Experts focus on refining wines at the Taste Washington festival
Science and industry join forces at the Taste Washington festival to teach both growing and winemaking techniques in order to improve flavor.
Seattle Times staff reporter
At earnest seminars in Seattle on Saturday, wine cognoscenti each had a dozen glasses of Washington state wine lined up in front of them. They swirled, they smelled, they tasted. After a quiet gargle, they discreetly spat out into paper cups and moved onto the next.
There was talk of cherry and blackberry flavors, of a strong tobacco nose, of a tannic bitterness that "makes my teeth feel like they are wearing little sweaters," as one taster put it.
Sitting among the taste experts at the Bell Harbor conference center was a scientist responsible for trying to improve the taste of the state's wines.
Thomas Henick-Kling was appointed last month to a new position at Washington State University: director of Viticulture and Enology.
Those are the twin sciences, respectively, of growing wine grapes and of making wine.
At WSU, Henick-Kling will offer the state's vine growers and winemakers, who tend to have a romantic attachment to their craft, training in the objective methods necessary to create those elusive flavors that make a good wine.
"It's not just dreaming," Henick-Kling said. "There's actual chemistry behind it. When you taste blackberries (in a wine), you are tasting some of the same flavor chemicals that are in blackberries."
In the past 20 years, Washington state's wine industry has rapidly grown until it is now the second-largest producer in the United States.
The state wine commission estimates that the industry now contributes more than $4.7 billion annually to the national economy and supports more than 19,000 jobs.
This fall, Viticulture and Enology will become a separate major at WSU, which has the state's only four-year-degree program in this field.
The German-born Henick-Kling will build training programs and offer extension classes.
Bob Betz, who owns a small winery in Woodinville, described the craft of winemaking at one seminar.
It starts in the vineyard, Betz said, with the grower carefully managing the ripening of the grapes, the amount of shade they get, and when they are picked. (Too soon and the wine will be "too herby." Too late, and the fruit flavor will go overboard, "too pruny.")
The process continues with the winemaking, as the grape juice ferments with the skins and the seeds. Finally, wines must be blended together to achieve the perfect taste.
One variable Henick-Kling cited is the musty smell sometimes described as "like a sweaty horse, but also very earthy, or like leather."
Despite the unappetizing comparison, some winemakers like that flavor and seek to infuse their wines with it, he said. Others would really rather not.
"It's something winemakers can control," he said. "You can shift your winemaking process one way or the other."
He readily admits that total control is out of reach.
"Winemaking would be boring if we had everything figured out," said Henick-Kling. "We are a long way from being able to predict what a wine will taste like when it is 10 or 12 years old."
Doug Frost, a master sommelier and wine writer, stated controversially at one seminar that Washington's wine industry has grown so fast that there has been some "sloppy winemaking" in recent years.
"There are a lot of small artisanal growers and winemakers who are in love with the romance of this but really don't know the business yet," Frost said in an interview. "Showing them how to identify these problems, teaching them how to avoid them, is a first step toward fixing it."
At WSU, Henick-Kling will try to lead the state's winemakers in the right direction.
"Every bad wine in Washington hurts all the wine producers," said Henick-Kling. "We can help some of the people making mistakes to correct those."
This afternoon at Qwest Field Event Center, regular wine drinkers can join the experts.
On the second day of the Taste Washington festival, wine will flow liberally at a Grand Tasting, open to the general public from 4 to 8 p.m.
More than 200 wineries will offer tastings, professional sommeliers will do blind taste-offs, and about 75 local restaurants and celebrity chefs will provide food to complement the wines.
Spitting the wine out isn't mandatory.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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