This week on the “VinePair Podcast” — in Adam Teeter’s absence — Zach Geballe and Joanna Sciarrino take over hosting duties to discuss how imbibers can get out of their drinks comfort zones. After listing what they have been drinking recently — including Calvados and Syrah — our hosts dive into a discussion about what prohibits people from exploring the unfamiliar in the drinks world.
Geballe and Sciarrino discuss how the food and drinks worlds differ in terms of adventurousness, and why so many consumers stick to the same few beverages every time they drink. Our hosts then discuss which beverages they plan to try ahead of next week’s podcast in order to get out of their own drinks comfort zones.
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Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is the “VinePair Podcast.”
Z: Joanna, it’s just you and me running the show today.
J: Just us.
Z: Adam is off doing business stuff who knows where. I mean, we know where, but he’s got meetings and we got the show. Let’s start with this. What have you had to drink that you’ve been excited by or at least interested in?
J: My in-laws actually visited this past weekend from Toronto, after not seeing them for 16 months, so that was very nice, very joyous. We went to a bunch of our local spots to show them around. We revisited Brandy Library, which I have mentioned here before, and I did a Calvados tasting there, which was really cool. I don’t know much about brandy to begin with, but I wanted to check it out. I’ve also been watching a lot of period dramas in England, and they drink a lot of brandy.
Z: Yes, large snifters are full by the fireplaces.
J: It looks so great so I did that and that was really great.
Z: Yeah, so I am actually curious about your thoughts on this. There are these categories in beverage alcohol for me where I bet I could end up really far down a rabbit hole here, but I’ve never been to Normandy, in northwestern France where Calvados is made. I haven’t had that firsthand experience of seeing and tasting it. Now, I’ve tried some Calvados. I like it, but I know that there’s potential. For me, other things that fall into that category are like sake, for sure. I enjoy it but I will freely admit that my knowledge of it is pretty cursory, even though I know there’s an incredible amount of it. Then the other one, which is non-alcoholic, which Adam has given me shit for in the past, is tea. I also find it to be deeply fascinating but again, I only have so much time and brain space for it. Are there things like that for you? Something you could get into, but for whatever reason, either it’s intimidating or you just don’t have the time.
J: Honestly, wine.
Z: OK, fair.
J: Don’t judge me but that is one category where it seems completely endless.
Z: That is true.
J: I can scratch the surface, but there’s just so much to learn about and to know. I would say wine for sure and those other ones as well. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in sake or even tea — or brandy, clearly. I think any specific category, even just spirits in general, there’s so much to know.
Z: Yes, for sure. Well, I think Calvados is very much rooted in a place. Some of the spirits, like whiskey, are obviously in a much larger category. There are many different styles, many different places and you can make whiskey anywhere. You can make an apple or pear brandy, I suppose, anywhere that you grow apples or pears, but Calvados is really tied to a specific place. To me, it feels more self-contained. You don’t have to learn about the 50 different countries that make Calvados. If you want to know about it, you don’t really have to dive into different types of apple trees, age requirements, etc. Yet, I don’t doubt that it’s super interesting. In a different life, maybe that’s a thing that I’m even more passionate about, but I also look at it as let’s just not because I’m not going to go down that particular rabbit hole. I’m sure it is delicious and no shade to those who make and enjoy Calvados but it’s also a very small part of the drinks world. So, there are things I’d rather be an expert on, or at least more knowledgeable about.
J: Yeah, for sure. What about you, Zach? What have you been drinking?
Z: I have to tell a little bit of a story, I apologize. I really do feel like I’m turning into Adam in this episode, but it’s all right.
J: Someone has to take his place.
