Wine Review: Split Rail Petit Verdot Snake River Valley 2013

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split railPetit Verdot, one of the minor grapes in Bordeaux blends, is getting some attention as a stand-alone varietal in wine regions such as Idaho and Washington State where it seems to do well in the warm, dry, high desert climate. Although it has a reputation for green tannins, the high desert heat seems to hasten phenolic ripeness bringing out its juicy, floral character without the mouth-ripping rusticity that has been its reputation.

Split Rail, an urban winery near downtown Boise, provides a good example of this change in Petit Verdot’s fortunes.

The nose is an exotic, evocative mix of red plum, black pepper, black licorice and freshly turned earth playing about on a stage of pleasant, dried herbs. Really quite enticing.  The palate is restrained at first but picks up momentum with high-toned acidity that carries through the juicy, relatively short finish. Medium bodied and linear with tannins that stay in the background, this is a genial wine but with some tension from the acidity that gives it a capricious aspect.

A lovely wine from an interesting winery. Winemaker Jed Glavin is always experimenting. He writes “Our goal is to never make the same wine twice, while always making awesome wine. Why? Well, while consistency is comforting, its not that exciting.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Billie Holiday’s amiable insouciance on Ain’t Misbehavin’ captures the essence of this wine.

Score: 90

Price: $22

Basque’n in Boise

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boisebasque-5Like most wine regions, Idaho’s Snake River Valley has a growing food scene anchored by the city of Boise. They boast several highly recommended restaurants serving contemporary American cuisine, but when visiting a region I always look for something unique that is hard to find elsewhere. In Boise that would be finger steaks. Finger steaks are finger-sized pieces of steak, breaded, deep fried and served with a classic cocktail sauce for dipping. It’s only bar food but it’s a thing here in Boise. To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations. I imagined tough, gristly, overcooked meat with greasy breading. But at Lindy’s, the widely acknowledged masters of finger steaks, they take this dish seriously. The thick, crunchy batter was crisp and the meat, medium rare and very tender. I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of bar food but these were damn good.boise basque 4

However, Boise has a lot more to contribute to the food revolution than bar food. They feature a long-established Basque community that brings plenty of Iberian flavor to the Mountain West.

I’ve written about American Basque cooking before—one of my favorite  things to do (on second thought, the only thing to do) in Bakersfield, California is to dig into a plate of pickled beef tongue accompanied by cabbage soup, pinto beans and salsa served at the many Basque restaurants there. Washed down with glasses of picon punch, it’s all a set up for a plate of oxtail stew or roast lamb. This rustic, family-style, amalgam of American comfort food and traditional Basque cooking traces its origin to Southern French Basque immigrants from the French side of the Pyrenees who were drawn to California by the gold rush in the mid-19th Century. When that didn’t “pan” out their traditional skills at sheepherding came in handy in the ranchlands of Southern California.

By contrast, the Boise Basque community hails from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, along Biscay Bay, via the 19th century silver mines of Northern Nevada. And their cooking reflects their Spanish roots. Paella, pintxos (small tapas-like dishes), Spanish chorizo and croquettes are ubiquitous. This cooking is refined, includes lots of seafood, and features pimenton as a prominent flavor ingredient. Close your eyes and you might think you’re in San Sebastian.

The most prominent Boise Basque restaurant is Epi’s, a quaint, homey spot with a remarkably welcoming staff. You will be greeted by Chris the owner like you’re part of the family. It’s comfort food—lamb stew, tongue in pepper and tomato sauce, a scrumptious bean soup, fried chicken—but all prepared to perfection.

For a more casual experience, Bar Gernika downtown has outstanding croquetas and solomo (a pork loin and pimento sandwich) with a good beer list as well. The croquetas are addictive, bite-sized balls made from a stiff Bechamel, rolled in bread crumbs, and then deep fried. Soft and pillowy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and sometimes stuffed with ham, if I had to choose between croquetas and finger steaks for consummate bar food—I would just order both.

