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Did COVID Alter my Palate?

During the pandemic I followed the procedure of isolating and masking. Once the vaccine was available, I got it. Then I boosted, boosted, boosted. Keeping my immunization records current. While my wife and son did get COVID during the pandemic, I managed to avoid getting COVID. Until it got me in June 2023. How did it affect me? Am I still affected by long-term COVID? It has been on my mind. Let's look at how this started and where I am at today. 

"I was a bit shaken. Was this my new life?"

June 2023 I Got Sick

My son works as an engineer on the western side of the state. My wife is on another international job assignment. I was looking forward to having them home for Fathers Day. Once I tested positive for COVID, I told them not to come over. Neither of them can afford to get sick. For much of June I wallowed in my misery, alone. My recovery was in time for the 4th of July. 

July 2023 Negative Test + Lingering Effects

Using the at home COVID test kit, I finally tested negative on July 1st. Which is when I realized I had lost my sense of smell and taste. Lost. Lost. Lost. You know I sell wine. I am the Wine Educator for Col Solare winery on the Red Mountain AVA. How was I going to do my job? How? Every bottle I opened that month, I had to ask a coworker, “How does it smell? How does it taste?” Was my career in wine over? 


My sense of smell and taste were not fully recovered as I boarded the plane to visit my wife out of the country. I had partially restored senses, muffled nose, limited in range, no depth. Then I got lost. My wife wanted to show me around the city, buy some fresh bagels and visit a haberdashery. It was a sunny day, we easily found parking downtown, locked the car, walked across the street, turned, walked, turned and walked up some stairs to a haberdashery. We walked maybe three blocks from the car. In the hat shop I was surprised to find a bin of used vinyl records. Santana, Rod Steward and Horslips came home with me. As we walked out the door with my wife’s new hat and my records, I realized I was lost, with no memory of where we left the car. That scared me. Grabbing my wife's arm, I told her I had no idea where we parked the car. I was truly lost. She walked us back to the car. I was a bit shaken. Was this my new life?

This cork has TCA
Smelled awful and wonderful.

Fully Recovered?

Then on July 27th it was back! My wife asked me to open a bottle of white wine for dinner. As I always do, I smelled the cork I had just removed. Sniff, sniff, sniff. It was corked. Wait. What? I opened a corked bottle of wine and I could smell the stink! It was bad. So I drank some in celebration! Really bad. How wonderful! That was the first and only time I will ever be joyful at detecting TCA.

August 2023 Re-Calibrating

The month of August was spent on re-calibrating my palate. No longer did I trust what I thought I smelled and tasted in wine. An odd time for me. I have spent years working on my sensory skills, on smelling, tasting and describing wine. Aargh! It felt like I was starting all over. You could say I lost faith in my own body. The nose and brain to be specific. There is a lot of new information on the news feeds about COVID, how it can affect the brain, short-term and long-term. I have friends who still struggle with long-term COVID. Was I one of them too I wondered? My nose worked. But did it work like it used to work? Could I trust my senses? September came along, harvest was back on track, and 2023 looked like it was going to be a good vintage. It was and is.

"Was it the wine? Or was it me?"

Cabernet Sauvignon September 2023
Col Solare estate fruit.

September 2023 New Experiences

Our harvest began in September. Compared to the previous year, we were mostly back on schedule. Quality was good. It is a hectic time of the year. Col Solare winery is a full production winery. We have some estate fruit and we make our wine on premise. Red wine made from 100% Red Mountain AVA fruit. Quality is amazing. As I tell my guests, I know wine. And I know Col Solare is an ultra-premium wine. Even so, in September I had some new to me wine experiences. New and thrilling. Thrilling. Thrilling. Thrilling. Was it the wine? Or was it me? Recently, I have come to the realization that I have become enamored of Col Solare wine. I think it is the wine. 

Col Solare 2016 Cabernet Franc
Col Solare 2016 Cabernet Franc

2016 Cabernet Franc

One day in September, our winemaker, Stephanie Cohen ,was heading to a fundraiser on the west side of the state. She took a case of 2016 Col Solare Cabernet Franc for the dinner. Before she left, she set aside a bottle for tasting room staff to experience. Our winemaker is always sharing with staff. She wants us to be educated on the wines we sell, but also on the older vintages. Naturally, I immediately opened the bottle, sniff, taste and, well, eh. It was just light red wine. Nothing special. I put the cork back and placed the bottle under the counter. 

