About the size of an eyeball and rough as dragon skin, the little red orb seems to stare back when sliced in half, the nut-brown pupil surrounded by translucent white flesh. The delicate perfume is vaguely reminiscent of rose water, cherry and pear, but mostly Gewürztraminer. It's a lychee fruit, indeed a common descriptor for Gewürztraminer and other aromatic whites. But I couldn't remember the last time I had a lychee and probably couldn't tell it apart from a kumquat.
Most wines that we drink derive from a handful of grape varietals, while wine itself may contain thousands of different aromatic and flavor compounds. Having the vocabulary to describe them is not only a key part of every apprenticing wine snob's toolkit; everyone can benefit from having more to say and share about wine than "I know when I like it." Just skip the tasting room for now, and head for the farmers market. No designated driver needed.
While the tropical fruits are best found at the supermarket, now is the best time to take advantage of seasonal, ripe fruit at farmers markets, which offer a smorgasbord of samples for grazing and committing to taste memory. A recent revelation: boysenberry. When people talk about blackberry in Zinfandel, half the time boysenberry might be the better call. As for Himalayan blackberries, which surround us in all cardinal directions, their earthy, acidic character reminds me more of some French wines than the old "California fruit bomb" saw. Many wines jibe better with jam and preserve flavors. Try Sebastopol's Kozlowski Farms, but don't stop at apricot and strawberry—the big points are scored with quince and black currant—and don't overlook grape. Curiously enough, some wines are reminiscent of the humble grape.
When tasting a Robert Pepi 2008 California Sauvignon Blanc ($11), I have to note its aromas of grapefruit and muskmelon, using the more general term because I haven't forayed to the Crane Melon Barn to narrow it down. The palate of sweet lemon drop finishes puckery, like chewing on a table grape.
C. Donatiello's 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Middle Reach (wine club, $28), has the perfumed quality of a basket of fresh raspberries but with darker tones of chocolate and brandied cherries, spiced with a hint of vanilla bean and . . . chicory, thanks to a memorable bag of that coffee substitute that a friend brought back from New Orleans many years ago. Rich in flavors of pluot and Black Tartarian cherry—verified this June, with the lighter Queen Anne still on my list—it finishes sweet and long.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with the artificial flavors that, for better or worse, are often more prominent residents in our taste memories than the real thing. If one happens to like Jolly Rancher, it's no slight to call it out, nor, necessarily, with "barnyard" aromas. Just be sure to sniff out the difference between that of cow, sheep and horse—like a true connoisseur.