A Little Bubbly for the Holidays

One of the pressures of the holidays or private special occasions stems from those events that require us to “bring something.”  There is always concern as to what’s appropriate for the event, its theme, the food being served, the various tastes of the attendees.  I find it easiest to simply skip all that and bring something that somehow rises above such concerns and is always appropriate:  Champagne or some other sparkling wine.  At the very least, you are providing a quick toast to the holidays, the guest of honor or the evening.

 

A little background history goes a long way to building our confidence in picking a sparkling wine, so I’ll spend a little time there.  Anyone who wants to get right to some recommendations can toggle down and skip this part, but I find these tidbits of info also give you something to talk about that enhances the enjoyment of the drinkers. 

 

Champagne is a place north of Burgundy and east of Paris where winemakers struggled to grow the same grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that are so successful in Burgundy’s slightly warmer climate.  There were several problems associated with the short growing season of Champagne that made fine wine an elusive goal.  First, the grapes struggled to ripen before impending frost dictated picking; second, the cold weather would often chill the cellars to a degree that the yeasts became dormant during fermentation, prematurely stopping the process.  The wines were bottled, but when warm weather returned in spring the yeasts would reawaken and begin fermentation again.  Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of fermentation and can generate up to ninety psi of pressure on the closed container it is in.  It became commonplace for a sealed bottle of poor quality to either pop its primitive cork or explode.  One bottle exploding could cause enough vibration to set off a chain reaction and cellar masters might suddenly be fleeing flying glass and geysers of bubbly.

 

Moet and Chandon, owners of the Dom Perignon label claim that a Benedictine monk named Pierre Perignon invented the process of Champagne making in the early 1700’s.  Wine historians paint a different portrait, insisting that he actually did not like the bubbles and directed much of his effort toward ways to prevent them. The improvements Dom Perignon is credited with include the use of better Spanish cork, the wire cage that holds it in place, and a stronger bottle style that was imported from England at the time, the combination of which greatly enhanced the odds of holding the sparkling wine safely.  By the time of his death in 1715, that effervescent style was part of the industry of Champagne but still played a relatively minor role, comprising only about ten percent of the region’s output, and still made primarily by accident. 

 

It was in 1723 when a bottle of Champagne was used to toast as Louis XVI ascended to the French throne at age thirteen that royalty began a fascination with the bubbles, and the industry of Champagne became dedicated to this sparkling product.  Today that second fermentation is encouraged in the bottle by introducing fresh yeast and fruit sugar for it to consume.  The grapes used are still Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and a clone called Pinot Meunier, which ripens a little earlier than the Noir and is common in the coldest sections.  Dom Perignon is also credited with the use of this blend from up to six vintages to create superior wine, and traditional Champagne contains a blend of these three.  Most Champagne will simply state the name of the house on the label, along with an indication of dryness, with Brut being the driest followed by Extra Sec or Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux (sweet).  A Blanc de Blanc is made entirely from Chardonnay; a Blanc de Noir from just the two red grapes.  Rosé Champagne may be made from a little extra skin contact and a greater portion of Pinot Noir or by adding a little red wine at the time the blend is made.

 

I find that the Blanc De Noir or Rose style are actually the best for mixed groups.  They tend to be not quite as dry as others, offering slightly rounder fruit, and the fact that they can be considered 100% Pinot Noir and its clone Meuniere gives guests a different taste of the hottest grape around today.  There are numerous California or Oregon products at affordable prices out there in this style, but expect to pay about $20 or more for a good one, Domaine Chandon’s Blance de Noir, made in California by Moet & Chandon, for example, runs in that range.

 

The best price value may be in Spanish Cava, and many decent ones are available for $15 and under.  My only critique of this style is that the grapes they use are very delicate and the yeasty flavors from that second fermentation in the bottle tend to show through.

