Jim Fiolek is a genial man with longish hair in a braid who does a very amusing pidgin English impression. He is the vice president of Zaca Mesa Winery in California, and he is also something of a guru. He is a guru not so much among wine snobs -- though he certainly has standing in that community -- but in a traditional sense; that is, he is very smart about people. Or, in pidgin English: Jim Fiolek very wise man.
In October, Fiolek came to Scottsdale to conduct a component tasting of his vineyard's Z Cuvée; to sell a lot of serious wine drinkers on the virtues of Santa Barbara County; and, in a roundabout way, to minister to souls of a few dozen shaken, lonely Americans. The tasting, followed by dinner, took place at Arcadia Farms Cafe. It had been postponed from Thursday, September 13, because of the events of Tuesday, September 11 -- events that, a month later, hung behind conversation like the black fruit notes in a Zaca Syrah.
Zaca Mesa Winery was founded in 1972. Today, its vineyards occupy 249 acres of the 18,000 under grape cultivation in Santa Barbara County. The county, 90 miles from Los Angeles, is one of the coolest viticultural areas in California; nevertheless, it supports a wide range of microclimates and, consequently, a wide variety of grapes. Zaca Mesa specializes in Rhône-style wines, for which it has received nods from Wine Spectator and others. Its Z Cuvée is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, Syrah and Counoise varietals. It approximates a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
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About 40 people attended the Scottsdale component tasting, many of them members of the Taster's Guild, a wine appreciation society. A woman checked reservations at the door. Upon entering the restaurant, most people promptly stalled: shy, perhaps, but also bewildered by the profusion of crystal -- seven glasses at every seat -- that gave the place the nervous feel of a china shop.
"I've been watching you all come in," Fiolek said, after people had found their seats and after Ann Stephens, of A.J.'s Wine Cellar Scottsdale, the evening's gracious and knowledgeable hostess, had introduced him.
"You're like kindergartners on the first day of school. Relax!"
Some people smiled, uncertainly, then stared hard at their tablecloths.
The idea behind a component tasting is to try a wine's elements singly, then in combination -- to experience, say, the "strawberry" flavors of the Grenache and the "smoked meat" and "autumn campfire" notes of the Syrah and then to marvel that smoked meat and strawberries united in a Z Cuvée are not disgusting. (Or, alternately, to marvel at the obscure dialect of the professional wine writer.)
Fiolek and Stephens did one better, however, by equipping tasters with an empty glass and a long, graduated pipette -- which did not look like something one would encounter in kindergarten but was reminiscent of high school chemistry. After sampling each varietal, duly noting the blueberry flavors of one and the peppery spice of another, tasters were encouraged to create their own blend in the empty glass.
There were some blank stares. Fiolek explained the technique: Insert the tapered end of the pipette into a glass of wine, put the other end in your mouth -- and suck! But not too hard, lest the cotton wadding in the top of the pipette get soaked and come loose. The wadding was there, Fiolek said, to buy you some time: to allow you to remove the pipette from your mouth and seal the top with your thumb before the wine rushed out onto the tablecloth. Elementary physics, you know.
"Don't worry about re-creating the Z Cuvée," Fiolek said. "That's not the point. Add one wine to your glass, taste it, add another, and see how they interact to create something new. Then add another."
The tasters approached their task awkwardly at first, worried for their clothes and the white tablecloths and, not least, their dignity. But five minutes later, resigned to the fact that one cannot use an 18-inch pipette to suck wine out of small glasses without looking stupid, people relaxed, and the room filled with the ringing sounds of glass on glass, and of cheerful conversation. Fiolek watched, and smiled.
The conversation carried through dinner, and that, and a series of Zaca Mesa wines -- the Z Cuvée, a Z Gris Rosé, a Chardonnay, a Viognier and a Syrah -- made for a pleasant evening; compensated, even, for the lukewarm chicken. The highlight of the evening, for foodies and wine snobs alike, was dessert: cherry clafouti perfectly complemented by the vineyard's Black Bear Block Syrah. For a moment, conversation ebbed as diners savored the unusually good combination.
Nearly four hours after first taking their seats, the tasters shook hands and said how nice it was to have met one another; they departed smiling and fully satisfied. Stephens took orders for Zaca Mesa wines by the case.
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SHOW ME HOW
"The most important element of what I do is the human one," Fiolek said as the tables were cleared. "Think about it. Get a bunch of strangers together, put a bottle of wine between them, and an hour later they're talking and having a great time."
He continued: "As far as we've advanced, in some ways we've really gone backwards, too. We're cut off from each other. Everyone's looking for some way to ground themselves, a way to feel connected. It's not going to happen electronically."
Or in pidgin: An open bottle open minds, and hearts.