Eight Flavors of American Wine? Reflections on Sarah Lohman’s New Book

51svceuoerl-_ac_us160_Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Sue and I have been reading Eight Flavors, a fascinating new book by Sarah Lohman about food products that have transformed the American palate. Once exotic, now they are ubiquitous. Can’t imagine American cuisine without them.

This Changes Everything?

Lohman passes on coffee, chocolate and a few other “usual suspects,” she says, because they have been examined in great depth by other authors. Fair enough. So what are her eight flavors?  They are: Black Pepper, Vanilla (which replaced rose water as a flavoring), Chili Powder, Curry Powder, Soy Sauce, Garlic, MSG (the umami flavor), and the most recent addition, Sriracha

Each chapter presents the history of the flavor along with elements of Lohman’s  personal investigation and a handful of recipes, too. In its approach and deft writing syle Eight Flavors reminds me of another of my favorite food books, Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. rogue_sriracha_stout__32156-1423592442-451-416High praise!

The story of Sriracha is particularly interesting to me because I have watched as this product and its intense flavor have moved from “ethnic” to mainstream right before my eyes. Once upon a time I found Sriracha mainly at Vietnamese restaurants, but now it is everywhere: in ketchup, potato chips and popcorn, jerky, candy canes, lip balm, cans of baked beans, a special Big Mac sauce, and even craft beer (the Rogue brewery makes a Sriracha hot stout beer). Amazing.

Readers are treated to a personal tour of the huge California factory where Sriracha is made, which is also amazing. What’s the next big flavor? There are several possibilities, but Lohman thinks that pumpkin spice might become flavor number nine.

I haven’t seen Sriracha wine yet, but I suppose it is only a matter of time.There is a version of Sriracha from Colorado that is flavored with Ravenswood Zinfandel! Searching the web I discovered someone who added Sriracha to a glass of red wine (not a total success) and an innovative wine-Sriracha pairing event (looks like it sold out).

What About Wine?

Eight Flavors got me thinking (which usually means trouble) about wine. Are there eight flavors that have entered the world of wine and transformed it the way that chili powder and soy sauce have changed food in America? Not particular wines or wine brands (although it is difficult not to think that way), but flavors associated with the wines?

Here are a few half-baked ideas that I have come up with to get things started. I invite you to comment on my choices and to suggest wine flavors of  your own.

Lemonade. This flavor is suggested by the great success of Gallo’s Thunderbird wine in the 1950s. Thunderbird took flight when a Gallo salesman noticed customers adding lemon drink mix to white port, giving it a fruit flavor that appealed to the American palate of that generation and was so successful that it provided a solid financial foundation for Gallo’s growth. Although Thunderbird fell out of fashion in most areas, the market for fruit-flavored wines has hung around in various forms (Google “fruit-flavored wines” and you will see what I mean). You might think of the many Sangria-style wines as falling into this category, too. Authentic Sangria shows that fruit flavoring done right can be delicious indeed.

Red Coke.  Cola drinks are typically sweet, with balancing acidity, a nice fizz, and served ice cold. Riunite Lambrusco was developed to be “red coke” for the American market — sweetish, fizzy, low in alcohol. It was for many years the best-selling imported wine in America. Riunite on ice, that’s nice — or at least that’s what millions of consumers said. If you are of a certain age you might remember Cold Duck wine, which is still produced under the André California Champagne label. (Canadian readers might recall “Baby Duck” wine.) This cold, soft flavor, or something like it, can be found in a  host of “chill-able” red wines today.

