Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My First Time with Brett

I was on a date with Paul. He took me to Restaurant Z in Los Altos (now closed) for a wine tasting dinner. If I could remember the date I would include it, but a search through a memory book didn't turn up the menu or any notes. I bet I could find it if I really tried, but it's not that critical to the story - suffice it to say, it was a few years ago.

For reasons I can't explain but that you might be able to relate to, I was dreading this dinner. We would be sitting at tables with people we didn't know, listening to an "expert" tell us about the wines, and with any luck, the chef would have made proper pairings to go with them.

The theme was Rhones, something Paul was and is still very passionate about. I too loved them, but didn't know a thing about them or even what to expect. What I was looking forward to was having an expert on hand so that I could ask questions.

We arrived early, had a sip of champagne in the bar downstairs before being sent up for our seating with the others. The one thing I remember vividly from this restaurant, was the artwork. In rainbow colors, there were images of nude women in poses that mimic the alphabet. Watercolors I think...

I don't remember the food, I don't remember the wines, I remember the Brett. Except I didn't know that's what it was for certain and I had a question for the host, our expert. I had sampled and experienced a handful of Rhones before that Paul had brought home and I was familiar with horse sweat, saddle leather, barnyard, corral as being aromas that I thought were typical of all French wines. In my naivete I thought this was the definition of terroir...after all, these are kind of earthy, natural smells from the countryside. Right?

So there we are at dinner, the wines are flowing and the host is telling us about each one. Only this time I'm smelling something new, something unique I had not previously noticed. It was like the antiseptic plastic-ey smell of bandaids when we were kids (think 1970's), and very pronounced. I thought, this is new, this is different. And I raised my hand, I had a question.

I said, what is this smell? This odor, this something I can't determine beyond it being like a bandaid, from my childhood? ! Can you tell me more about this? I wanted to know, I was an inquiring mind.

He barked at me. He back hand waved at me as if to shoo me aside like a bug. His response was simple. "If you don't like it, don't drink it". No shit.

I never said I didn't like it. I wanted to know what it was, where it came from, if other wines had it too, why was it pervasive in some more than others? What more could he, the expert, tell me? He told me to piss off, basically. I was aghast and a little more than insulted at $85/person.

Fast forward to now and I can assure you I know exactly what that smell is. Brettanomyces, or Brett for short. Neither of us had read or heard about it being referenced as "band-aidy" before that dinner - it was very pronounced in the wine so I have to assume that there was a large amount of it present in the wine.

I could launch into a long diatribe about Brett, but instead I'll outline it fairly quickly so you have the gist of what it is. It's a yeast cell. Which is good right? You want yeast in a winery, right? Sure, but not this creature. This yeast is angular, and because of that, it catches in corners and edges of barrels. Once it's inside your winery and cellar, it's nearly impossible to inoculate and remove.

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