Z: I guess so. Well, this last weekend I had a get-together at my dad’s house that we’ve held every other year, but obviously we didn’t do it last year because of the pandemic, and so we pushed it back to this year. The genesis of it is a trip I took with my dad to Walla Walla about seven years ago now. While we were there, we were having dinner at a restaurant in Walla Walla. Walla Walla is a relatively small town, and you run into a lot of wine people there because a lot of the industry is there. My dad and I were having dinner, and at the table next to us was a winemaker who I know a little bit, and he had a guest with him. I said hi, and then I noticed that the guest had brought a shipping box for one bottle of wine. He pulled this bottle of wine out of the container and everything. I thought this was interesting because this person brought this wine from somewhere else to have dinner with the winemaker, so it’s probably a special bottle of wine. I am keeping an eye on it and I don’t recognize the label or anything. It’s a French wine, but that’s about all I can tell because I’m trying not to be in their business. Eventually, I went over to talk a little more and I asked, “Hey, what is this wine you brought?” The guy who is joining the winemaker I knew said, “Oh, well this is a wine I make in Languedoc.” The other winemaker makes a lot of Syrah, and he wanted him to try his Syrah. I thought that was very cool. He asked, “Do you wanna try it?” I said, “Sure, do you mind if I grab a little bit for my dad, too?” So he poured us a little bit of the wine and we took it over and I didn’t know anything about it. I had never seen the label before and my dad and I were both very struck by the wine. We really enjoyed it — I think my dad did a little more so than me, but that’s cool. My dad became mildly obsessed with this wine, which is very hard to find in the U.S., which explains why the winemaker shipped it from France, I guess, but from somewhere not in Washington for sure. Eventually, about a year and a half later, my dad was in that part of France and decided to go buy some of the wine and bring it back with him. He did, and bought four bottles. At this dinner, it was the third of four but these dinners center nominally around this wine. Inevitably, other wine comes along with it, too. Everyone brings some wine, and it’s a very festive dinner. It was really cool because in this example, we had three different French Syrahs. We had this wine called Clos des Truffiers from Languedoc. We had wine from Hermitage, which is one of the preeminent appellations in the northern Rhône. Then, a wine from Hervé Souhaut, which would fall into this natural wine heading, but not particularly funky, just brighter and fresher. Also, not aimed at decades of aging, although this one was a 2015 and still quite lively, so I’m sure it would age quite well. It was really cool. I love Syrah. It’s one of my favorite varieties, and it’s always fun to see it in three different expressions from three different parts of France. Since the pandemic, I haven’t had this gathering of a bunch of people, some family and some friends who are really into wine that was really wine-centric. We’ve had other gatherings such as birthday parties, but nothing quite like this. It was a lovely afternoon and evening. Fortunately, I didn’t have to drive myself anywhere, so it was even better.
J: Do you have a specific meal for these dinners?
Z: It depends, we’ve done different things in the past. This year, the centerpiece was actually some brisket that my dad, along with my cousin, who’s an accomplished author of some books about cooking meat — brisket and otherwise — they worked on it together, which is cool because they got up at 3 in the morning to switch something in the process. I just showed up and ate it, and it was delicious. Very, very good. Brisket plays nice with a lot of things, including Syrah.
J: That sounds so nice.
Z: It was indeed. All right, so let’s talk a little bit about our topic for today. You and I were talking a little bit about how this thing has affected us and will continue to affect us. I’m talking specifically in this drink space, of course. It is this idea that I think a lot of people during the pandemic, specifically as relates to their drinking, were — by dint of being mostly stuck at home and not afforded some of their usual options — had to take themselves out of their own comfort zone. We think about this a lot with people who really experimented for the first time with making drinks at home. Sometimes it was about exploring things in the world of beer, wine, or spirits that they were unfamiliar with. I think it’s fair to say that both you and I see going out of one’s comfort zone as a good thing, generally. I wanted to start with this question of how do you personally push yourself out of your drinks comfort zone? I mean, do you? And how do you do that?