The next day I tried it again. 

Wine changes over time, it evolves continually in the bottle. After a bottle is opened, the process of oxidation changes the wine more rapidly. The next day at work, I poured myself another splash of that 2016 Col Solare Cabernet Franc. The 2016 vintage was a historical vintage for Washington wine. It has been mentioned and recorded as the best growing season for Washington wine ever. The best.

Day Two

My first taste on the second day of that 2016 Cabernet Franc surprised, delighted and stunned me. What the heck just happened? In my mouth! I share this story with my guests. Before I describe to them what went down, I preface my 2023 COVID experience, as I did above. So, what went down? What was my new to me experience with that bottle of wine? The best description I have is of being attacked by puppies. Little puppies full of love and affection licking your face. Have you ever rolled on the ground with puppies and let them swarm you? That is what happened to me. In my mouth. On my tongue! Honestly, it felt like a little puppy was licking my tongue with Red Mountain Cabernet Franc full of love. Wow. Wow. Wow.

What was that? Was that real? 

Was I affected by COVID in some weird way? What the freaking heck happened? Soon after, I would have another wild experience. Another, new to me, Col Solare experience. It was with our unreleased 2020 Tenuta Cabernet Sauvignon. Whoa.

2020 Col Solare Tenuta
This is the 2020 Tenuta

2020 Tenuta Cabernet Sauvignon 

“Tenuta” means “Estate” in Italian. Our Col Solare Tenuta is made from our best barrels of Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. It also differs from our Col Solare Cabernet with an additional six months of oak aging. It is special. I have also grown rather fond of our Tenuta. Rather fond. 

I don’t work a 9-5, M-F schedule, my schedule varies. But I don’t work weekends. One day in late September, I walked into the winery after several days off and I noticed a bottle of our unreleased 2020 Tenuta. “Um, they opened a bottle without me” was my first thought. My second was, “There’s not much left, it must have been open a few days.” As I was looking at the bottle, our winemaker Stephanie walks by and says, “Go ahead and take it home. It’s been open days.” Snag, into my locker at work. Stephanie is fantastic. She shares. And she makes amazing wines. 

The very first thing I did when I got home, no surprise, was to pour what was left of the 2020 Tenuta. I had just enough for a glass pour. And then time stopped. It was like I fell into the glass, the aromas and flavors pulled me in. I was gone. Gone. Gone. I was in a state of reverie, lost in the aromas and flavors swirling through my senses. It was glorious. I remember looking at my empty glass and thinking, “I want more.” It was only then that I snapped out of it. As I sat up, I realized, I did not know how long I was gone. There was no concept of time with this experience. It could have been minutes or hours. That is how strong that experience was. Powerful. 

Again, what the freak happened? What happened?

This year I am more aware of what I think is going on. My palate did re-calibrate. But I think COVID did do something to my brain. My palate seems hyper-sensitive to certain aroma and flavor combinations. I have become even pickier than I was before. I have less buffer. And perhaps I am a little better at pulling out descriptors. My sensory reactions can be a bit dramatic. If I don’t like something, it is not a subtle reaction. If I truly enjoy a wine, it is very obvious too. 

2024 Another Change

Author in the Col Solare Cellar

This year I am admitting to myself how big a fan I have become of the wines I sell. They are truly remarkable. I am also admitting to myself, that they are the wines I want to drink. They deliver so much pleasure. Before working for Col Solare, I had mostly stopped drinking Cabernet Sauvignon. Now? Now I adore Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon. It makes me so very happy.

I believe COVID may have altered my palate. Or maybe, what changed was my perspective. My appreciation for the ability to taste and smell again. I feel so lucky to have recovered my sense of smell and taste, that I pay more attention to what is in my glass of wine. It does seem my nose performs better than it did before I had COVID. But has become very snobby. 

I know I am spoiled. I have regular access to one of the best red wines made in the world. Col Solare has set a new baseline for me. It is now my standard for what Red Mountain AVA Cabernet Sauvignon can be. And it is changing too. 

Want to learn more about what is going at Col Solare winery? Interested in learning about Col Solare winemaker Stephanie Cohen? Good. I am working on writing about that and will share here. Another change for me is that I want to write again. It also feels good. I am eager to share more. Thank you for reading. 

Be safe. Be kind. Drink good wine. Cheers!

- William 

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