Wine Spectator ratings, Robert Parker accolades, menu or wine shop descriptions, and, most important of all, a price tag. These are tools the wine enthusiast uses to set expectations about a wine.
In honor of tax day, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar set out an interesting hypothesis: With the absence of prices, diners would not be able to decipher between expensive and inexpensive wines, assuming both were paired carefully with foods.
Is food-friendliness directly correlated with the price of a wine? Five courses matched with wines and our conclusion could be summed up by my tablemate Heather Jones, attorney by day, "supertaster" by night: "On a wine list we often steer away from the most expensive wines, but we're leery of the least expensive. You have to rely on your own preferences. An expensive wine is not always the best match."
What's a supertaster?
Ten years ago Yale Medical School researcher Linda Bartoshuk introduced the term. She divided the world into supertasters, tasters and nontasters. "Supertasters live in a neon food world," Bartoshuk said. "Nontasters in a pastel food world." Nontasters have five taste buds per square centimeter, supertasters have 30.
Supertasters make up roughly 25 percent of the population, and 35 percent of women but only 15 percent of men. Supertasters have a sensitivity to bitterness and a wimpiness when it comes to the burn of hot peppers.
The private dining room at Fleming's was at capacity, the bluster of imminent tasting bravura palpable. I was blustering along with the best of them.
First challenge: two Russian River chardonnays, Chalk Hill Imagine 2004 (roughly $17) vs. Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch 2005 (about $30), both paired with a sweet celery root soup swirled with truffle oil. I got it! The wine in the etched glass is richer, with bright fruit character and a fair amount of oak; it practically screams $30.
Buzz, thanks for playing. The Patz & Hall is more restrained, lighter, more like a Chablis.
Learn your lesson, and try again.
Aha! Obvious. The etched glass this time is definitely the pricier, more of a brick color (the other one has shades of Juicy Juice), with a complex earthy, mushroomy aroma. It's got to be the Estancia Santa Lucia Highlands Stonewall Vineyard 2005 pinot noir (almost $30), not the MacMurray Ranch Sonoma Coast 2006 pinot ($13).
I'm thinking too much, drawing on what I know about regions, terroir and winemaking styles. I realize the woman seated next to me is guessing correctly. Is she a ringer? A pro brought in to make us look bad? No, she is Heather Jones, 35, attorney with Fowler White Boggs Banker in St. Petersburg. She has gotten into wine slowly, making the gradual ascension from white zinfandel to chardonnay to settle on an enthusiasm for cabernet sauvignon.
With our marinated rib-eye, red onion confit and spinach mashed potatoes, I watch Jones carefully. She's swirling, she's sniffing. She nails it again, identifying the glass containing the Rombauer 2004 cab blend ($35), and the other containing a Hess 2005 cab (about $21).
Me, I'm now 0-for-3.
The Rombauer is tannic and brawny, but many at my table prefer the spicy Hess. Despite her mad skills in identifying the expensive wines (she cited smoothness and a long finish as the giveaways), even Jones didn't always prefer them. Call us cheap dates, but our findings at Fleming's may result in greater financial solvency next tax day.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.