J: Yeah, sure. To share first, there are certain things that I order or prefer or drinks that I know that I like. I guess that can be considered my comfort zone. However, I’m never reluctant to really get outside of that or to order outside of that. For me, it’s really about trying things that I’ve never had before, and I always have a willingness to do that, I suppose. It doesn’t feel like I’m ripping myself out of my comfort zone to try new things, but I would say that’s essentially how I do it. Yet, there’s a caveat there. There are some things that I know I don’t care for or don’t love so much. An example of this would be IPAs (don’t @ me), bitter or hop-forward beers that I know I don’t love, but I’ve been trying to have more of those recently to find ones that I do like. I do like hazy IPAs. I know they’re not quite the same, but I like them more. It is also to better understand your culture and something that’s happening in beer culture right now in this hype around the specific thing. Part of it is trying things that I’ve never had before and just discovering what I like and what I don’t like. The other thing is maybe revisiting things that I haven’t had great experiences with in the past to see if something hasn’t changed.
Z: I think you really hit on something that’s important for me in this conversation, which is there is a fundamental difference between something you’ve tried and didn’t enjoy. You have tried different IPAs and they just don’t work for you. The flavor profile isn’t what you’re looking for. That’s one thing, but I think there’s this other part of the comfort zone or getting out of one’s comfort zone, which almost speaks to who you are in the world, who you are as a person. When something is unfamiliar, does someone view that skeptically as something that could be bad, or excitedly as something that is likely good? I suspect that you and I both generally have that disposition. I don’t know if that’s a thing that in your life first expressed itself in other categories. For me, I was always a really adventurous eater as a child, which translated into being an adventurous drinker, for better or worse, as an adult. I know we have listeners out there who feel overwhelmed by the idea of all the choices that are out there. I do think it’s an attitudinal position — whether you look at an unfamiliar wine, beer, spirit, or cocktail as something interesting that you can, at a minimum, can learn from, or likely something scary. Again, this is not meant to be judgmental. I think you and I have our own dispositions and opinions about this, but I think it’s totally reasonable to look at a lot of what’s out there with some skepticism because sadly, there are a lot of not-great products that exist. Sometimes you can get disappointed. If you don’t know how to either steer yourself away from those or deal with it if you get something disappointing, that’s one piece. Now, I think part of what prompted this conversation was that I like to try things out at home. I like to play around with cocktails. We’ve talked a couple of times in recent episodes about my Paper Plane riffing, which is just riffing on a riff because a Paper Plane is really just a Last Word riff. To me, I’m OK with making something and knowing it is not very good. I may or may not drink it, depending on how I feel but I think this is something that I want to communicate and then I want to get your thoughts. I built cocktail programs before and cocktail lists, and when you’re designing a new cocktail, you go through dozens of iterations before you get it right. Sometimes you nail it on the first couple of tries because you have a sense of what’s going to work. If you’re trying to do something that really doesn’t have the established framework, of course, you’ve got to figure out proportions. One of the cool and scary things about cocktails — and is also true in blending wine — is it is not always a simple linear thing. You think that adding a tiny bit more of one ingredient will just nudge the cocktail and sometimes it does, and sometimes it sends it spiraling out of control. That is the fun of it. When you’re doing this professionally at a bar, you usually have the budget for the stuff that goes down the drain. I don’t know, I am rambling. I apologize, Joanna, but I want your thoughts.
J: Actually, after you told us about riffing on the Paper Plane and what you were trying and what you were hoping to do, I really racked my brain trying to come up with other suggestions for you after you mentioned blue Curaçao, and I couldn’t. I wanted to sit down and actually try things to see what would work with the tequila, Cynar, and orange liqueur. I was just so inspired by what you were doing, and it made me really want to do it myself.