The Spanish meat balls in a brown sauce at Leku Ona, another downtown Basque restaurant, were good although I can’t recommend their service.

boise basque1But the best overall Basque food experience can be found at the Basque market for Wednesday or Friday lunch. At 11:00 they put various pintxos on display—Banderillas, marinated olives, glidas, jamon and toast w/ tomato jam, etc.

Then at noon the seafood paella (pictured above), cooked outdoors in the (updated) traditional paella pan, is ready to be served until they run out. The flavors were spot on, the seafood perfectly cooked, and the rice firm but tender. Unfortunately, the formation of socorrat (the crunchy crust at the bottom of the pan) was incompatible with serving the paella on time, so the experience was not utter perfection. But short of a trip to Madrid it’s the best paella I’ve had in the U.S.

I wouldn’t quite call Boise a foodie destination yet, but with a burgeoning wine region and fascinating Basque cooking, its well on its way.

The Food Revolution Cannot be Co-opted

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applebeesOrdinarily I wouldn’t be much concerned about the closing of chain restaurants but this story caught my eye because of the clueless reasoning behind it.

Applebee’s announced this month that more than 130 of its restaurants will close by the end of the year.

The casual dining chain rebranded itself in the past few years as a modern bar and grill.

Applebee’s executive John Cywinski recently told investors that the company had hoped the effort would attract a new kind of customer.

The chain aimed to lure “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, including a clear pendulum swing towards millennials,” he said.

Applebee’s wanted to lure millennials with dishes like barbecue shrimp in a sriracha-lime sauce; chicken wonton tacos; and a pork, ham and bacon sandwich.

But that triple pork bonanza — and the rest of the company’s makeover — didn’t seem to catch on with customers. Sales at Applebee’s dropped more than 6 percent from last year.

The interesting part of this is the aim to attract “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset,”

So young people with an “independent” mind set who are also “sophisticated” about dining are going to frequent a chain restaurant because chain restaurants just scream “independence” and “sophistication”. Because, of course, anyone who is independent and sophisticated immediately salivates when sriracha or pork-3-ways appears on the menu.

The intellectual standards for CEO’s must be dropping. People who are independent and sophisticated will avoid chain restaurants because chain restaurants by their very nature are homogeneous and cater to conventional tastes. It doesn’t help that Applebee’s was latching onto trends that are at least a decade old.

I “sympathize” with the plight of chain restaurants who want to capitalize on the food revolution. You can’t package and market authenticity and difference because, once packaged and marketed, it’s no longer authentic or different. I suppose they have to try to stay relevant in order to mollify shareholders, but it’s a losing proposition.

Which is why I argued in American Foodie that the food revolution might actually survive attempts to co-opt it.

Idaho Wine: Will Work for Grapes

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The Snake River Valley

Idaho is probably not the first state that comes to mind when the topic of U.S. wine comes up. But if you’ve been paying attention to the wine press lately, Idaho, especially the Snake River Valley AVA near Boise, is beginning to get some attention. And for good reason. They make good wine here. After all, the Snake River AVA crosses the Washington border and Eastern Washington is, of course, a prime wine grape region. In fact, you can think of Idaho as Washington’s adolescent off-spring, still dependent on mom and dad but quickly gaining autonomy.

Idaho, like Eastern Washington, has a continental climate (6-8 inches of rain per year) with hot, dry summers producing concentrated fruit flavor and cold winters allowing vines to go dormant and killing off diseases that threaten the vines. Both occupy a northern latitude so they have summertime daylight well into the late evening, and both have strong diurnal temperature shifts with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 50’s for much of the summer helping to keep acidity in the grapes. The differences are primarily in the general soil types and elevation. Idaho has soils formed from volcanic ash; Washington does too but with a higher percentage of glacial deposits. Perhaps more importantly, Idaho vineyards  are generally much higher in elevation, reaching as high as 3000 feet above sea level which explains one of their biggest challenges—getting their vineyards to survive winter kill and early autumn frost.