 

Some people love those yeasty flavors, but I actually prefer the equally delicate flavors of Prosecco, which is the name of both a grape and the village where it is made in northeastern Italy.  Prosecco is made in a method called “Charmat,” which means it’s second fermentation takes place in larger vats rather than individual bottles.  The yeasty flavors are much more subtle, replaced with a freshness that is very pretty.  The only drawback to this method is that they don’t last as long as those fermented in the bottle, so drink your Prosecco while it’s young and fresh.  Prosecco can be had anywhere from $10-20 and drink perfectly well.  It also has the gift of generating less formality and more fun that Champagne. 

 

My feeling is that if you want to impress bring Blanc de Noir and show a little knowledge; if you want to just have fun, bring Prosecco and relax with it.  If you want to step it up a bit, purchase a fruit puree,  peach is traditional, and add a shot of it to the Prosecco and make Bellinis.  There’s a good chance they will be new and enjoyable for everyone present.

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Thanksgiving Wine

There are lots of ways to go with wine for Thanksgiving dinner, and certainly no right or wrong involved in the choices.  Odds are that almost any favorite wine will work, though those dark, serious, tannic reds tend to be a bit much.  My personal preference is to go in almost the exact opposite direction, and by this I don’t mean a white wine, but rather the lightest and least serious of the reds:  Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais is a small region of France, west of the city of Lyon, and with Burgundy bordering it to the north.  Unlike Burgundy, which dedicates its red vineyards to Pinot Noir, the Beaujolais grow a grape called Gamay.  There was considerable acreage of Gamay in Burgundy at one time, as it grows in much greater volume than the finicky Pinot Noir, but in 1395 Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, tasted wine made from this grape and called it an affront to his mouth and unfit for human consumption.  He then decreed that it be uprooted throughout Burgundy and replaced with his preferred Pinot Noir.

Yes, I am recommending a wine once called unfit for human consumption….  

While it’s not Pinot Noir in its upper end potential, Gamay makes solid and very quaffable red wines.  While most of it is made to be consumed in 1-4 years, there are Grand Cru vineyards in Beaujolais producing fairly full bodied and oak aged wines meant to cellar for 5-10 years, particularly in the appellations of Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, and Chenas.  We aren’t concerned with them here, however.     

In the 1800′s a tradtion began that involved taking the first pressing of the Beaujolais straight from fermentation to the bistros of nearby Lyon.   Just six weeks from picking, and made with a gentle technique called carbonic maceration,  these wines were fresh, simple, brightly fruited and pure fun, a celebration of the harvest in a joyful manner, which happens to be exactly what our best Thanksgiving dinners are meant to be.   Beaujolais Nouveau also accompanies the traditional holiday fare with its diverse flavors quite well.  Perhaps even more importantly, served slightly chilled, it is a very drinkable wine that can also please the diverse palates of the cast of characters that typically sits at a family Thanksgiving celebration.  You know what I mean.

This isn’t a wine meant for analysis or rating, as that doesn’t belong at a Thanksgiving table.  It is meant for raising a glass to toast to the harvest, then to laugh or argue with our beautiful crazy families.  It’s first job is to hang with the turnip, bring bright notes to the gravies and butters, have no preference for light or dark meat, sing harmony to any style of stuffing and whisper light notes to sweet potatoes.   It’s second job is to go down so easily that at a point each of us stands up and says, “Oh, I didn’t realize I drank that much…”     

Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November each year.  With Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday, it provides a one week window for it to arrive on our shores, so it is worth checking with your local store to find out exactly when they will have it.  Pricing is usually in the low teens, but remember:  take it home and drink it.  It’s not a wine for the cellar.   Those of us who prefer to shop for domestic products will find some Gamay Nouveau available from California and done in similar style.  

Either way, have fun!

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Odd Historical Notes

Investigating the history of wine, we come across a surprising number of things gone wrong that ultimately turned out to be fortuitous. 

