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Wine Tasting Made Easy

Author: Jane Hodges Young
October, 2015 Issue

When you think about it, tasting wine is really pretty simple. You open a bottle, pour a taste (or more), snap your wrist to get the obligatory swirl, study the color, thrust your nose into the bowl of the glass and breathe deeply to savor the bouquet—then take a sip and enjoy (or not).
 
Yet many people find the process intimidating and daunting, largely because they’ve been overexposed to wine snobs (remember Miles in the movie “Sideways”?). And despite the fact that Americans are drinking more wine than ever before, there’s still apprehension among many when it comes to tasting wine. As a result, myths about wine abound.
 
NorthBay biz contacted three stellar sommeliers (somms) in an effort to help bust up some of the biggest misconceptions about wine tasting. First, let’s meet them:
 
• Catherine Fallis, “the grape goddess,” from Planet Grape, a speaker, writer, consultant and wine guru who was the fifth woman in the world to attain the status of Master Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers (see “The Road to Master Sommelier,” below).
 
• Marcella Newhouse, certified sommelier currently working at CooperVino, a new wine bar in Cupertino. Newhouse also writes about wine for various publications and publishes a wine blog at www.enotecamarcella.com.
 
Christopher Sawyer, sommelier, wine educator, journalist, wine judge, public speaker and many things more, who’s been named “Best Sommelier” in Sonoma County for the past two years by The Bohemian.
 
And now: the myths!
 

It has to be red

Some people think, if they’re serious about wine, they can’t be caught with a glass of white or a Rosé. Men, in particular, are guilty of this sin—particularly when it comes to pink wine (see “Brosé: Real Men Drink Pink”).
 
“Men think Rosé isn’t for them,” says Fallis. “But in the south of France in the summer, you drink Rosé. It has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the culture of the place. It’s just what everyone else is already doing: You go to a restaurant and you drink the local Rosé. It’s like going to Starbuck’s and ordering a latté, because that’s what you do at Starbuck’s.”
Fallis says more Rosé than white wine is consumed in France, but she’s noticing that Rosé is growing in popularity stateside—at least in California. (See “Make Me Blush.”)
 
“I think people forget Rosé is a serious wine as well. Rosé Champagne is the richest Champagne of all. It requires better grapes and is pricier because it’s more expensive to produce,” she adds. “Rosé isn’t just for women.”
 
Newhouse and Sawyer both enjoy challenging people to release the reds and embrace the whites.
 
“I’ll pour a Pinot Noir because you ordered it,” Sawyer says, “but I’ll also pour you a Sauvignon Blanc to get you thinking on a different level. I love to dare people who won’t drink a white wine.”
 
“In California, people often say they don’t like white wine,” says Newhouse. She attributes it to the fact that a lot of California white wine “was made from overripe grapes or is over-oaky, so people think they don’t like it. I encourage them to try whites from other countries that are refreshing and cleaner tasting. They often enjoy them. Sometimes, people just don’t know that they do like white wines,” because they haven’t tried the right ones.
 

Look at those legs!

This is the one myth that sets Sawyer on fire: “Everyone says ‘Oh, I love the legs on this one.’ But to me, legs aren't important. If anything, it usually means the alcohol level is fairly high, thus causing the sugar to form beads on the sides of the glass based on the evaporation of alcohol. Most Europeans don't check out legs, because wines they make don't have levels of alcohol that are as high as wines made in California. From personal experience, I can tell you wines with legs are also harder to pair with food, because they’re high in alcohol or sweet."
 

White with fish, red with meat

“You’ll often hear that white wine goes with poultry and fish, and red wine is just for meats and pasta,” says Sawyer. “It’s absurd, and we’ve come completely around on the concept over the past two decades. Merlot and Pinot Noir, in particular, have great finesse and work beautifully with a wide range of food. They’re super tools for somms today.”
 

No one drinks Merlot

Au contraire! Merlot got a bad rap from the Pinot-centric “Sideways” movie, but it’s come back strong.
 
“Right now, Merlot is back in style,” says Sawyer. After it was dinged in the movie (when Miles said he wasn’t drinking any “f#*&ing Merlot”), sales plummeted. “The result was that a lot of bad stuff was taken off the market,” Sawyer explains. “When the pendulum swung back after the bad Merlot vineyards were yanked out, the remaining and newly planted grapes were more high quality, thus making today’s Merlot wines heady successors to their less-pedigreed predecessors.”
 

Price is directly related to quality

Yes, people still believe this—whether it relates to wine, cars or cigars.
 
“A couple of days ago, I was at an airport wine bar with my sister,” relates Newhouse. “Some guys swooped in. They worked in the oil industry [translation: they had money], they were on their way to a golf tournament and their flight was delayed. They sat down and decided to order a bottle of Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon. I asked them, ‘Gosh, guys, have a little class. Can’t you order something better?’—but I was joking with them,” Newhouse continues. “So they turned around and ordered an Opus One. Then they ordered another. After they left, I looked at the wine list and saw they paid $350 for each of those bottles—the Nickel & Nickel was only $160 and who knows, it could have been a better wine—or at least on par with the Opus One. They felt high class and thought they knew what they were doing by ordering the most expensive wine on the list. At least they were generous enough to share with us, but I didn't love the wine.”
 
