I’m told that in years past — long before I was born, so you know it was a long time ago — the People’s Press used to have a building out on the Steele County Fairgrounds where the reporters and editor would do their work. And, it’s said, that others from the community would hang around the Press’ building — a very small building that people would crowd into — because the reporters and editor, keeping alive the stereotype about journalists, would keep bottles of spirits, shall we say, in the building.
Alas, it is no more. But that’s not to say I haven’t had a drink or two at the fair, including a taste this week even before the fair officially began.
Bear with me on this one.
My coverage of the fair from a personal standpoint started back in 2010 with an invitation to be a “celebrity” judge for the Culinary Arts Department’s Sensational Salsa competition.
I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I had attended the fair with enthusiasm every year since moving to Owatonna in 2004 and had enjoyed every minute of it. After all, the Steele County Free Fair had introduced me to the epicurean delights of cheese curds.
Let me say from the outset that I still haven’t figured out how I was deemed a “celebrity” or how I was picked to judge salsa since, despite my years of ballroom dancing, I never learned that step. Then I found out that the salsa was the type you eat with tortilla chips, not the dance you do on the dance floor. And I’m sure the only reason I was picked as a celebrity judge was because all the real celebrities in town were otherwise occupied.
I must not have done well in either the celebrity or judging departments of that endeavor because I was never asked back and the people who had originally invited me to be a judge have avoided eye contact with me ever since.
But flash forward nine years. Finally, I was invited back to be a judge and not of salsa, nachos or anything from south of the border. I was invited to be a judge of the homemade wines.
I suppose I shouldn’t reveal that I was a judge of the wines. I was told back in 2010 that the fair usually keeps the names of the judges secret. And why? Basically so no one can come after the judges if they don’t like the judgment.
And let me say at this point that I am hardly a sommelier — the fancy French term for a wine expert. But I do know what I like and what I don’t like when it comes to wine.
As an aside, I would note that sommeliers were originally responsible for tasting wine of the royals and nobles to make certain no one was serving royalty poisoned wine. I’m happy to report that that is no longer a part of the job description of a sommelier and even happier to report that none of the wines I tasted Tuesday afternoon were poisoned.
But I digress.
Over the years, as my liver can testify, I have developed a preference for dry red wines, especially Cabernets. Give me a bottle of that, perhaps with an aromatic cheese and you can sell my clothes because I’m going to heaven. Give me a second bottle of it and you can skip the cheese. Open a third bottle and I’m likely to forget my own name.
What I knew, but had never really experienced until Tuesday afternoon was the wide variety of things you can make wine out of. Not all wines, you know, are made from grapes. More about that in a minute.
The process of tasting and judging wine is an interesting one. You’re given two glasses — one for white wines and one for reds — plus a third glass with water in it to help cleanse your palate as well as a receptacle to spit in. And it’s not spitting for spitting’s sake. The idea is that you get the wine in your mouth, swish it around a bit to get the taste and then spit it out so you don’t get tipsy.
And believe me, if I would’ve drunk the glasses of wine that were poured for me — all 13 of them — I would’ve had trouble finding my car, let alone driving back to the office and turning on my computer. So, despite my predilection for drinking the wine — another thing my liver can confirm — I spit it out.
We started with the white wines, all but one of which were sweet. And this is where I got to taste wine made of things other than grapes. There was an apple wine, one made of cherry and rhubarb, another made of mango and strawberry, a dandelion wine (the dry white wine in the group), a maple syrup wine (which I am going to secure a bottle of for my next pancake breakfast), a wine made of beets, and, yes, an onion wine.
Some were definitely better than others, though I’m not going to reveal which my palate (and that pesky liver of mine) preferred. Nor will I reveal which one captured the blue ribbon, mainly because I don’t know. (You can find out by going upstairs of the Four Seasons Centre where the wines will be on display.)
In the meantime, you, too, can be a sommelier in training. Repeat after me: Sip, swish, spit, repeat.