The area called Champagne in France, for example, tried for centuries to make good wine out of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a location that is really too cold to grow them.  One of their biggest problems was that the cold weather would cause the yeasts to go dormant during fermentation in the late fall.  The wines would be bottled, but in spring the yeasts would reawaken and resume fermentation.  Alcohol and carbon dioxide are the by-products of of that process and the pressure of the CO2 would build up in bottles made with poor quality glass and corks until they literally popped their corks or exploded.  One bottle doing this might cause enough vibration to send others over the edge, and wine makers would end up fleeing the cellars from flying glass and bubbly.  Dom Perignon, the Benedectine monk often credited with inventing Champagne, actually despised those bubbles, but grudgingly found ways to contain them by buying stronger English bottles, improving the quality and shape of the cork, and utilizing the wire cage we still see on Champagne bottles.  Eight years after his death in 1715, a bottle of Champagne was chosen to celebrate the assumption of the French throne by Louis XVI, and over the next decade French, English and Austrian royalty developed a taste for this mistake from Champagne, and wine makers there began to think,”Hmm, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.” 

In the Charente area of western France, a small village struggled to make wine from a number of white grapes for 1600 years, wines that most people felt were of very poor quality and difficult to market.  Over the previous century the idea of distilling wine into grape brandy had become popular, as the brandy was used to fortify wines for their journeys across the sea to the Americas.  The idea caught on in this little village and a decision was made to try distilling their wine to sell to the Port, Sherry and Madeira houses to fortify their exports.  The early distilled product was good enough that the decision to barrel age it was made.  A little time in oak later, it was even better, and the villagers agreed to produce more of it, and call their new brandy by the name of the village:  Cognac.

That concept of fortifying wines for travel by ship came about in the early 1600′s during one of the many times England was at war with France, and decided to establish stronger wine trade with their perpetual ally Portugal, sending merchants to oversee the processes.  The wines of the area were not particularly good to start with at that time, and after the sea journey to England were even worse.  The decision to try fortifying with grape brandy to stablilze it for the journey was made with the thought that the British would dilute these wines to normal strength upon arrival.  The British being, well, British, decided they liked this sweet, powerful version better, and an industry was born.

Another place that develped fortified wines at that time was the island of Madeira off the coast of Morocco in Africa, which has been a part of Portugal for most of its history.  In the pressure filled time just prior to our American Revolution, England imposed taxes on all products imported to the colonies from Europe.  Madeira, considered geographically a part of Africa, was not a part of that law, so colonists like Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, etc. developed a taste for those wines, similar in many ways to Port.   The barrels would be packed into the hulls of ships as they traveled the long, hot southern routes to the new world, bringing concern that the product might suffer from the extreme heat and constant motion of this difficult journey.  Surprisingly most shippers agreed it was somehow better when it arrived in America, and more surprisingly, any unsold product that returned to the island was even better yet!  It turned ourt that the heat and rocking motion of the ships helped the wine age.  Merchants began putting extra product into the ships in order for it to take the journey, return and be sold in Europe for a higher price.  These days that rocking motion is simulated by putting the barrels on rocking cradles in heated facilities on Madeira. 

Speaking of Thomas Jefferson.. He spent time as the American Ambassador to France and develped a taste for French wine, especially the great wines of Bordeaux.  Recently, bottles believed to be from his cellar, labels like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut Brion, and others from the 1700′s were sold at auction for prices reaching $150,000 per bottle.  Those Bordeaux wines are made with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few minor grapes.  Interestingly Jefferson predicted that the wines of Chateau Haut Brion, which of the highest rated estates contained the greatest proportion of Merlot, would become the favorite of the American palette.  Some two hundred years later, Merlot ushered many of us into the red wine world.  The man did have some foresight.

One of the men who purchased one of those Jefferson bottles, a 1787 Chateau Margaux, for just over $150,000 was showing it to friends at New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant.  He bumped it on the side of a table and the botom fell out, spilling its inky contents onto the floor.  A fool we say?  Apparently not, as he had insured the bottle for about $200,000.                

When Australia decided to get into the wine business in the early 1800′s there was no one on the island who had made wine, so two prisoners of war were chosen to head this new industry, not because they had ever made wine, but simply because they were French.  Their success was limtied at best and it wasn’t until the 1830′s when a gentleman named James Busby brought new varietals from France that decent wine began to be made.