Z: Yeah, and one of the things that I would say in general is that it’s not hard. I mean, in the sense that some of my comfort with this is having been a bartender. For me, through years of doing the job, I have a decent sense of what most of the ingredients in my home bar taste like. If you cook at home, there’s nothing wrong with strictly following recipes, but learning to improvise in the kitchen and behind the bar are useful skills. If you don’t learn how to go off the beaten path a little bit, then normally, you can’t create. You can replicate, which is super cool. Some dishes and cocktails have to be exactly right to taste good, as I said before. However, it comes back to this whole thing of being familiar or comfortable with the unfamiliar and willing to take those risks. Maybe it’s a dispositional thing, but I think it’s also a little bit of a learned practice thing. I encourage people, when they ask me about making cocktails at home, to start with the ingredient they like most. If it’s rye whiskey, reposado tequila, or gin, start with familiar things. All of those have their classic pairing partners, which are really straightforward. Then, if your rye whiskey really likes other bitter liqueurs, think about exploring a whole realm of them that go from the various amari to vermouth to the actual bitters, themselves. You should find yourself in this section of your home bar — if yours is as expansive as mine — or even if it’s a small home bar, you’re going to have few ingredients to play around with. The other thing to think about is it’s totally cool to steal from the bars around you. I mean, not literally steal things, but ideas. I always would ask people I worked with or knew who were more skilled than me, “What do you think would go with this?” I’m not saying walk into a busy cocktail bar on a Saturday night and try to pigeonhole the bartenders, but if you’re there on a Tuesday night and it’s slow, ask: “I really like reposado tequila but I don’t want a Margarita or a Paloma. I want something a little different.” Again, this comes back to this engaging, exploration, and discovery piece. Ask them to make you something, but also ask them to talk you through their logic because a good bartender should be able to give you some idea why they’re doing what they’re doing.
J: I think we both have, as you mentioned, this disposition to explore and try new things. I think there’s skepticism about the unknown, but there’s also an unwillingness to try things. When I think of people like my parents who order the same thing no matter where we are, or the conversation we had in a different episode about people going back to the bar and ordering a specialty cocktail versus ordering something that they already know. I think of my parents in those moments, too, where that’s not the case for them. It’s funny because I grew up trying everything. It was always with food, of course, very adventurous in trying whatever. It’s certainly translated to drinks for me. Yet, I think there is this unwillingness or just, you know what you like so why try something else?
Z: Yeah but that’s interesting to me because I think with food, that mindset makes sense because most of us are exposed to some diversity of foods as a child, whether it’s our parents making things, or in restaurants, or takeout. At some point in our lives, we’re probably having dinner at other people’s houses and we are probably trying some other new things. I’m sure there are people who go through their lives trying very few different foods until they are adults, but most of us have some exposure and increasingly more to a range of cuisines and ingredients. Yet, drinking is weird in this country, right? I don’t know if your parents introduced you to drinking. My parents did a little bit, but a lot of my exploration of drinking came after I was out on my own. At the time, my parents were predictable-ish drinkers. To some extent, they still are. My mother in particular, but also my dad in a lot of ways. For me, I’m fascinated by all these different things — food, drink, etc. — so it’s totally natural for me to want to explore. The things I liked at 23 are different from the things I like now, and that seems natural. At the same time, there’s no cultural pressure — or there’s some and it’s increasing — but there isn’t a longstanding cultural pressure to be a diverse, well-rounded drinker.
J: Yeah, I hadn’t really considered that. I think that’s a really good point. I was having this conversation with a few of our colleagues about this idea that if you ask winemakers what beer they like, they’re always going to say Miller High Life or some straightforward macro beer because it’s the most refreshing or it’s the least fussy. I think that’s really interesting thinking of winemakers having these exquisite palates, and then they just like this very standard beer. That’s really interesting because, as you said, there is probably no pressure to have an extensive drinks palate or range of drinks experience.
Z: This is something I talk about with my wife sometimes. Do you remember the first time you tried sushi?
Z: When was that?
J: I was a very young person, and we got sushi from a local grocery store. I think I was 10 or so.