One rule of thumb this writer learned at a wine tasting workshop was this: If you're looking at a wine list and are unfamiliar with the wines, try the second least expensive wine in the varietal you prefer. It’s generally a wine the somm feels is very good, but it’s probably not a well-known brand, so it’s priced more competitively than those backed by stronger marketing efforts.
 

Screwcap wines don’t age

“People think screwcaps are put on wines that need to be consumed right away,” says Newhouse.
 
Wrong. “Screwcaps will help keep the wines fresher because there’s not as much oxygen transfer [as in a cork], but they do age.” Her old boss, Randall Grahm, was one of the first to embrace screwcaps for his Le Cigare Volant red wine at Bonny Doon Vineyard near Santa Cruz. Newhouse had the opportunity to taste 14 vintages of the wine, “and it was great under screwcap. People don’t believe you can age wine in screwcap, but I’ve experienced it,” she declares.
 

Wine goes bad overnight

“No, no, no,” says Fallis.
 
“Most newly released wines from anywhere in the world will actually taste better the next day, and the ones that are really good will taste even better on the third day, without any special treatment,” Fallis says. That’s why she and her panelists employ a three-day rule when doing Planet Grape wine reviews.
 
“I do every wine over a three-day window,” she explains. “Screw cap wines, in particular, really blossom.”
 
She notes that she doesn’t employ this technique with mass market, low-end, bulk wines that are made to be shelf stable. “Two Buck Chuck would not be better the next day, nor would box wines, which have too many preservatives,” she says. She also says the three-day rule frequently does not apply to Pinot Noirs, “which are delicate and can lose some of their aromatics,” or older wines, because, “they've already had a lot of contact with oxygen. But young wines are often oxygen-deprived.”
 
So don’t be afraid to let that wine hang around the kitchen for a few days.
 

Color is critical

“As a wine judge, color is one of the last things I ever look at,” says Sawyer. “Now, if a wine is browning on the edges, it might have some issues, but different hues of red are just suggestive—they aren’t going to tell you how a wine will taste.”
 
Sawyer believes some people “are scared of wines they can see their fingers through,” yet he points to Joseph Swan Winery, which makes some of the finest Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley. “Swan wines are lighter, but they’re complex. They just aren’t saturated with color.”
 
Owner/winemaker Rod Berglund “makes sure the fruit is ripe to where he likes it with a balance of acid and sweetness. He doesn’t need to have it ferment forever for color,” Sawyer says. “When you find a lighter wine with huge flavors, it’s way more complex and beautiful, versus a wine made to fit a certain color scale.”
 

Points count

Not with floor somms.
 
“Using the numbers game with somms just doesn’t work,” says Sawyer. Many times, diners will ask for certain wines just because they got high scores from Wine Spectator or other wine publications. “They tell us they read where a certain wine got a high score and they want to know if we have the wine. The fact is, Wine Spectator doesn’t know the food we work with on a daily basis, and we don’t make judgments based on its scores. The job of a somm is to showcase what a chef makes, and wines we put on our wine lists are those that complement the food. So a wine gets 93 points in Wine Spectator. Well woo-hoo! But ultimately, we have to decide how to make the chef, the restaurant and the wine program work in unison for the betterment of anyone who walks through the door.”
 
“When I was a floor somm, the last thing I wanted to hear about was points,” Fallis agrees, but notes that, in her business, she’s chosen to embrace the points system in her reviews because it’s an easy thing for consumers to understand when it comes to wine ratings. These days, she’s about “helping a wine lover or person who wants to become a wine lover.” It’s not so much about complementing the food of a particular restaurant.
 

Taste depends on the glass

Despite what you may have heard, the style of wine glass one uses doesn’t improve the flavor of wine.
 
“It’s a fallacy,” says Fallis. “The fact is, good wine will taste good in any glass, and bad wine won’t improve in a good glass. Aside from Styrofoam coffee cups from a gas station, good wine tastes good in just about any vessel—and bad wine won’t taste better no matter what you put it in. If you’re going to serve me a Château Cheval Blanc 1961 in a water glass, I’m drinking it. I once drank Opus One from a plastic cup in a parking lot in Napa Valley.”
 
At the same time, “if you’d like to match different types of wine with stemware to have it blossom even more, then look at different sizes and shapes,” she says.
 
Fallis suggests investing in glasses you won’t feel bad breaking—like the all-purpose stemware available at Crate and Barrel or Cost Plus World Market for as little as $1.99 per stem. “You don’t want to buy stemware that you feel you have to put in a vault,” she says.
 

Your palate is everything

Nonsense. “You don’t need a special sense of smell or a unique palate to taste wine. You just need an ordinary sense of smell, but you need to focus and shut out the outside world to concentrate totally on what you’re smelling and tasting,” Fallis explains. The only exceptions are people with nose disabilities such as allergies or sinus conditions. “Otherwise, the average person can smell and taste wine” with no problem.
 