Case in point—2017. While Washington vineyards suffered some crop losses from this unusually cold winter and as of this writing yields are uncertain, Idaho vineyards were devastated. The Boise area typically gets only 4-6 inches of snow per year.  The winter of 2017 dumped 37 inches of snow on the region with unusual cold snaps that extended for days on end. Extended cold weather destroys the fruit buds that had formed the previous summer sharply reducing yields. Only the vineyards with good air flow draining off the cold air will get much yield this year. Happily, since most of the vines are own-rooted and have no grafts exposed to the elements, the vine trunks and root systems survived and vineyards should be back to normal in a year or two. There will be plenty of grapes to make wine in 2017 but they will have to rely on fruit from Washington State where many Idaho producers have long term relationships and contracts.

There are now over 50 wineries in Idaho (up from 11 in 2002) and most are located in the southwestern portion of the Snake River Valley with a few scattered though the eastern part of the valley. The Snake River AVA became official in 2007 and now includes, as a sub-region, the Eagle Foothills AVA just north of Boise. The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA was added in 2016 and occupies the border of Idaho and Washington in the northern part of the state where the Snake River intersects with the Clearwater River. All of this activity is testimony to the enormous potential of this region. Although Idaho has about 1200 acres under vine, a recent survey concluded that theoretically there is the potential for about 50,000 acres.

The main difficulty is securing enough local fruit for the burgeoning wine business in Boise. As noted, most of the wineries here have a tradition of getting some fruit from Washington. Many wineries would like to make wine exclusively from Idaho grapes and they do so when possible. But the need for more vineyards was a constant plea we heard in talking to people in the Idaho wine business. As Moya Dolsby, Executive Director of the Idaho Wine Commission told us, “If we’re going to reach our potential, we need to get more vines in the ground.” Furthermore, when I asked one prominent winemaker if the growers here were grape growers or wine grape growers, he smiled and said “no comment”. The demand for quality grapes is outstripping supply even when the weather cooperates.

In Idaho, winemaking is a bit more advanced than the viticulture in part because lots of winemaking talent from Washington and California migrated here seeking the less crowded, less expensive, slower paced, yet nevertheless urban lifestyle offered by Boise. That probably also explains one of the really unique facts about Idaho—the high percentage of female winemakers. I don’t have comprehensive stats but, according to one count , 22% of the winemakers in Idaho are women including several of the top ten Snake River wineries. Melanie Krause, winemaker and co-owner of Cinder Winery, told me that she returned to her home in Idaho after working for Washington State’s Chateau Ste. Michelle because it was a better atmosphere for raising her family. Many women in Idaho’s wine industry have made a similar decision.

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Vineyard workers at Koenig Vineyards

Warm to hot, daytime, summer temperatures allow most varietals to ripen in Idaho despite the short growing season. Bud break is typically around the 2nd week of April and harvest is usually finished by Halloween. Riesling, Chardonnay and the Bordeaux grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, have been the primary varietals but there is a lot of excitement about Viognier, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, and even Petite Verdot and Petite Sirah, although plantings of the latter two are miniscule at the moment. My own personal opinion: It’s a bit hot for Riesling here. The Riesling we tasted  was acceptable but not special, although Cinder’s off-dry Riesling was an exception. The Chardonnay was mostly clunky with too much oak. Viognier, although a difficult grape,  is more promising and we tasted several brilliant examples that had the aromatic intensity and generous mouthfeel expected of that grape.  As for reds, the playing field is wide open although Cabernet Sauvignon gets sufficiently ripe only in the best vintages. I asked Earl Sullivan of Telaya if there was a distinctive flavor profile that distinguished Idaho from other regions and, he replied, “not yet”. “We’re still trying to figure out what Idaho wine is”. Melanie Krause of Cinder thinks Idaho reds tend to be more elegant with softer tannins than comparable wines from Washington. I agree with her observation but whether that has to do with the soil, the climate, or stylistic choices among winemakers, it’s hard to say. There are too many microclimates and soil types and only a few examples of some varietals being grown here to make generalizations at this point. Diversity may be their strength here.

With Boise’s rapid growth, a population increasingly interested in wine, available land, and its position as a gateway to markets in the the Mountain West, there is great potential here and I  suspect we will continue to hear good things about Idaho wines.

