wild Goose’s Mystic River vineyard, but are otherwise on their own north of Oliver or Anarchist Mountain, Andrew and Terry Meyer Stone’s vineyard east of Osoyoos, will like likely not be included in any potential future sub-GI because of their distance from other vineyards. Will they loose out because of this in the long run? There is nothing that links their vineyards geologically (a major factor in drawing the boundary for the Golden Mile Bench) to any of the larger vineyard areas nearby. Ironically Culmina Estate Winery, located right in the middle of the Golden Mile Bench and a leader in the application for the Sub-GI, has had their own Margaret’s Bench vineyard (located further up the mountain) excluded from the Golden Mile Bench Sub-GI. They will only be able to label wines from that vineyard as BC VQA Okanagan Valley.

The novelty of something new will drive the gold-rush mentality at the beginning but ultimately it will be up to each region to qualify and publicise its distinctiveness from the whole. In other words, the wineries that slap the new BC VQA Golden Mile Bench on their labels will not have to work very hard to sell those bottles as consumers will likely clamour for their first wines from the new appellation. The marketing potential for a new Sub-GI is huge. This will be big news with wine consumers, tourists, and within the wine industry itself who may then begin to push for other Sub-GI’s elsewhere. Sandra Oldfield and Sara Triggs, both involved in the organization of the Golden Mile Bench application, were very clear in a recent webinar on the subject that they are more than willing to share what they know about the Sub-GI application process to other regions.

Whatever happens with other regions within the Okanagan, the big picture is pretty clear; We are still only in the beginning stages of learning what grapes grow where to make the best wine. It will not be an easy progression and there will be as much (dis)agreement about everything as there ever has been in the past. The point is that things are progressing and that the industry isn’t where it was 5, 10, or 20 years ago. Read some of John Schreiner’s older editions and see what I mean. Wine changes and evolves over time and so to will the BC wine industry. The new Golden Mile Bench Sub-GI is really the beginning of the next chapter.

Cheers to exciting times in wine country!

~Luke