Butterscotch. I am sure you have already guessed that I am talking about a particular style of Chardonnay that partly fueled the Chard boom, then fell out of favor, and is now experiencing a renaissance in some circles. Buttery, slightly sweetish with lashings of oak, this was the taste of the 80s and 90s. That flavor transformed wine more than you might think. It helped introduce Americans to inexpensive Australian wines, for example, and it created a revolution in American vineyards. Fifty years ago there were only a few hundred acres of Chardonnay vines is all of California. Now it is probably the most-planted white wine grape and Chardonnay outsells all other varietal wines, red or white (although Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up).412bv6vgcoxl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Silver fizz. After reading science editor turned wine writer Jamie Goode’s new book I Taste Red  I have come to understand that taste is complicated — it is hard to separate color, texture, aroma and flavor. They are all mixed together and it is probably impossible (or at least counter-productive) to deconstruct them the way that wine tasting notes often do. With this mind, I want to propose “silver fizz” as a flavor — the flavor of Prosecco and wines like it, which are sweeping through the wine world today much as Siracha has done over in food world. Is the secret the way that Prosecco (or Cava? or Champagne?) tastes, or how it makes you feel? And does it even matter which it is?

Vino Exceptionalism?

Four flavors — it is a start. Somehow I don’t feel like I have captured that transformative dynamic as well as Lohman did with her food flavors. Is it because my choices are poor? In that case, I would appreciate your critique and suggestions.

Or is it because wine is different? Is wine somehow more rooted in traditional methods and flavors and less able to accept or be changed by outside influences? If so, is that a good thing?

See, I told you there would be trouble. Instead of answers I seem to have questions. Typical!

8 responses

  1. I am surprised that she missed White Pepper. One year at ZAP, I was pouring two identical zins, except one was aged in American Oak and the other in French Oak. When I asked what people noticed, the men more or less shrugged. The women however picked out the white pepper in the French Oak.
    Not sure that I like your lemonade or red Coke. Both of these bring us back to the days of the sweet California wines that turned off (until recently), buyers of Rose’s and Grenache. Let’s keep the fruity names out of wine…IMHO.
    Thanks for bringing the book to my attention.
    By the way, on my recent trip to the West Coast, friend and winemaker George Hendry told me to get Napa Wine; A History by Charles L. Sullivan. It is the most comprehensive tome I have ever read on the history of California Wine. The Second Edition, 2008, updates the original 1994, and is available both in hardcover and as a Kindle Edition. I bought both for travel purposes. It is as advertised.

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      “Back” to the days of sweet California wines? The top-selling California wines TODAY are fairly sweet red blends and Chardonnays. Wine snobs and journalists can talk all they want about the consumer’s supposed preference for dry wines, but the numbers don’t lie — sweet wines, be they labeled as such or not, remain the most popular. “Americans talk dry but drink sweet.”

      • not sure of your definition of sweet. I am talking about the old Grenache Rose and Thunderbird, etc. “Fairly sweet’ does not fall into this classification. Neither does a semi-dry or dry Riesling.
        Note the uptick in Rose sales which are not dry or sweet and as the fastest growing secgment of wine sales those might be what you are talking about.
        Also note that I am not a wine snob, I hate ratings, people buy based on high price etc.
        I am about to start updating my blogs from my 3-1/2 week to Cal/OR/WA and would have already but have been laid up with a bad cold. Hope you check out my blog.

  2. Mike: You’re on the verge of the next flavor – Stella Rosa flavored frizzange wines from Italy with 6% alcohol. It’s an Impact “Hot Brand” and is the #1 selling wine in Southern California, outselling KJ Vintner’s Reserve and Barefoot. It started as a Brachetto d’Asti- based wine and has expanded dramatically since then. It’s been described (by yours truly) as the second coming of White Zinfandel. The secret to its success? It appeals to a non-wine drinking demographic!!

  3. Hey Mike! I think you can almost combine all the foods she wrote about into one larger category: big flavors. Most wine drinkers are the same, they want big and bold and subconsciously want it just a little sweet (and sugar makes wine have more viscosity, therefore it ‘feels’ bigger in the mouth). They tend to favor whites that are closer to a vanilla milkshake and reds that are like a berry pie or chocolate cake. Case in point: Butter Chardonnay, Jam Red and, yes, wait for it, Toast sparkling.
    Although you do see more citrus acidity in the more refreshing whites, but it’s hard enough to get people to remember a wine they liked, let alone a varietal that isn’t one of the obvious 5 or 6 that most people can remember.

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