The largest winery in the state has long been Ste. Chapelle (est. 1975) which produces 125,000 cases per year. But they use mostly Washington fruit and have not as yet made a commitment to developing Idaho as a region. Moya Dolsby said most wineries produce between 3000 and 7000 cases per year so this is a region where artisan production reigns, and it is those small producers that we focused on in our tasting.

Here are the wineries we found to be most impressive:

Cinder Winery

All the wines from this urban winery near Boise hit my sweet spot. Winemaker Melanie Krause achieves an elegant, graceful style picking grapes at around 21-22 degrees brix to achieve great balance and freshness. Each wine in their lineup has finesse, pure fruit expression, and complexity. The Chardonnays (2015 and 2016) were head and shoulders above others in Snake River, largely because of Melanie’s deft hand with new oak. A gorgeous Viognier (their flagship wine), an intriguing blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc called Laissez Faire, and an off dry Riesling that was the best of this varietal we tasted rounds out the whites. The Laissez Faire red (Sangiovese and Mourvedre) makes a fine table wine, but the 2014 Tempranillo, 2014 Bordeaux-style blend, and the 2015 Syrah were outstanding. See my review of their “foot stomp” Syrah here. I don’t normally assign points when making winery visits but all these wines are in the 90-92 point range and can compete with comparable wines from Washington or California.

Telaya

Winemaker Earl Sullivan is a stickler for cleanliness, perhaps a holdover value from his years in the pharmaceutical industry. As far as I know, his is the only winery that seals their production room and blasts it with ozone every night to kill any critters that might be lurking. Telaya uses about 60% Idaho fruit, filling in with grapes from Washington State when the Idaho fruit doesn’t meet Earl’s exacting standards. The results of his attention to detail are wines of great clarity and precision all with the silky textures that define his style of winemaking. A tasty Viognier, and an especially vibrant, textured  Grenache Blanc were the standout whites.  A Malbec featuring bright, bing cherry aromas and a luscious mouthfeel, a blend of Syrah, Malbec and Merlot called Turus (2014) which showed intriguing smoke and meat aromas, and the outstanding 2015 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (see my review here) completed the tasting menu. Telaya is one of several urban wineries along the Boise River just north of the city. They serve food and host frequent musical performances as well giving the burgeoning Boise population a full service venue in which to indulge their wine cravings.

Split Rail Winery

Every wine region needs a maverick to keep complacency from settling in. In the Snake River Valley that person is Jed Glavin. From his use of egg-shaped, concrete fermentation vessels to his attempt to market wine in cans for the hikers and campers who need their wilderness wine fix, Jed is one of those creative types who seem to have a new idea every minute: he’s interested in natural wines, is experimenting with a pet-net (a sparkling wine made by allowing the CO2 to develop from the first fermentation in the bottle), and wants to make a sour Chardonnay by inoculating the wine with Brett (a form of yeast that induces funky flavors often considered a flaw). It’s a good thing he makes good wine. The 2016 Exploding Mirror (Roussane and Viognier) was refreshing and full of flavor as was the 2016 Dry Rosé made from Cinsault. The blend of Mourvedre and Syrah was spicy with white pepper and a Rhone-like blood and iron flavor note. But my favorite was the 2014 Petite Verdot, a grape getting some attention here, despite being in short supply, because it seems to grow well in Idaho. Split Rail’s is floral, soft on the palate with spicy tannins providing structure. Split Rail is another of the urban wineries just north of Boise.

