Do you realize that a sense of smell and taste can be impaired the same way hearing and eyesight can? That the nose is the primary organ at work when tasting something and that its power begins to diminish after a person reaches 10 years of age, which is why children are such picky eaters and why older people like bigger, more intense wines.Such are some of the fascinating tidbits imparted by world renown wine speaker and author Marnie Old, who is one of the featured guests at this year's Beaver Creek Wine & Spirits Festival, which kicks off Thursday. Sure, you aficionados probably know many of these simple truths already, but diving into another industry professional's perspective can be a great way to add a new angle onto your own.The 2012 program is designed for experts and casual sippers alike. And Old, who recently released her second book, "Wine Secrets," aims to keep everyone across the gamut fully engaged."I'm a communicator first," she said. "I'm known to put together presentations interesting for someone who knows nothing about wine as well as people who have been collectors for decades. I try to fill my presentations with unexpected messages. So often, we as wine people have a bad habit of getting too detailed. What's important to people is context: travel, dining, pairing. I always come at it from the big picture."A beautiful unionNaturally, sampling is the cornerstone of the Beaver Creek festival, which, for the first time in six years, is sponsored by Wine Spectator magazine. The weekend opens with a trade day geared toward those in the drinks business (restaurateurs, bartenders, sommeliers, etc.) and then unfurls its taste carpet to the public Thursday evening through Saturday with an array of luncheons, dinners, seminars and classes. The trial-by-taste education points range from Maximillian Riedel of Riedel Crystal pointing out how a glass itself can transform and magnify the essence of a wine to what the latest trends are in the spirits world. "First and foremost, I want people to walk away with a greater appreciation and understanding of wine," said Andy Schweiger of Schweiger Vineyards, which he describes as "one of the last truly family-owned wineries" in Napa Valley, its bottles only available at select boutique shops and by direct shipping. "I don't wine to be work. A lot of people make wine so serious," he said. "I want to share my passion for wine and how it's made and my enthusiasm for wine in general. Once you get me started, I really get going. I have friends that say 'You're to wine what Alton Brown is to cooking.'"Speaking of cooking, where this is wine there is also food, and both Schweiger, who will head up the Walk & Wine event and the Cooking Class, and Old, who will lead the Wine Seminar and Walk-Around Grand Tasting, will touch on how the two find beautiful unions with one another."You need to start with the baby steps - the whys and hows of how food and wine work together," Old said. "People think it's the main ingredient in a dish that you pair, but the protein can get you in trouble. What you need to look at is what kind of seasoning and sides are with it. How we cook something has a lot to do with it. We have a tendency to say chardonnay goes with chicken, cabernet with beef, but it's so misleading to think that way."Schweiger echoes this sentiment. And although he is a winemaker, he does not believe the wine should be the shining star of a meal. "The wine should never beat the food into submission," he said. "We as winemakers need to think about working together with our partner, the chef. And the last thing I want is to tell people what they should do with a wine. It's all personal. If you're in the mood for red wine but you want to eat fish, that's perfectly OK."And again, with fish - which is almost always paired with some variety of white wine - the spices and preparation are what give the most revealing clues to what drink might compliment the meal best."If you're going with sashimi, when food is raw, you go with the youngest styles, you want young and fresh wine," Old said. "In that case, you have no added fats or oils, so a young, unoaked, dry white wine would work nicely. For grilled salmon, I'd stay in the white realm, but one that has been aged in oak. The oak will echo, soften and recognize the smokiness. But the minute we introduce the sugar and spice from barbecue sauce, you need more oomph in the wine. I wouldn't want to go too heavy or tanic, because salmon still has a lower fat content then most other meats ... that would maybe take me to a new world pinot noir."Find flavors you enjoyWhile certain event audiences will have the opportunity to experience exquisite pairings, festival speakers want to break down the chemistry in much more user-friendly terms that people will be able to apply to their own home cooking and sipping. Fat content in food is a big indicator, for example, of what wine pairs well with a dish. "If you love red wine, you can amp up the flavor quotation in your grilling. You need to add fat - those things that feel rich in your mouth," Old said. "If you want to drink bigger reds with your fish and seafood, you want to add more animal fat to your cooking - butter, wrapping fish in bacon, even cheese is a way of adding fat to a dish."In spite of adhering to such guidelines, Old said the most important rules to follow with finding harmonies in food and drink are those presented by a person's own taste buds."I don't like to try to tell people 'this goes with that' because I don't know anyone's personal taste," Old said. "We're so insecure about our own taste and smell that we blindly follow advice. I like to empower people with recurring patterns that happen when wine and food go together, but really get them to the point where they can surf along with it and find flavors that they enjoy."
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