Historians record July 14, 1789, the day the French peasants stormed the Bastille prison, as the official start of the French Revolution.  Three days earlier Parisian upstarts attacked and oveturned the tax booths set up on the road from Burgundy to Paris to charge taxes on wine as it came into the city, driving prices so high that the average person couldn’t afford to drink wine.  Suddenly inexpensive wine poured into the city, and three days later all hell broke loose.  Coincidence? 

One final thought: One of the true beauties of music and wine is the timelessness of both that enables us to share the same flavors and sounds that people we admire did in their lifetime. In 1817 a composer in declining health retreated to a house at Mayer am Pfarrplatz vineyard outside of Vienna, Austria in order to seek treatment from a nearby spa for the deafness that had kept him from hearing his own music for years. He had written his 6th Symphony, “Pastoral” there earlier in his career while enjoying the Riesling of his homeland, a wine so much his favorite that he would request it on his deathbed a decade later. Finding no answer for his cruel affliction, and forced to accept that he may never again hear music outside of his head, he nonetheless conceived and began a piece of music that many would nominate as the greatest symphony ever. At some time in our lives, each of us should raise a glass of Riesling to the creative genius and indomitable spirit that enabled Beethoven at such a difficult and painful time to sip his beloved wine and write his 9th Symphony, “Choral,” which most of us know as an “Ode to Joy.”

 

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Kissing Wine

The ability to kiss may be one of the most valuable skills we can learn in life.  Kissing well is a vital part of the getting-to-know process, often telling us just how interested we are, and how committed we’ll be to this new endeavor.   For some of us, dedicating our time, energies and hearts to new ventures can be intimidating; in fact,  it may even be downright scary.  Once we do commit to further involvement, our ability to kiss effectively can open up avenues and lead us to places we might not otherwise get to experience.  To paraphrase the song, “It’s in the kiss.” 

I am, of course, referring to the acronym kiss, or keep it simple, stupid. 

The ability to simplify early in any learning process is invaluable.  It can give us a starting point, a foothold in a new world, and a place from which to explore further in an organized and more enjoyable fashion.  When we approach subjects as massive and complicated as music and wine, we absolutely have to kiss it, otherwise we wander around in circles wondering where the heck to begin.  In music our teachers taught us the major scale first, Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, Ti and Do, which in actual music terminology consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C, with no sharps or flats included.  This scale, played on the white keys of the piano, is the basic building block for all music.  Once it is instilled in the student, the variations of sharps, flats, chords, melody, harmony and rhythm are added one step at a time.  The stronger the student’s grasp of that first major scale, the easier their exploration of those variations becomes.  It’s an example of a tried and true method for learning.  Build a solid base then explore from there.  That simple eight note scale is the first and most valuable kiss of music.

I was sitting in a little wine bar listening to a couple of friends play music when it occurred to me that wine also has a first and most important kiss.  While it is estimated that some 5,000 different grapes are used to make wine in our world, it turns out that about 75% of all restaurant wine lists and store shelves are stocked with just eight different grapes.   The major scale of wine consists of four white notes, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Grigio; and four red notes, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.  If we establish a simple, basic understanding of these eight grapes, our confidence as we traverse store shelves and navigate restaurant wine lists is greatly enhanced.  Our later exploration of the rest of the wine world also becomes more enjoyable as it becomes guided by two primary measuring tools, the characteristcs those new wines share with the eight we know, and the ways in which they differ.  This is a much more enjoyable place to be than the lost and lonely one many of us stand in when we first begin to approach this massive world of wine.

I know, I know.  There are aisles upon aisles of foreign wines in stores, and whole sections of wine lists dedicated to bottles with names we can’t even pronounce, but believe me, the bulk of these are made from those same eight grapes.  The European tradition of naming things for the village they come from creates this confusion.  Here are some familiar village names we’ve all heard that lend themselves to their local product as it is sold throughout the world: Champagne, Chablis, Burgundy, Cognac, Camenbert, Calvados, Chambord, Asti, Chianti, Valpolicella, Marsala, Port, Madeira, Salamis, Bologna, Frankfurt, Sandwich.  There are hundreds of them that we know and have developed a comfort level with.  Village names for wine aren’t as familiar, and some of them can be imtimidating, but once we understand what they are, and which of these eight grape notes they represent, they become much less so. 

