Reporters notebook: Beer, blind-tastings, Nakajima-Gomez ‘reunion’ and whiskey — not a bad way to end Food & Wine weekend
A blind taste test
On Sunday, Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and Carlin Karr, the wine director of Stuckey’s Frasca Hospitality Group and an Advanced Sommelier, taught me that you don’t have to be a sommelier at any level to pick out flavors and unique scents in different glasses of wine and enjoy a blind wine taste test.
In fact, all you have to do is observe the wine, give it a good sniff or two, taste it and then listen to your instinct.
Does it help if you have a robust wine vocabulary to use when your describing what you notice — words like pyrazine, which one audience member used to describe their first sip of the first wine of the morning — as well as essentially a wine cellar of different types of wines and the regions stocked in your head to guess from? Absolutely. But is it 100% necessary? Nope, it’s not.
“We’re going to collect the dots and connect the dots,” Karr said at the beginning of the Sunday morning “Guess the Glass: A Blind Tasting Game” seminar. “Listen to what you’re seeing, smelling and tasting and put it all together and listen to your own clues.”
The seminar started out with Karr trying to stump Stuckey, who is well-known to Aspen locals as the former wine director at The Little Nell and well-loved by Food & Wine Classic attendees as this is his 25th Classic, on his birthday (Happy birthday, Bobby!) with a blind tasting of a glass of wine she picked out just for him.
“I know this is not a technical term, but this is a really great breakfast wine,” he said when he tasted it.
Stuckey was not to be stumped and seemingly easily identified the bottle as a Riesling from Germany, specifically from Mosel, that tasted like a 2018 vintage. He hit the cork in the bottle, it was a 2018 Willi Schaefer Riesling from Mosel, Germany.
“The thing about tasting wine, it’s all olfactory memories and connecting the dots, like Carlin said,” Stuckey said. “We all have really, really good pallets, we just stopped using them for about 1,000 years.”
Going into this seminar I was under no false impression that I would be good at this blind tasting game since I figured my knowledge of wine was pretty commonplace and my vocabulary to describe a glass was limited to “this dries my mouth out,” “it’s too sweet,” or “that’s good, I’ll have another glass, please.” The last time I participated in a blind taste test of alcohol I was in college, we were blind tasting beer and the only one everyone got right was PBR, go figure.
Safe to say, my expectations of myself to guess even one out of the six glasses correctly were low.
But, I listened to my instructors, followed the wine tasting grid they provided and worked off visual cues and trusting my nose and taste buds to decipher if it was more fruity or earthy and what level of acidity it had.
When the game was all said and done, I guessed three out of the six glasses (one of the three whites and two of the three reds). I was batting .500, and I was shocked.
“People think, ‘Oh my God, blind tasting is really just a party trick so you look fun at your friends cocktail party.’ It’s not,” Stuckey said. “It’s really a great building block for us as professional sommeliers but also for consumers.
“Wine is about discovery, and it’s also more fun to discover when you don’t have preconceived premonitions of the wine.”
So will I try this game again? I’d like to, but maybe not with six varieties at the same time. I’ll start small and then work myself up to the big time.
Plus, Stuckey said, “it’s some thing you can work on every week, every day, … and the more you do it, it’s like muscle memory, it gets a little bit better.”
– Rose Laudicina, The Aspen Times
How about some real beer?
Last weekend, Sheryl Crow was singing to the Snowmass crowd about having a good beer buzz early in the morning during her show at JAS Labor Day Experience. Sunday morning at the Food & Wine Classic, beer guru Garrett Oliver had a crowd of just over two dozen getting there.
Oliver spent Sunday morning at a Food & Wine outpost on the east end of Aspen at The Gant, and those who made the trek for “Wild Things: Exploring Natural Ferments in Beer” were awed by his insane knowledge of all things beer, but also his deep historical appreciation of wine and culinary pairings with both.
With eight “very morning friendly beers” on his menu, Oliver also spoke of beer’s true history. The brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, author of “The Brewmaster’s Table” and editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,“ Oliver has been in the business of making beer for 32 years.
Oliver’s mastery of brewing was on display as he interacted with a very engaged audience. The session went a bit longer than scheduled, which was no problem as most of the crowd of about 30 folks weren’t in a hurry to leave.
“Sorry to digress,” he said at one point after answering a few audience questions. “But that happens when you drink beer.”
