Seven Things To Never Say in a Winery

I get it.

 The wine is (sometimes) free and usually generous in its offering.  The winery staff enlivens the taste with glad stories of the winery – or the wines – or the places their grapes grow.  

so many glasses… so little time.

After witnessing a few of the following behaviors first hand, or first nose, here’s a few gentle reminders, by way of their errant phrases overheard, or self-confessionally rendered, where wine tasting happens.

Plan your visit, plan to have a good time and do the winery and fellow tasters the favor of avoiding these phrases:

“Is this too much cologne/perfume?” – Yes.  If wine were a beverage as loud as a rock concert, or if our noses were as sensitive as a dog’s, your Boss or Chanel might not matter.  Let’s just agree that Axe exists to eliminate odor not enhance it.  Further, if wineries were nightclubs, it would be great to smell like a Dior, a Flowerbomb or Jimmy Choo – so far they’re not.

 Wine’s volume resembles background Jazz, especially the parts that make them both worth the listen.  Strong outside aromas, self-imposed or not affect the way the wine’s aromas are available to our poor noses.  Leave the strong stuff at home to smell the good stuff.

“I dressed this way to stop by the gym later.” – Wineries are certainly not places for fancy dress; work gets done there.  If you’ve ever had to extract a stiletto heel from a floor drain or sod from the stitching of your Berlutis, then you know that a vineyard or barrel room tour makes no apology to precious attire.  But do dress the part.  

Sloppy clothes, gym shorts, tennis wear distracts from the winery’s raison d’etre, even if it says Lululemon on the tag.  Besides, who goes to yoga drunk?  Wine tasters aren’t expecting to impress anyone else but they are dressing to be among people who are also out tasting wine.

Bonus Tip – “I think my aunt got red wine out of cashmere once”.If there is one skill I could teach young oenophiles, it would not be getting a cork out of a bottle.  YouTube is overrun with demonstrations.  But, the single best skill for winetasting remains the swirl.  Practice at home.  Put a few ounces of water in your wineglass, place it on the counter, rotate the base of the glass to swirl the liquid enough to coat the inside of the glass – without spilling it.  Try it clockwise – go back for counter-clockwise when you’ve mastered that.  Practice over the sink.  Swirl exuberantly. ALMOST spill in the sink.  With your new proficiency, explain to your friends that swirling is for temperature, oxidation and therefore all the expressive flavors in wine.  Really say “expressive”.  The Six P’s of Winery Visits: Proper Previous Practice Prevents Problematic Phrases.  Remember, practice at home first so that you are never heard to say anything resembling the phrase above.

“I didn’t think it would be so cold!” – Some wineries invite their guests in to the barrel and fermentation areas of the winery where the effects of temperature more drastically affect the character of the wine.  It may be 55 degrees in the cellar.  That’s a good thing.  It means that glass swirling you practiced will actually be able to do something.  Winery wear may best be layered, like the flavors in the wine.

“Which wines are made with beer?” –  Maybe there are no stupid questions, but even my 5 year old granddaughter knows wine is made with fruit and beer with “not-fruit”.  Spend at least a little time and attention knowing that you are going to taste wine, why it tastes that way and why there are no Wine IPA’s.

“Wow. Does this horse have diabetes?” Part 1 – Not every wine you taste will be to your taste. It’s supposed to be that way.  The wines you like will be easily distinguished by those you do not, but the words to describe those differences will come later, sometimes much later.  In the meantime, save the disparaging comments for anyplace besides the winery; if it’s truly that odd, they already know you won’t like it.

“Wow. Does this horse have diabetes?” Part 2 – So it’s ok, even respected, to spit out most of the wine you taste.  Especially if you are having 2 ounces each of the twelve wines the winery has on offer.  Don’t get me wrong; when I am tasting Harlan or Quilceda Creek, I am not spitting out the wine; yet neither am I gulping it.  But here’s the point.  Spitting the majority of the wines you taste permits you to remember the ones you liked.  If I am at one of a few tasting appointments for the day, spitting the wines let’s me taste them and continue before my knees buckle and the gentle fog of inebriation renders them all distressingly similar.  Perhaps even more important is that inebriation removes the ability to whisper.  At any volume, incriminating drunk phrases escape the lips faster than the wine one shouldn’t have swallowed.  I know.  I can only hope that winemaker forgot me sooner than I forget my shock at my outside voice inside.