Chardonnay is the predominant white grape in the world, and is labeled on a bottle as Chardonnay in most of that world.  That’s pretty simple, but the confusion comes from its home.  It originated in Burgundy, France, where familiar village names like Chablis and Pouilly-Fuisse grace its labels.  Other village names from this area, tongue twisters like Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Auxey-Duresses, Meursault, Corton-Charlemagne and Pernand-Vergelesses, tend to scare the crap out of us.  Who wants to try to prounounce one of those to a snooty waiter in front of a date we’re trying to impress?  But each of those convoluted names, like all White Burgundy wine above the lowest quality levels, are 100% Chardonnay.  Knowing this, we simply direct our attention to that section of the wine list and ask that waiter to tell us a little bit about each of the White Burgundies he has to offer.  Over time we realize that the wine world is too vast for anyone to know every wine.  There is no loss in admitting that the wines we are looking at are new to us, but it is his job to know his list.  Our job is to let him guide us and enjoy the learning. When he brings the wine, we sit back and decide how he did.  This little bit of knowledge puts us at a very different level of comfort in that situation.

The red grape Pinot Noir also hails from Burgundy, France, where it shares many of those same village names with Chardonnay.  It too is the sole red grape grown in the area, so a wine that says Red Burgundy wine is 100% Pinot Noir.  Same game; same awkward village names, but overall a simplicity that is a lovely first kiss.

If we move to southwest France, to the area around the city of Bordeaux, we discover red wines made with some combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few minor grapes.  This two to five grape mix is most commonly referred to as the Bordeaux Blend.  All red wines from this area are made from some variation of this mix of  grapes.  The most expensive wines in the world, boasting names like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and others, are simply made from this blend.  The new and hot Super Tuscan wines from Italy are primarily made from these same grapes in the area around Bolghieri, planted there because of the similarities in soil and climate of this area to Bordeaux.  Easily half the red wines we come across are one of, or a blend of, these grapes.

The white wines of Bordeaux are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, as are the white wines from the Loire River Valley villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, which are again the names we see on the label.  almost always crisp, dry and with bright citric acidity, they are a wonderful white wine to accompany any food we might squeeze a lemon on.  They are also a good wine to start exploring white wine with, as their light, transparent nature displays fruit qualities easily and help build confidence in our ability to identify them.

Riesling is, thankfully, called Riesling everywhere it is grown.  The trick to understanding it is to check the alcohol content to see how sweet it will be.  The lower the alcohol the sweeter the Riesling, unless it is a dessert styled wine often referred to as Vendange Tardive or late harvest.  Alsatian Riesling from northeast France tends to be dry with alcohol levels above 12%; their German counter parts are typically lower with many of those wines we began with in the 8% range.  Because of this range from sweet to dry, Riesling may be the most versatile food wine there is.

Pinot Grigio is called Pinot Gris in its homeland of France’s Alsace Wine Region.  Pinot Blanc from there, called Pinot Bianco in Italy, is a close cousin, and can  be considered essentially the same grape.  Like Riesling, they are identified by their grape name throughout the world.  Both are white descendents of Pinot Noir and offer similar crisp easy drinking style.  

Most of us have tried the red grape Syrah in its Australian form, which they call Shiraz.  Seems there is debate as to whether the grape hails from the ancient Persian city of Shiraz, or the southern Italian city of Syracuse.  Whatever.  The grape as we know it originates in the Norther Rhone area of France where it comes labeled by village names like Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St, Joseph, and Cote-Rotie; it also contirbutes to the multi grape blends of the southern Rhone areas like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes-du-Rhone. 

Hopefully this brief run through of these eight grapes begins to illustrate just how much store shelf and wine list space they occupy.  In my book, The Song of Wine, (shameless plug) I dedicate a chapter to each of the eight and talk about their basic style to describe what we might expect to find in a bottle when we purchase it.  Once we’ve built a set of basic expectations for each of these grapes, the world of wine opens up for us in a way that makes drinking much more satisfying. 