A quick survey of the room showed it to be about half beer fans and half wine fans. No problem for Oliver.
As he went through the eight beers he brought, he really worked to remind the audience that what most Americans think is beer is really not true beer.
“If you hand this to somebody and say, ‘Taste this, what is it?’ They’re going to have no idea at all. Most people are not familiar with it,” he said while discussing the Atrial Rubicite offering from Jester King Brewery in the Texas Hill country.
The beer, which goes for $35 for a 750 ml bottle, is a barrel-aged wild ale re-fermented with raspberries and is brewed with Texas malt, well water and hops, then barrel-aged for a year prior to blending and re-fermentation.
“People will pick up a beer like this and say, ‘That’s nice but it doesn’t taste like beer.’ And you kind of think to yourself, ‘Well, the stuff you may have been thinking of beer has been beer for like 80 years.’ This has been hundreds and hundreds of years that people have been making stuff like this,” he said with an infectious laugh. “The mass market beers people drink today are not traditional. They don’t taste like beer. No beer in history tasted like that until 50 or 60 years ago. Beer had a much wider variety of flavor and was much stronger generally than it is today.”
— David Krause, The Aspen Times
Double the fun
How to stoke a crowd so that they look alive and ask tons of questions throughout a Sunday morning cooking seminar? Bring along a surprise special guest. That’s what “Top Chef: Portland” Season 18 “Fan Favorite” Shota Nakajima did when he delighted attendees by showing up with fellow Top Chef alum Byron Gomez. (The 7908 Aspen executive chef served as Nakajima’s sous chef in the finale episode; Saturday late night, on the fly, the pals decided to team up for the Classic demo.)
Born in Japan and based in Seattle, Nakajima flashed further back with his featured dish, a riff on one he prepared in the first episode’s elimination challenge: seared duck breast braised in soy, mirin, sake and Szechuan peppercorns with duck-fat and sweet white miso-infused butternut squash purée and quick-pickled red pearl onions.
My neighbor in the fourth row was from Portland, Oregon, where the season was filmed last fall with plenty of precautions during the pandemic. Early on, she leaned over and whispered, “They have such great rapport!” Another audience member praised the pair via shout out: “Your chemistry and friendship is so natural!”
So went the funny, fast-paced event. Somewhat unusual for these seminars, audience questions kept coming, quick-fire style. (As a viewer of the Bravo reality cooking competition since its first season in 2006, and a Gomez fangirl myself, I’m biased here, but these two chefs handled the most robust and lively Q&A session I have ever seen at a Food & Wine Classic seminar.)
Nakajima and Gomez have teamed up since the show wrapped, hosting Kokosan pop-ups with fellow contestants Maria Mazon and Jamie Tran (the team’s Latin-Japanese concept won Restaurant Wars) and a guest chef dinner at 7908. A video series featuring the two chefs may be next.
Working in tandem and bantering nonstop, the two chefs plated the duck 10 minutes early, leaving time for even more burning questions, mostly about behind-the-scenes stuff, from the studio audience. Nakajima left the tent in high spirits, with no regrets about not being crowned champion in the end.
“Hey,” he quipped, “it gives me an opportunity to go on (’Top Chef’) All-Stars!”
—Amanda Rae, “Food Matters” columnist, Aspen Times Weekly
How to win whiskey
Alba Huerta knows how to win whiskey — start low and finish high.
“The progression of the tasting will be that we start with the lower proof drinks, and we go to a higher proof and that’s really how you win any of these festivals,” Huerta said during her “Winning Whiskey” seminar Saturday. “You start out a little high, make sure you get the high proof contents at the end so you can go to bed and wake up in the morning and start with the low proof again.”
It was the fourth whiskey that rose to the occasion during the seminar, which was the Oregon-based Westward American single malt whiskey.
Not only is it delicious, but they create what Huerta calls “social justice barrels.”
“They have this decree that they will take care of their community, they take a single barrel … that’s one season, one place, one person,” she said. “They take a single barrel and sell those bottles and make a donation to their community.”
It’s their flagship whiskey, which is made during a long, slow process. They brew an artisanal American ale from scratch using locally malted barley, ale yeast and a low temperature fermentation.
It’s distilled twice in custom low-reflux pot stills and matured in lightly charred American Oak barrels.
– Carolyn Sackariason, The Aspen Times
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