 

The following wineries are in the Sunnyslope area west of Boise near the Snake River:

Huston Vineyards

Greg and Mary Alder grew up on an Idaho farm, but a visit to Napa and the opportunity to acquire land and vines at a good price convinced them to grow grapes. Their Huston label is 100% Idaho grapes; their Chicken Dinner label is table wine sourced from all over the Pacific Northwest. Maybe it was the vintage; 2014 was an incredibly good year. But these reds are lovely. A rich, earthy, Malbec, and a juicy, lush Cabernet Sauvignon with refined tannins impressed but the star is their Private Reserve Petite Sirah (2014). Rich fig, chocolate, and berry notes supported by fine-grained yet structured tannins. There is only about 1 acre of Petite Sirah in the whole state. More

Koenig Winery

Using all local grapes, this winery does an excellent job with Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a difficult grape to get ripe in Idaho at least in some vintages. Koenig deals with this problem by making a more European style Cab—earthy, structured with high acidity. Their Hell’s Canyon 2014 Cab needs more time to settle down but it’s a serious wine. The Fraser Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is softer and more accessible. They also feature a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah blend called Cuvee Alden 2012 that was drinking well, showing berry and chocolate notes with a lush mouthfeel; and an accessible 2014 Syrah with ripe berry notes and sleek minerality. Among the white wines, the 2014 dry Riesling was impressive–delicate but textured with lovely lime and apricot on the nose. Their 2016 Viognier was fresh and crisp showing floral and tropical notes.

Fujishin Family Cellars

Sourcing almost all their grapes from within a 20 mile radius of their winery, Fujishin’s flagship Viognier from 2016 was definitely impressive. Pear and floral notes introduced the lovely, textured mouthfeel and long mineral-driven finish. The Cabernet/Syrah blend was rich with berry and earth notes and offered a smooth midpalate with a long, somewhat rustic finish. But the red wine that attracted my attention was their 2013 Petite Sirah—lots of berry, smoke, cocoa and tannins under control from 2 yrs. in American oak

Wine Review: Telaya Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2015

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telayaWith his production facility located just north of Boise, Idaho, winemaker Earl Sullivan is committed to using Idaho grapes when possible, but the growing season is too short to consistently get the ripeness he wants from Cabernet Sauvignon so he sources from Washington State’s acclaimed Red Mountain AVA with it’s unique loess soils. Blended with 7% Petite Verdot, this Cabernet sees 20 months on new and used French oak. The result is a polished wine that packs a surprise.

Aromas of chocolate-covered, black cherry mingle with cinnamon-inflected vanilla, a real charmer during introductions. In the mouth the wine is rich, silky, and polished bursting with juicy, fresh-tasting fruit. But, as the midpalate shades into flavors of hi-toast oak, the intensity ratchets up building energy and density, filling the mouth with darkness. Sabotage, a reckless moment of rebellion, disrupts the good cheer. Alas the polished fruit returns, leisurely lingering on the medium length finish although it is transformed, toughened by hi-toned acidity, char, and firm but fine-grained tannins.

The wine plays with you, a hint of malevolence beneath the polished veneer as if rebelling against its own nature. With time in the bottle it may return to the family. It needs time.

But in the meantime, Rebel Yell is its battle cry:

Score: 91

Price: $40

Alc: 15.5%

You’ll Be Hearing More Stories Like This

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rotting cropsI’ve been predicting problems at grape harvest this year as our country’s insane immigration policies will discourage migrant labor from showing up to pick fruit. The brunt of the grape harvest is still many weeks away but stories of crops rotting in the fields are already beginning to appear.

Vegetable prices may be going up soon, as a shortage of migrant workers is resulting in lost crops in California.

Farmers say they’re having trouble hiring enough people to work during harvest season, causing some crops to rot before they can be picked. Already, the situation has triggered losses of more than $13 million in two California counties alone, according to NBC News.

It’s tempting to say this was an entirely avoidable problem. But that would presuppose it is possible to overcome bigotry with facts, apparently an unwarranted assumption in America today.

Fake Wine, Fake Food, Fake You

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our brains are sickAs I noted in previous posts, our hi- tech overlords are busy trying to invent fake wine and fake food. Now they’ve turned their attention to inventing a fake you.

Instead of drinking lots of wine to find out what you like and using your wine knowledge and sense of adventure to expand your palate, a company called Helix will analyze your DNA via saliva samples to discover what you should like.

Silicon Valley is always trying to one up itself in helping us improve our daily lives. This time, with the launch of Helix, the tech geniuses believe they can enable us to make better choices – including better wine choices – if we have a better handle on our own DNA.