The difficulty, Fallis says, comes when people try to find words to describe what they’re smelling and tasting.
 
“That’s where people get nervous. One of the things I suggest is to try to describe common foods they eat, like hamburgers or chicken teriyaki. Find words to describe your morning coffee or your Krispy Crème donut; start there, and then branch over to wine,” she says.
 

No one is an expert

This is one myth we’re not going to bust. If you still have trepidations about your next trip to a tasting room or wine bar, we have one final story from Malcolm Kushner’s book, Vintage Humor for Wine Lovers, that should make you feel better.
 
In April 2002, Internet news agency Ananova reported that a group of 54 wine tasters in Bordeaux heaped praises on a red wine in an expensive bottle. There was just one problem. It was really a cheap white wine.
 
It seems a group of psychologists conducting an experiment added tasteless red food dye to a cheap white wine and put it in an expensive-looking bottle. None of the experts detected the deception. When they tasted it from the expensive bottle, they said it was “robust,” “fruity but charming” and “marvelous.” When drunk from its real bottle, it was called “weak,” “thin,” and “too light.”
 
Kushner commented: “The tasters are still seeing red. But it has nothing to do with wine.”
 
To you, in good taste. Enjoy and cheers!
 

The Wizards of Wine

To the uninitiated, titles in the wine world can be a little confusing. One hears about sommeliers, master sommeliers and masters of wine—but what’s the difference?
 
Here is a quick primer.
 
Sommeliers are wine stewards who are knowledgeable professionals working in finer restaurants. They’re directly involved in wine and food pairings, wine service and development of wine lists. “Basically, it’s a restaurant staff position, just like a server or bartender,” explains Catherine Fallis, Master Sommelier. “Anyone can call themselves a sommelier or wine server.” Sommeliers are trained by direct experience working in the field and through classes offered by culinary academies and other schools throughout the world.
 
Master sommeliers are highly trained wine professionals who’ve completed four levels of study and examinations through the Court of Master Sommeliers (www.mastersommeliers.org). The program is rigorous and can take many years to complete. The first level is Introductory, which is followed by Certified, Advanced and, finally, Master Sommelier. It might actually be harder to become a Master Sommelier than it is to make it into Major League Baseball. There are only 147 in North America and 229 worldwide. Only 10 percent are women.
 
Masters of wine are individuals who’ve completed a three-level program conducted by the Institute of Masters of Wine (www.mastersofwine.org), based in London. The exam consists of three parts: practical (wine tasting), theory (production and handling, wine business and contemporary wine issues) and an original research paper that must be 10,000 words in length. The program is more academic than the Master Sommelier one, and is usually completed by wine negotiants, wine writers and winemakers. There are currently 322 masters of wine in 24 countries worldwide. Women hold about one-third of the MW designations.
 

The Road to Master Sommelier

When it comes to choosing fields of study, becoming a master sommelier is certainly attractive.
 
Like, what could possibly be cooler than drinking wine for your coursework? And homework sounds equally inviting!
 
Not so fast. The actual process of earning the master sommelier title through the Court of Master Sommeliers is grueling, time-consuming and requires that one pass what's considered to be one of the world’s hardest tests.
 
Catherine Fallis knows all too well.
 
“If you watch the movie ‘Somm’ [a Jason Wise documentary about four men studying for the exam], it’s a fairly accurate picture of what you have to give up to get through the process,” says Fallis, who, in 1997, became only the fifth woman in the world to earn the designation. Even today, the odds for a woman are daunting—only 23 of the 229 people worldwide who hold the title are female.
 
She decided to embark on the master mommelier examinations after several years as a “floor somm,” at several renowned restaurants, including a stint with Leona Helmsley at the Helmsley Palace Hotel’s Villard House restaurant in New York City, becoming wine school coordinator and cellar master at Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School and, later, being named sommelier and wine director at Michael Mina’s famous Aqua in San Francisco.
 
Today, Fallis is the master mommelier at Planet Grape (www.planetgrape.com), her own wine consulting firm that provides content, reviews, corporate and private tastings, restaurant wine program development and speaking services throughout the country.
 
“It can take years to get through all four levels (of certification). It really depends on how much experience you have and how much time you have to study. It’s really all-engrossing. It has to be your whole life,” she says. “But there’s a great thrill of making it at the end.”
 
People often ask her what she went through and whether it really is as intense as portrayed in film and writings.
 
She remembers never seeing entire television series that became a part of the American culture, because “when you’re working toward your master sommelier, there’s no downtime. It’s like training to be an Olympian. You have to be all-in,” she explains.
 
Was it worth it? You bet.
 
“I became a master sommelier at 11:40 a.m. on November 1, 1997,” she reflects. “At 11:45, I was smoking a cigar and having a single malt scotch at the bar. I can still taste it right now.”
 
Some moments in life are like that.

 

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