The Potato Non Grata and I and had some friends over for a birthday dinner last weekend, and I decided to throw in an organic wine tasting. I've been looking for a house red, and since Bonterra's organically grown Chardonnay is already our de-facto house white, I figured I ought to try some other wineries. Given the staggering amount of wine we go through, candidates had to be under $15, preferably closer to $10.
If you're expecting some professional notes, stop reading now. Although the Potato's ex-wife is a high-profile wine buyer with tastebuds like a supercomputer, his are more like a Speak 'n Spell. He made this cheerful disclaimer shortly before we started: "I can't be a good wine taster, because I like everything — unless it’s horrible." I tend to think more cheap wines fall into that category than he does, including Two-Buck Chuck, but I struggle to find the exact words to describe why I like or dislike something.
Should you still suspect we're wine snobs in disguise, I confess I bought the wine on impulse from the grocery store before I even knew what I was cooking. I picked out a trio of organic reds — a Petite Syrah ($14.50), a Zinfandel ($12), and a "table wine" ($8), all 2004 vintages — all from Frey, the oldest and largest pure-organic winery in the United States, which also happens to be biodynamic. Since we were celebrating, I also grabbed an Argentinean sparkling Chardonnay, Vida Organica ($12), made from organically grown grapes, to accompany a bottle of standard bubbly we had on hand.
The menu evolved from what I selected at Saturday's farmers market in Berkeley. I'm addicted to Riverdog Farm's heirloom tomatoes right now, so for the first course I planned a traditional bruschetta — grilled rustic bread rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil, topped with chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, and salt. (The Dairy Queen Mother would like to add here that regardless of what every waitperson in America may say, the "ch" in bruschetta is hard: broos-SKET-ta.) Pretty pink radishes caught my eye, as did brightly colored peppers, so I grabbed some butter lettuce for a market salad. We had a bunch of cucumbers left over from our CSA box, so I decided to make an Asian recipe for spicy pickled cucumbers out of Mark Bittman's "World's Best Recipes" cookbook, which really does live up to its title.
The birthday girl loves peaches, so I picked up several white and yellow varieties from the lovely ladies at Blossom Bluff Orchards ("transitional," in the process of getting certified as organic) and made a peach pie — my first — that was ready to go in the oven as soon as dinner was out. DePeach Mode, as we shall call her, is vegetarian, as is our friend Teacake, and so their main course was an Asian-inspired, tofu-mushroom casserole that I wish I'd known about back when I was a vegetarian. The Potato Non Grata and I, and DePeach's beau Herr Lüm Tomato, were having Berkshire pork kebabs from Fatted Calf.
(OK, I admit, we spent a very silly but fun 15 minutes coming up with everyone's noms-de-beurre.)
We had the Vida Organica with the bruschetta. The wine was a crowd-pleaser; the bruschetta was a little over-grilled.
"The softer carbonation is really nice," said Herr Lüm, who I suspect was hiding actual wine knowledge from us mere binge-drinkers. "It's mild and pleasant." I thought it tasted more like a Sauvignon Blanc than a Chardonnay, with definite notes of pear and a faint hint of grapefruit — and a lot more expensive than it was. I really liked it.
On to Frey's 2004 Petite Syrah. This time, there was a long silence.
"I don't know if I like this," said DePeach. "It's almost dirty-tasting."
"They should have used more pesticides," cracked Herr Lüm.
"It smells kind of rancid," piled on Teacake.
"It tastes sort of … 'brown' to me," said the Potato. "But I don't hate it."
I didn't hate it either, but it was definitely odd, not like any Syrah I've ever had. It was sort of metallic, not at all fruity, and did have a dark, almost earthy taste. Everyone except the Potato and I turned in their glasses and switched to a nonorganic Ravenswood Zinfandel that Teacake had brought; we joined them for Herr Lüm's 2005 Silver Label Pinot Noir from Coppola Winery. The Frey Zinfandel was not a success either, so you’ll hear no more about that.
It may be a case of untrained tastebuds. I learned some things after the fact that would have been useful in preparing my palate for what it was about to sip. First of all, there is a big difference between wine made from "organically grown grapes" and "organic wine"; organic wine, which is all Frey makes, is not allowed to contain added sulfites. Nearly all winemakers use sulfur dioxide in very small amounts to protect their wines from spoilage: when dissolved, sulfur dioxide binds with impurities and any live spoilage organisms and destroys them. Sulfites are byproducts of this process; small amounts of them are also created naturally in the fermentation process. Apparently it's almost impossible to make white wine without sulfur dioxide — it turns brown — but red wines contain tannin, a natural preservative, so they require less protection than whites. (Learn more about this topic in this Wine News cover story.)
When I read this comment in a San Francisco Chronicle article about organic wines, things started to fall into place. "For people used to drinking wines with a lot of [sulfur dioxide], these wines are going to taste different," said an organic winemaker. "When you taste unsulfited wines, the bright, fruity flavors are not as enhanced and the earthier flavors come through."
Aha! Perhaps we're not actually morons, and it really did taste "dirty" and "brown." If those are not adjectives you're looking for in your wine, well, you're not alone. And yet…Frey is an extremely well-regarded winery, and although their biodynamic methods sound a little kooky to me, I and my jaded liver would like to support them. I intend to try them again, perhaps going for more expensive bottles this time.
The peach pie, by the way, turned out a little homely, but tasted like summer in a crust. With a little Humboldt Creamery organic vanilla ice cream, which was killer, it was perfect.
The whole wine-tasting experience reminds me of another dinner we had recently. Some friends of ours who like to eat — but who aren't that interested in knowing where what they eat comes from — were visiting, so we took them to one of our favorite restaurants, which serves only non-factory farm meat. Our friend J. and I both ordered the steak, which was sliced thin and cooked very rare. The chef came out and I was talking to him about where they were getting the beef from — a place I hadn't heard of, called Creekstone — and complimenting him on how tender it was.
After he left, J. said, "My steak is not tender at all." I was surprised, because mine was practically evaporating in my mouth, so I tried hers. Also buttery and soft, I thought. And yet to her, it was tough as an old Topsider — because she was so used to corn-fatted, feedlot beef that barely gets to move around. Since I haven't had that kind of beef since 1994, before I became (and later gave up) being vegetarian, this steak was delicious to me.
Alas, I found out later that the Creekstone steak we were eating was not wholly grassfed, but pasture raised and corn finished, like Niman’s. Which explains the butteriness. Oh well…
Point is, it's all about what you're used to. And I know now that I can buy wines from organically grown grapes — but with sulfites — that will taste like what I already like, while I experiment with sulfite-free organic wines to see if I can retrain my recalcitrant tastebuds to better appreciate 'earthiness'...or not.