Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Of Salty Wine And Clinging Pits And Really Dumb People

Who knew that putting a bit of salt on your tongue before you guzzled a glass of wine could change many of the wine's innate qualities? And who knew that the reason that you sometimes struggle to get the pit out of a piece of fruit is because those sneaky fruit trees can grow BOTH cling and freestone fruits on the SAME tree? Let me backtrack just a bit. Those are just 2 things I learned at Copia, the food and wine education center in beautiful downtown Napa.

Copia is a lovely large airy building filled with kitchens, classrooms, theaters and lots of display space for exhibits on food and wine, as well as a magnificent garden, soon to be expanded by a big new greenhouse, currently under construction. It was founded by Robert Mondavi, among others.

They offer an interesting schedule of daily events and classes. I had told
H(usband) that a particular day was to be devoted just to Copia, so he kindly went along while I explored every square inch of the place. We started with a half hour general tour led by a pleasant and well-informed docent. She pointed out a prominent wall display of Julia Child's famous copper pots, hung just the way they were in her Cambridge kitchen. It was riveting.

We finished in plenty of time to get to the food demonstration "Celebrating Stone Fruits". I'll be honest, I'm pretty critical of cooking demonstrations, but this was a good one. The chef, Sandy Dominquez, was a youngish, very professional and knowledgeable cook, who kept her cool when ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER kept asking her REALLY stupid questions. And NO, it wasn't me.

She had mentioned something about fruits being a wonderful addition to savory dishes. This audience member must have asked her in 10 different ways what the word savory meant. Sandy explained it as well as she could to a totally not comprehending person. All she should have said was that SAVORY MEANS NOT SWEET!!! It turned out that Dumbo was confused by the herb "savory" and the word "savory". Really, what a waste of everyone else's time.

Anyway, Sandy explained that stone fruits are from the same family, Rosaceae, as roses, pears, berries, apples and almonds and that's why many of those are interchangeable in recipes. I hadn't thought of it that way before. Once stone fruits are picked, all sugar production stops, so you can ripen a fruit to make it juicier, but not sweeter. That's the benefit of eating tree-ripened fruit when it's available. (Cherries, by the way, are done when they're picked, they get neither sweeter nor juicier.)

Sandy quickly mixed together a vinaigrette in the blender, spending quite a bit of time talking about emulsions, one of my favorite topics. She explained that an emulsion is a liquid held in suspension by an oil molecule with the addition of an emulsifying agent, which, in the case of a vinaigrette, is often mustard.

She said the ratio of a usual vinaigrette is 3 to 1 or 4 to 1. You will not believe the question that Dumbo came up with! It was a doozy. Ok, I know I'm being witchy, but here it is: She asked which way did the ratio go...was it 3 parts of vinegar or 3 parts of oil???!!!

I KNOW I'm being mean, but really, if I was that stupid, I would NEVER admit it in public and I certainly wouldn't have gone to Copia in the first place, because, honestly, no one is interested in teaching someone that clueless. Okay, sorry, back to Copia.

We also learned that clingstone fruit is mostly used for commercial purposes - jam etc. The reason we get an occasional different-to-remove pit is because a given tree CAN have both types of fruit and it's impossible to know which is which until you cut open the fruit. Also, did you know that nectarines are actually peaches with smooth skins? And that peach growers and almond growers have to communicate closely with each other to determine where each is planted. If they're planted nearby, they cross pollinate and create bad peaches AND bad almonds. Very interesting.

We went from there to a class on "Wine and Food Pairing" and learned about the aforementioned effect of salt on wine. Apparently, that's one reason that restaurants add so much salt to food. It enhances the taste of the wine and makes you drink more and, hence, ORDER more. I wish I could tell you who our teacher was. After several, actually MANY, glasses of wine, I'm lucky I could recognize H. Our instructor was superb, as well as a liberal pourer of wine. She was one of the wine folks Copia has on staff and she works as a winemaker for several local wineries, while preparing to bring her own wine (Wild Sides Celler, I think she said) to fruition.

We tasted a 2006 Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc California and a 2004 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley after sampling various tastes: salt, salty potato chips, lemon, rosemary, dried cherries and chocolate. Basically, this is what we found, although she told us repeatedly that were no wrong answers and that it's a matter of personal preference:

Salt makes the sauvignon blanc taste less acidic and the cabernet less tannic. (That's a good thing, I think.) Lemons complement the cab and make the sauvignon taste sweeter. Fresh rosemary is dreadful with a cab. It gives a metallic aftertaste, almost as if the two are fighting each other. Dried cherries - great with the cabernet, bad with the sauvignon. Potato chips eaten while drinking either wine just makes you want more potato chips. And chocolate goes GREAT with Cabernet.

It was actually fascinating how different a wine could taste with different foods. I definitely want to try more tasting at home, when I can stagger around in private.

Lunch at Julia's Kitchen, was extraordinary...more about that later and then one more tour, this time of the garden, which was amazing. We were allowed to pick lots of fresh herbs off the plants to taste and smell and the plantings were beautiful and impressive. A visit to their well-stocked and imaginative shop capped off our visit.

If you ever find yourself in Napa, try to allow a day for visiting Copia. It's a fascinating, delicious and intoxicating place for food and wine lovers.


Anonymous said...

Sue, thank you for the very informative article. I love Copia!! The gardens are amazing. I had not idea about the peaches and the almonds or the diferent kinds of pit coming out of the same tree (you know what I mean). So much to learn! Thank you.

Sue said...


Thanks. I do feel so lucky to have been able to go there. And yes, it does make you feel that there's so much to learn...and drink...and eat...