Z: I was definitely older since I had it in high school. Most people — especially a lot of the country — are encountering something like sushi relatively young. My son who is 3 has had sushi since he was one. Unfortunately for us, it’s his favorite food. I mean, we love it. It’s just not cheap to feed a 3-year-old endless amount of salmon sashimi that he seems to want. When my parents first tried sushi, I don’t think either of them really ate it. I mean, certainly not a lot of raw fish. My dad’s more adventurous than my mom, but whatever. That’s not really the point here. The point is I think you could go to a lot of people of our generation and get a rundown of people who tried classic cocktails. Who has tried the Sazerac? Who has tried Clover Club? Who’s tried Chenin Blanc? Pick your thing. Some people may have had all those things, and some people may have had none of those things, but I think we put a lot of cultural value these days — most of us — on being a well-rounded, adventurous eater who’s tried lots of different things. There are dishes and cuisines discussed without any explanation that leaves me confused. I don’t know that thing at all. I have to look it up, which is fine because that’s how one learns. With drinks, people feel totally comfortable being asked, what do you drink? They would say they just drink rosé, Aperol Spritzes, Martinis, or whatever the thing is. It comes back to this whole topic that I think we’ve been trying to define in our own minds: How do you become a more well-rounded drinker? And is that actually a thing worth doing?
J: Is there value in that?
Z: Certainly, a drinks podcast and publication would say “Yes, please read more of our content, listen to more of our podcasts about all these topics.” But it is also true that many people just find the thing they like and stick with it. Again, I think this explains a lot of why hard seltzer has been such a big hit. It’s a thing you can drink in almost any setting now.
J: To your point about food and how it seems like with every generation — your family, in particular — is better-rounded. Your son is eating sushi already. I wonder if the same thing will happen with drinks. Will younger generations have more exposure to and find more value in being well-rounded drinkers, or will it just be hard seltzer and other things like that?
Z: Yeah, that’s a fascinating question. I’m curious to know what our Gen Z listeners think. Again, I even think about my cohort because I am 37. I was out on the right edge of the bell curve for adventurousness with food among my friends. Obviously, I’m a professional, so my drinks experience is pretty broad compared to most people that I know who are outside of the industry. However, I do think we are seeing this value of a breadth of experience expand into the drinks world. If not expertise, then at least some familiarity with all these things. Of course, acquiring that kind of familiarity is complex and complicated. You have to know where to go or be raised in a family that values that thing. This is true with food in a lot of ways. We don’t have a lot of control over who our parents are and what they feed us when we’re young.
J: Access, too, right?
Z: Yeah, and that’s a huge piece of this, too. Drinking is not cheap for the most part. Certainly, the things we’re talking about definitely can be expensive or difficult to access, even if they’re not crazy expensive. When we did this episode, we started by talking about how there are these categories and talking about what we’ve been drinking lately that we haven’t dived that far into. I want to leave it here with this. In the interest of becoming even more well-rounded drinkers, what do you resolve to drink in the next week that we can talk about that’ll push you outside your comfort zone a little bit?
J: Oh, wow. I want to think about this.
Z: This is on the spot. We did not rehearse this.
J: Well, I want to try your riff on a Paper Plane, but I want to make a Daiquiri at home. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered one out at a bar and certainly have not made one at home. I will definitely do that next week. I don’t know if it’s as adventurous.
Z: You are at least expanding the experience.
J: Yeah, what about you?
Z: Well, I was thinking about this when you were talking about not caring much for IPAs. I also found some of the hazy IPAs to be a little more approachable. In Seattle, the West Coast IPA is really still a strong trend. I thought, I need to just go get a very classic, bitter without a lot of softening from additional hops, IPA. This is what I started out drinking a lot of when I was drinking beer, and then I really moved away from it. I need to come back and revisit because I’ve just avoided them because I don’t think I care much for them. Like everything, it’s good to revisit some things from time to time and touch in on our own sense of tastes and how they might have adjusted. Now that I’m a 37-year-old father of almost two, maybe I really do like classic West Coast IPA. I don’t know, but I will report back next week. Joanna, thank you. This was fun. This may be a little more of a subdued podcast without Adam. You all can let us know; firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts on this topic and any other comments or suggestions you have for us. It was a little more chill. And I will talk to you and Adam next week.
J: Yes, sounds good.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe. He does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.