From left, clockwise: Corie Maue, Carmen Micheli, Sue Richter, Linda Kissam Debbie Wiens and Laura Plant

On August 28, 2010 , I quit drinking alcohol. This decision proved to be problematic as I am locally known as Mrs. WINEormous – wine writer, blogger and  avid taster. I knew I would be making some lifestyle changes but was determined to maintain my social and professional contacts.

Initially I stopped attending Tuesday afternoon wine tastings.  Then I turned down tasting events. The last to go was my beloved Women’s Wine Council, a monthly gathering of 6 writer friends who meet to taste and review wines, creating our own customized food pairings. It is a jovial group with lots of lively conversation, unbridled opinions and more often than not, brilliant insights.  Four months I spent, observing my friends from afar resigned to my fate as a staunch nephalist (abstainer from alcohol.)

I bemoaned my fate to Mr. WINEormous – why  do I have to choose between my health and my wine? Then I got new A1c blood test results that monitor my diabetes. For the first time in more than twenty years I was re-diagnosed as a CONTROLLED diabetic. My thrill to receive this news overcame any desire to drink. I sailed through the holidays,concocting festive mock-tails and still pairing food and making wine recommendations for all.

I kept my faith that I could and would return to wine and food writing once again.  Sure enough. I received an email invitation from Linda Kissam, wine council leader, inviting me to return, this time to bring a non-alcoholic beverage and food pairing to bridge a selection of Smoking Loon wines.  I was ecstatic.

First I surveyed the selected wines. Smoking Loon is an offering from Don Sebastiani & Sons. The Women’s Wine Council (WWC) were to taste five of these reasonably priced (under $10) wines – 2008 Chardonnay, 2009 Pinot Noir, 2009 Merlot, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel.  Since it was January, I decided to contribute a hot spiced cranberry cider, using traditional wine mulling spices.

My food pairing, selected to “bridge” the wines and cider, was a spicy hominy, green chile and cheese casserole created by a Southern Facebook friend. I eagerly entered the tasting determined to make intelligent and insightful contributions as a nephalist.  I do not think this would have been successful if I had never tasted wines before.  This time I relied solely on color and smell of the wines, taking a glass with a small pour – observing, swirling and aggressively sniffing each wine.  Then I took a bite of the selected food pairing – sniffing, chewing, letting it linger in my mouth as I inhaled the wine aroma once again, then swallowing.  I reluctantly, but cheerfully passed my glass on to a neighbor as I worked my way through the five wines.

The Chardonnay was delightful to smell with both tropical and citrus nuances.  I judged it to be crisp and very food friendly.  It paired nicely with my Hominy Casserole, as well as mushroom risotto. The Pinot Noir was described as being fruit-driven with spicy notes. My sniff test detected an intriguing complexity.  I tried some sage cheese, wine-cured olives and dried fruit, finishing off with a piece of homemade fudge – all very friendly to my olfactory senses and my companions’ taste buds. A fruity, yet herbal scented Merlot led me on to pieces of meatloaf, more cheeses and fig jam and crackers.  The tasters also gave a nod to these pairings.

I was on a roll with my fine-tuned “sniffology.”  Next came the earthy dark fruit of the Cabernet Sauvignon.  Savoring the rich aromas I stuck my nose deep into the wine glass, paused, and bit into an apricot sage shortbread cookie. Ah, nirvana.  This was the unique combination I had been seeking.  Now I was full-on smelling, tasting, snorting, nibbling, sniffing, savoring everything in sight.

Verging on sensory overload I approached the final wine, a 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel. Now back in the day a good California Zin was one of my go-to favorites. I eagerly breathed in the familiar aromas of rich raspberry with a hint of cinnamon and cloves. I could picture the gnarley, twisted old vines with their earthiness and pungent leathery smells. I could mentally taste this wine and knew it would be my favorite paired with anything on the table but ideally embracing the rich sinful fudge – 3 kinds of fudge – plain, with nuts and with dried fruit.

I would love to stop here and say all agreed with my pairing choices and I reigned triumphant but alas there was one thing that tasting had over smelling – the finish.  All tasters agreed that the initial sip held all the promise I perceived  but the finish on the palate didn’t deliver.

What did I learn from this experience? I still love to share the friendships surrounding wine and all of its nuances. I still love to prepare  and enjoy food that has been created to complement wine. I think I was a better listener at this tasting, relying and considering the opinions of everyone before making snap judgements of my own.I believe I was able to participate, make a contribution and most of all enjoy the experience. Thank you Women’s Wine Council for encouraging me to remain Mrs. WINEormous Thanks to Corie Maue for the photos.