Before we get too far into today’s post I have a confession to make:
I am not so good at identifying flavors in wine. I know that I like a wine or that I don’t like a wine and I’m getting better at figuring out why, but, for the most part, I am awful at identifying different flavors or aromas.
There. It’s out now.
Tricia Renshaw, however, does not have that challenge at all.
She can describe wines with beautiful words that you just want to drink in. And that is just what I did with her this past November during a visit to the Finger Lakes region at Fox Run Vineyards where Tricia serves as assistant winemaker.
As we tasted Rieslings in progress from the tanks, she described them to me and I was amazed at the flavors I could identify with her as my guide. And I was amazed at how different each tank tasted.
“I get a little banana from this one…”
“This one’s a bit smokier….”
and on and on she went.
I would take a sip, roll the wine throughout my mouth, enjoy it, but still wonder just what it was I was tasting. And then she would identify some of the flavors and I felt as though a beautiful mystery had been solved each time. The wines really came alive as she guided me and I began to wish I could bring her home with me to help me taste everything!
So how did she get started?
Tricia’s winemaking story began as a foreign exchange student in Belgium.
Her host mom would prepare elaborate dinners each night for the family, always serving them alongside wine on the table.
One night, homemade Spaghetti Bolognese was served.
“It was so spicy and I needed something to drink,” Tricia said. “So I took a big gulp of wine… and it made the food taste better! Then the food made the wine taste better. It just keep going back and forth and I didn’t want it to stop!”
Listening to her talk, I had scenes from the Disney movie Ratatouille flashing in my head. If you’ve seen it, I’m sure you remember when Remy described the flavors in food like fireworks.
When Tricia returned home to the US after that experience, she was only 18, and under the legal drinking age, so she didn’t jump into a life of wine, instead she went to college, changed majors a few times, worked and then eventually felt the pull back to wine when she was at the Fox Run Garlic Festival years later.
“I had this revelation that this was where I was supposed to be,” Tricia said.
Eventually she contacted Peter Bell, Fox Run’s winemaker, and was offered a part time position. She was to work on the bottling line and when it broke on her first day, the best discovery was made: To give her something to do, Peter sent her off to go write tasting notes for some of the wines. Tricia didn’t know much about tasting notes, but she knew exactly how to describe the flavors she tasted in each wine. Her descriptors astounded Peter so much that he told her that if she could do that, he could teach her the rest.
That was in 2005, and she’s been at Fox Run ever since, helping to coax those intricate flavors out of the grapes herself, learning from the rest of the team and through formal programs, too.
I asked her about the Finger Lakes region and why it was ideal for growing wine grapes. She explained that the Finger Lakes region gets cold weather, but the cloud cover insulates it from getting as cold as much of the rest of the state. Also, because the lakes are so deep, they do not freeze and the steep slopes leading down into them serve much like the sides of a drain, causing the cold air to run down the slopes and into the lake.
Aside from the climate, she also likes the sense of collaboration she feels from the rest of the Finger Lakes winemaking community.
“Sure, everyone wants to be successful, but not at someone else’s expense,” she said.
And that is what I felt from my interview at Anthony Road the day before when I spoke with John Martini and Johannes Reinhardt.
Aside from serving as an assistant winemaker, Tricia is also a mom to two daughters, one of which is nearing that foreign exchange student age. I wonder what her adventure, should she decide to go, will bring!
I asked Tricia what it was like to have such a keen sense of taste and how it might have developed.
“I ate all sorts of crazy things as a kid,” she said.
Then she explains that asking her how she tastes so vividly is like asking someone how they see such vibrant colors.
“It’s just how I’ve always sensed things,” she said.
So how can the rest of us gain a better understanding of what we taste and smell?
She thinks that the senses of smell and taste can get better with training.
“Taste and smell things in sets. Taste four different red fruits together and compare them. Or taster similar fruits and try to determine how a nectarine is different from a peach,” she says. “Then do the same with 3 to 4 wines. You’ll begin to see what is different and what is the same between them.”
It looks like I have a lot of tasting (and learning) to do!
Posts in the Finger Lakes series: