Swirl n' Spit
Belly Up to the Wine Bar
By Heather Irwin
'I'm getting hints of banana," the Boy proclaims. He shoves his glass of Charles Shaw (aka Two Buck Chuck) Sauvignon Blanc in my direction. "Taste it. Seriously. Banana." This is not our first glass of wine, or our second. In fact, at this point in the evening, there are more empty bottles than full ones. We're in no shape to be dissecting flavor profiles of wine, but that doesn't stop us.
"There is no banana in Sauvignon Blanc," I tell him with all the tipsy earnestness I can muster at midnight. I am, after all, the wine taster in the family. "No way." I take a sip. Ew, banana, and lots of it.
Pulling out distinct tastes in wine--things like grapefruit, berry, coffee or, in this case, banana--is part of the fun of exploring and learning about wine (and is most effective when done sober). Though it can sometimes verge on ridiculous--burnt licorice? cherry pie? a barnyard?--the unique mixture of flavors and aromas of a wine are what differentiate each region, each varietal and, in fact, each wine itself. This is what separates the truly great wines, which combine flavors in an often subtle, harmonious way, from, say, a glass of Two Buck Chuck that has all the subtlety of Jessica Simpson in Daisy Dukes.
But unless you are one of the fortunate few "super tasters" who can pull out the flavors of lychee nut or passion fruit in a single swig, it takes a long time to develop an educated palate. Plus, it can be so . . . well, let's admit it, pretentious--all that sipping, swirling and proclamations of "Grassy! With a hint of oak!" And what exactly does grass really taste like? Unless you are partial to gnawing the lawn, it's all a bit ethereal.
Or is it? Thanks to Jelly Belly, the maker of those nifty little jelly beans in just about every flavor under the sun, you can now pop a grass-flavored bean in your mouth and know just what it tastes like. Go ahead and try the tastes of dirt, earwax and boogers. But it wasn't until De Loach Vineyards and Wine X magazine put together jelly beans tasting like grass, grapefruit, pear and pineapple in very specific combinations that profiles of wine regions and varietals started revealing themselves.
For example, say you want to get some idea of what a Riesling wine would taste like. Combine one each of peach, pear, apricot, green apple, cantaloupe, pink grapefruit and tangerine. Put them all into your mouth and--voila!--Riesling. Sort of. Add a dirt-flavored bean (yes, they really have them), and you have a French Alsatian Riesling.
Or perhaps you're more partial to Sauvignon Blanc: combine grass, lemon lime, pink grapefruit, kiwi, tangerine, peach, juicy pear and--banana. Apparently Sauvignon Blanc can have banana. I just choose to pretend it doesn't. Bleech.
No matter what your interest in wine varieties, there are some 50 wine profiles in all, including such familiars as Chardonnay, Cabernet, Cabernet Franc; regional flavor profiles (Sonoma County vs. Napa County Zinfandels, for example); and even rarer U.S. varietals like Primitivo or Verdelho. Taste them all. It's fun, educational and, maybe best of all, nonalcoholic, so you can taste and taste and taste. Until you pass out from sugar shock, that is.
The kits are conveniently available online at www.winexmagazine.com/jellybelly/kits.htm, so you don't have to stand in front of the Jelly Belly bins carefully counting each bean and figuring out for yourself whether your Northern California Sauvignon Blanc really needs that banana jellybean or not.
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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.