In later chapters I introduce the wines of Spain, Portugal and Italy, the primary exceptions to this eight grape dominance of wine, in much the same way a music teacher might introduce jazz or blues once the basics are learned.  I do it this way because I believe this is the beat way to approach wine.  Put in the time to learn the basics then have a blast being a student of wine forever after.

Kiss, Kiss.

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The Right Approach to Wine

One of the things that stresses us the most about wine is a sense of uncertainty as to exactly what is in a bottle as we consider it on a restaurant wine list or a store shelf.  Wine experts would like us to believe they know exactly what to expect in that same bottle we are contemplating, but in truth no one, including the most expert drinkers, knows this with any certainty or to any great extent until they actually taste the wine.  All such predictions are about varying degrees of educated guessing.  Some guesses are admittedly more educated than others, but none are guaranteed.

Listening is to music what tasting is to wine, and I typically find that music offers the best analogy for such wine situations.  We can imagine a friend handing us a new CD, one we’ve never heard before.  If they describe the CD as classical, we expect certain things, probably a full orchestra playing a somehat complex piece that may not include vocals.  If they describe it as chamber music our expectation immediately changes to a smaller orchestra with a lighter sound, violins, flutes, maybe a cello, piano or harpsichord.   If they describe it as rock, those strings become electric, driving drums and bass notes join the fray, and there is likely a vocalist who may or may not be able to actually sing.   These admittedly broad generalizations illustrate our basic expectations of the various genres of music.  If that CD is described as rap we expect one thing; if it’s elevator music we expect something very different.  We’ve developed these expectations of genre over a lifetime of listening to music.  We’re so good at it that these expectations come immediately and intuitively the moment a music genre is mentioned.  Still, we know we’re going to have to listen to the CD to know exactly what is there, to learn its individual nature and decide if it is for us or not.

In the wine world grape varietals are a genre, and experienced wine drinkers develop similar basic expectations for each grape genre such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.  They expect certain things but nonetheless have to taste the wine to know exactly what is there, to see if it does or does not meet those expectations, and to learn the individual nature of that bottle.  In my wine classes and book, my goal is always to instill within the student a sense of basic expectations for each grape based on the place on earth it is grown.  That is as specific as a wine teacher can hope to be. 

This inability to be more specific in our prediction of what is in the bottle remains true even when we are somewhat familiar with the product in hand.  Let’s say that CD is by a band we know and enjoy; we’ll use The Dave Matthews Band for this example.  We put it into the CD player expecting to hear Dave’s unique voice, some good guitar work, some sax, keys, a fiddle, horns and a style that is similar to the comfortable, live, jamming style that we’ve come to expect from DMB.  These are our basic expectations of what we are about to hear.  We have them because we have some history with this band, and know a bit about them. But we still don’t know exactly what we are about to hear.  We have to listen, mulitple times in many cases, in order to appreciate the individual nature of each song and the album as a whole.

No matter how experienced a wine drinker we are, we go into tasting a bottle exactly the same way.  Let’s say it’s a Pinot Noir, perhaps the hottest red grape these days.  We’ve enjoyed a few and therefore have some sense of what to expect.  We could possibly even venture a guess as to its style and flavors, but we can’t know exactly what is in that bottle until we taste it.  We may even have honed our sense of Pinot Noir to a degree that we differentiate the styles of this grape based on its place of origin, Burgundy in France, Oregon or California for example, but that would only be a slightly more educated guess.  We may possibly even have had wines from that particular vineyard in the past, which gives us the most educated guess of all.  But we still don’t know what’s in that bottle until we drink it.  

Within the genres of music there is endless variety to such an extent that in our lives we couldn’t possibly hear every song from a single genre, let alone hear them all from every genre.  We will also never taste every Pinot Noir in the world, let alone every other wine made from each of the 5,000 or so grape varietals used for this purpose.

So what does this mean to us?  First and foremost, we can stop thinking we’re supposed to and quit putting pressure on ourselves to do something no one else can.   We can admire the unlimited beauty of wine, that like music, brings variables to such an extent that we can never explore them all.  Perhaps most importantly, we can change the way we approach wine to be more like the way we do music.  Rather than worry about what we don’t know, we can look forward with excited anticipation as to what we are about to learn.  We can pop a cork with the same attidude we pop in a CD, with a sense of expectation, relaxation, joy, letting it unfold before us, and seeing what it’s got.

