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Coffee and Wine: A Parallel Discovery

I used to stick to sweet drinks; hot chocolate and chai tea lattes (and the occasional apple cider with caramel sauce) were my go-to beverages when I went to "grab a coffee" with my friends. I didn't like the bitterness of coffee, and even when that was my only option, I would put so much milk and sugar in that the drink basically became a slightly tan milkshake. But that began to change about two years ago, when I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. My uncle, who I stayed with when I moved up here, goes to Hawaii on a fairly regular basis, and always brings back bags upon bags of Kona beans. And the man makes a killer cappuccino to boot. Living with him meant dark, milky coffee became a staple in my morning routine, though I would still prefer hot chocolate or chai lattes when grabbing coffee at a shop.

I realized, however, that the reason I disliked coffee was the same reason I didn't initially like the taste of wine. Neither wine nor coffee is sweet, and as a child I became so accustomed to sweetness in my drinks that I was not a fan of anything that didn't fulfill that requirement. I didn't drink a lot of soda growing up, but I love milk and orange juice, which I drank daily during my childhood. Even water was too bland for me; I needed that sweetness in my drink.

There are a lot of people who never get over that need for sweet drinks (and that's not necessarily a vice, as long as you can keep your Diet Coke addiction under control). This preference can be detrimental to their ability to enjoy wine and coffee, however. There's a reason cheap bottles of Moscato, White Zinfandel, Riesling, and half-fermented grape juice like Stella Rosa is so popular--the sugar content is higher in these wines, so people drink them like they're soda. For the same reason, we wolf down pumpkin spice lattes and chocolate-strawberry-double-fudge-caramel macchiatos rather than sitting down to a freshly brewed black coffee. We want that sweetness, and we want it now. The sugar amps up the energy burst we feel 15 minutes after the liquid passes our lips--but man, do we want a refill an hour later!

The biggest hurdle for me in learning to like coffee was the same hurdle I encountered when I started tasting wine. The first wine I ever loved was a fruity Barbera from a winery in Amador County, and though it didn't have the sugary sweetness I craved, it was full of dark chocolate and blackberry flavors, and didn't have the spiky tannins that had made me dislike the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that I'd already tasted. The wine's flavors took center stage in the absence of sweetness, and I was able to enjoy it for the first time. A similar revelation occurred when my friend had me try a fresh cup of Turkish coffee. I had gotten used to Kona coffee, but was still dousing it with milk, and I was not prepared for the acidity, fruitiness, and depth of the dark, gritty coffee coming out of the moka pot.

In retrospect, it's silly that I disliked coffee for so long while my career was focused on a similarly complex, unsweetened beverage. I had learned to appreciate wine for its earthiness, minerality, acidity, and astringent texture, but couldn't see that the same characteristics exist in coffee. With the Turkish coffee, however, I was hooked. Instead of my usual Starbucks chai tea latte, I get a black coffee or espresso from a local shop that carries single origin beans that they've roasted in the last 10 days. I retired my drip machine and have a french press and a hand grinder for the whole beans I now buy regularly. I enjoy the tobacco and caramel and peach and dark berry notes that I smell coming off a fresh cup, and I love checking out the amazing shops that have started popping up around the city. Yes, the caffeine boost is nice, but I now drink coffee for the taste.

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