Wine Explorer by the Healdsburg, California-based Vinome, which currently costs $29.99, is currently Helix’s only wine-focused app partner….When you go to the Vinome site, there’s a basic survey that new customers can do online, discussing if they enjoy blackberries or black coffee and that results in an initial taste profile. It is reinforced by the all-powerful saliva test, which should be able to skillfully delineate which of eight flavor profiles will work for each consumer.

According to CEO Ronnie Andrews, if you like black coffee you will like big, red wines.

Swing and miss, strike one. I love coffee. I’m not crazy about big, red wines. If you like sweets you’ll like Gewurztraminer and Viognier, according to Andrews. Swing and miss again. I love a good Gewurz or Viognier. I’m not crazy about candy.

Of course, their business model is to tell you what you should like and then sell you the wines that conform to their prediction. That’s a pretty good racket. If they develop a personality test for science envy they can predict which consumers will fall for this scam.

Wine Review: Cinder “Foot Stomp” Syrah Snake River Valley Idaho 2014

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Of the many wineries we visited in our recent stay in Idaho, it was Cinder’s wines that really captured my attention, especially this small batch Syrah made using very traditional methods—hand harvested, crushed by bare feet stomping on whole clusters with stem inclusion, co-fermented with 5% Viognier and aged in 40% new oak for 16 months.

Winemaker Melanie Krause aims for grace and elegance picking fruit at a slightly lower brix level (21-22 degrees) than most of her colleagues. The result really does live up to the slogan “poetry in a bottle”.  It helps that 2014 in Idaho was a banner vintage.

A complex nose with good intensity, herbal and mint aromas mingle with dark and red berry flavors against a background of dusty earth and damp leaves. The cranberry-inflected palate features a luscious layer of urbane, polished juice supporting rollicking, lifted acidity that carries through the peppery, medium length finish. Firm but refined tannins. Wonderfully fresh, but with great depth. Think contemporary Côte-Rôtie but with more weight.

The acid numbers seem standard for Syrah (6.9 g/L, PH 3.77) but the perceived acidity pops, which is what happens when you pick a little early.

The “Foot Stomp” Syrah exudes graceful warmth and soothing sophistication but with some tension playing about the edges as exemplified by Eliane Elias’s version of Ravel’s Sonatine: Anime.

Score: 92

Price: n/a

Alc: 14.5%

“Trust Your Palate” is Bad Advice!

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I can't hear youI feel a rant coming on.

Probably the most ubiquitous piece of advice offered by wine educators and wine writers to novice wine lovers is “always trust your palate”.

This is the worst piece of advice you could give anyone. Would you tell a med student or a freshman engineering student to always trust their instincts? Trusting instincts can be a good thing but only after the “instinct” has been honed to something worthy of trust.

Now granted mistakes in wine tasting don’t have the dire consequences that medical or engineering mistakes have. The worst that can happen if you’re a novice wine drinker trusting your palate is that you will learn nothing from more experienced wine drinkers. It’s your loss; no one else is put at risk. But it is a loss nevertheless.

“Always trust your palate” assumes your current preferences and abilities are fine as they are and need no improvement. It assumes there is nothing to be learned from anyone else, no wider perspective to be achieved, no patterns out there to be discovered. Whatever it is your feeble powers of discernment reveal they must be correct just because they’re yours. That’s not only dumb; it’s arrogant.

None of the people giving this advice really believe it; if they did they would never have acquired the wine expertise they are so diligently preventing others from acquiring.

When I began to be fascinated by wine, my consuming thought was that  others were getting so much more out of a wine than I. While others were reporting heady aromas and textures and fine distinctions between varietals,  I was tasting a generic grapey flavor with all wines tasting basically the same. Had I trusted my palate I would have been forced to conclude they were hallucinating.

So do not trust your palate. Instead, assume that people with expertise might actually have something to teach you.  Assume your abilities are too unformed to deserve your full trust. Recognize that the more perspectives you gain on something the better you will understand it. Trust the learning process, not your palate.