One of the ironies of wine is that we truly begin to enjoy it when we accept that it is too vast a subject for us to ever know it all.  It’s like a journey to the edge of the universe, to a goal that doesn’t really exist.  If we sit there saying, “Mommy when are we gonna get there?” rather than enjoy each moment of the journey itself, we’ll never find contentment.  In wine that journey is defined by the moments along our wine learning path with friends, food, places, the music and the wine itself, all of which unfold like a new song before us.

The joy of wine is found in our ability to appreciate those moments.

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Picking favorites

The most common question I get in wine classes is about my favorite wine.  Students of wine tend to want someone they perceive as an expert to tell them what to like.  I talk about favorite songs instead.  We choose favorite songs based on a time, a place, maybe a person and something we shared with them.  They aren’t subject to critics’ reviews, ratings or anything anyone else thinks.  They are about the way we enjoyed them for whatever reason we did. 

Our favorite wines should be the same, based on similar criterion and reminding us of cherished moments.  There is so much attention focused on everything being right about wine that I think we forget to simply enjoy it at times.

I drink an inexpensive Argentinean Sauvignon Blanc made by Las Perdices with my friend Roxy.  We talk about life, work, religion, philosophy, and music, always music, while we drink this wine that we pay ten or eleven dollars a bottle for.   If I were to tell someone it’s one of my favorites, they would go out and buy it expecting to enjoy some fantastic sommelier approved wine.   It’s actually a very humble wine and they couldn’t possibly enjoy it as much as I do because they don’t get Roxy with it. They don’t get to sip it while watching her lovely smile, listening to her exceptional mind or enjoying her delicate laughter. (That’s actually a joke.  When Roxy laughs she lets it rip, putting her heart into it as she does with pretty much everything she does.)

Life takes us to many places and people, and through a lot of changes.  At a point Roxy and I will go our own ways and maybe keep in touch, maybe not.  Either way, I will never again drink a bottle of that wine without thinking of her, without fondly remembering a truly fine lady.   There will be times when it makes me smile and reminisce happily, perhaps others when it is bittersweet and I miss her.  Whatever it is though, it will forever be between me and Roxy and Las Perdices.  What wine critics or anyone else think of it has nothing to do with it. 

It’s easy to just drink wines with friends and forget about them later on, but believe me, it’s worth taking the time to note such things and begin building wine relationships.  Then no matter where we are or who we’re with, our enjoyment of that particular wine in the future is a little different than everyone else’s.  It’s a little secret between us and the wine. 

There is so much emphasis on analysis of wine, fruit profiles, categorizing, all that crap that critics spout about.  We take wine too seriously.  Wine is an ingredient to a wonderful time, one of many.  Take a pinch of wine, stir in a comfortable place, add a smattering of conversation with someone we love, throw in a taste or two of good food, some nice tunes in the background, maybe some candle light flickering in beautiful eyes, and we have the makings of a memory.  Such times are like a fine orchestral piece where each instrument takes its turn stepping up and carrying the melody for a measure or two, taking turns, sharing, each contibuting to the whole that is much lovelier than its parts.  In that same way the food, the conversation, the atmosphere around us, the sounds filtering over us, the sights we see and the wine we sip all take their turns contributing to one of the times of our lives.

If while all that is going on, we’re too busy stressing over whether we’re drinking out of the right glass, pairing with the right food, if it’s breathed long enough or if it’s exactly the right temperature to enjoy ourselves, then we don’t know jack about wine.

Try it.  Sip a wine and pair it with a person, a place, a time.  Then in the future when some snob is pontificating about forest fruits, saddle leather, damp earth and cigar boxes, you can be reminiscing about things that actually mean something.

I know with certainty that my memories of Roxy will be a whole lot nicer than anything they’re talking about.

Oh yeah!

https://www.createspace.com/3442413 to view my book,  The Song of Wine.

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