Regional Dining Guide

Northleaf Winery: Taste Wine Like a Pro


Meet a family that takes its wine seriously, and loves to show visitors the homemade varieties crafted in an 1800s-era grain warehouse.

Gail Nordlof and daughter Jaimie Nordlof Dewey show how to taste wine. (Karla Nagy photos)

Swirl, sniff, sip, swish, spit.

On TV and in movies, wine tasting is often portrayed as an ostentatious ritual, performed by haughty, upper-class characters (think of Frasier and Niles in “Frasier,” or Miles in Sideways). Little wonder many of us view the process as perplexing, even pretentious.

“It’s not about being snobbish,” says Gail Nordlof, Northleaf Winery, Milton, Wis. “Ultimately, it’s about taste, your taste. The person next to you may not taste what you do, and that’s OK. You should drink what you like, and wine tasting helps you find that.”

Nordlof and husband John own and operate the winery which they opened in a refurbished, 1850 wheat warehouse in 2009. Planning began in 2005, and the couple’s careful restoration has brought the structure back to its original state. The lime mortar walls are braced by huge, hand-hewn timbers that also support the former grain loft. Décor includes memorabilia from the various businesses that have occupied the building over 162 years, such as Park Place Garage, which included a blacksmith shop in back, and the Sunnyview Orchard Warehouse.

Northleaf’s wines are made and bottled on-site, mostly with classic grape varietals from California, as well as grapes from New York and Wisconsin. Some wines are blended with fruits like pomegranate, cranberry, strawberry or raspberry. One vintage was made using a whole grape fermentation process, with grapes shipped fresh-frozen from Tuscany, Italy.

Raised in a winemaking family, Nordlof hosts frequent wine tastings, and in her straightforward style, she explains the whys and wherefores in six easy steps.

See: Wine glasses are made of clear glass for good reason. “Glass lets you see the wine and doesn’t impart any other colors, scents or flavors,” says Nordlof. So the first step is to look at the wine, hold it up to the light and note the color and clarity.

“The color reveals age,” Nordlof explains. “For whites, younger wines will range from pale yellow to straw color. Older wines tend toward golden, even dark ochre. Reds will appear garnet or ruby when younger, and turn burgundy to rust as they age.”

Younger wines have more subtle aromas and fruity or floral flavors, while aged wines tend to develop deeper, earthy aromas and more woody or complex flavors.

Swirl: “You swirl the wine to aerate it,” Nordlof says. “This is more important in younger wine, because swirling softens the tannins and opens the wine. As wines age, this occurs naturally.” Tannins are chemicals from the grape skins and seeds that have a slightly bitter taste and make your mouth feel dry. Over time, they polymerize, or bond, which softens their feel and flavor.

Sniff: “Swirling also releases aroma,” Nordlof continues. “Scents differ from person to person, just like tastes, so don’t worry if you don’t smell what the next person smells. Each varietal will have different notes – floral, citrus, cherry, leather.” Don’t rush this step. Learning to recognize the “nose” of certain grape varieties will help you to determine which wines you most enjoy.

Sip: “Take a sip – not too much and not too little – and don’t swallow,” Nordlof says.

Swish: “Now roll the wine around on your tongue, to hit all of your taste buds. In wine, we’ll taste sweet, sour and bitter, and the buds that relay them are on different parts of the tongue, even underneath and way back in the throat. You don’t need to be a super taster. Just think about what you taste. Just take your time, and look for flavors you recognize.”

Swallow: After you swallow, the taste that lingers is called the “finish,” and that can be entirely different from your initial impression. The longer the finish, the better the wine will age.

And you do swallow, not spit. “We rarely see anyone spit out wine here,” Nordlof says with a laugh. “What a waste, especially if it’s a great vintage.”

That’s how it’s done. Now, Nordlof urges, go with confidence to a wine tasting, test your newfound skills and discover the wines that you enjoy. ❚

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