“Oh, am I in the way?” – Tasting room counters often host more people than can fit at them.  Once you and your group have your taste, move aside to enjoy the wine and let others or other groups up to bat.  Some of them may be unaccompanied wine writers who may have moved aside for your turn- who may be up for a conversation and maybe even help learn more about the wine than either of you knew.  And, it keeps the strain of jilted service away from the staff’s responsibility.

“How long is this tour?” – There seems to be one person in a group who could not care less about the winery, whether the charm of the alcohol has taken over(see above) or if someone just wants to get out of the ‘cold’(see above), there always seems to be someone who is more interested in the end of the tour than the way the sample in your glass arrived there.

Winemakers love to share why their liquid art studio produces unique art, don’t embarrass your friends by being the one who fails to get the point. 
With these reminders in hand, I hope to see you all out tasting wine, enjoying yourselves and making the world a better place for wine lovers and winemakers everywhere.  Please share this to make everyone’s wine world a little bit brighter!

A Tuscan Wine Experience: Antinori nel Chianti Classico

Sparking at the intersection of tradition and innovation…

Going on 50 years ago, the Marchese de Antinori rocked the Tuscan wine world by flouting tradition.
Today, innovation and tradition keep a rare and delicious correspondence in places like Antinori’s Chianti Classico estate; from the art to the architecture to the wine, it remains a distinctive place today.


Their international art resists definition – from spare biome globes to the spare rendition of the Resurrection on vinyl tarp to the 17th century oils and the line drawing miniatures of the Bacchae.
The building’s structure comes from three local materials: native oak, their Cortana steel/copper and the terra cotta. These comprise the voluminous 129,000 square foot, technologically advanced winery. Constructed into the side of a hill, it is nearly invisible, even from the air.


The Marchesi cultivates this balance of innovation and tradition as enthusiastically as his vineyards cultivate grapes balancing ripeness and acidity. The traditional grape varieties of Chianti alloy with international varieties in wines as diverse as the renowned Tignanello and the Chianti Classico. These foreigners lend bas relief of taste to the structure of the natives, a contrast that highlights the crisp acidity and lively (my guide called them ‘crunchy’) fruit and spice characters indicative of the region.


Yet, balance implies a simplistic quality, between ripeness and acidity or old and new or tradition and innovation; the deeper balance of dynamic elements winks out of these impressions from light, shadow and darkness.

Across Europe we celebrate the traditions of wine; we adhere to guarantee of the DOCg in Italy, entrusting their regulation to ensure the consistency of the next bottle, at least within the parameters of vintage. It has been this way for more than 100 years in Tuscany, less so in France but even longer in Spain, mainly to combat fraudulent copycats. Breaking these rules breaks faith, creates remarks. So in the celebration of the constancy of tradition, innovation always sparks attention.

Dynamism finds expression in the flexing terra cotta walls of the aging cellar, breathing with the seasons and the wine. It finds expression in the religious relics represented on modern materials adorning the aging room of the Vin Santo.

The massive winery appears as a topographical line from the air, a simple curve of architecture over vineyards from below, creating tension, space and wine where there was less before.

The place is like the wines, or vice versa.

This dynamism lives in the wines, new and old, light and concentrated, fresh and complex. The reds of Chianti mimic the best artistic tension; they pair with food to create something that was not there before.

What’s not to love here? The restaurant is mentioned by the Michelin guide, deservedly. The antique Tuscan art and terra cotta pieces adorn every architectural innovation. The hospitality is gracious and the wines express why the 12th century Baron Ricasoli thought this region deserved recognition and protection for its wine identity. For an authentic treat, try a bottle of Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva with some Wild Boar ravioli and Ragu!

Tartrates, Cookies, Chemistry and Age

All the Cream of Tartar in the world comes from grape fermentation.

“Waiter, there’s glass in my wine.”

“Oh good for you! You got the diamonds!”

and easily remedied with a judicious repour

Love Snickerdoodles? Thank wine. Love light, fluffy Angel Food cake? Thank wine again. There are many things to praise in the presence of wine, from sacraments to the corrosion of high density lipids.  Since Napoleon’s era, we can add toothsome baked goods to the list.


Unfortunately, it is lost to history who discovered grinding up wine’s tartaric precipitate (tartrates) and adding it to the bread flour, but add it they did, and the world is a better place for it. By the late 18th century, it was common enough in in French cookery to make it a common item in their bakeries – and by the early 19th century it was being mixed with baking soda to make baking powder, as it is today.

Tartrates formed in a half bottle of Sauterne wine.


Tartrates are the crystalline form of wine’s most abundant acidity.  Should the winery wish to filter the tartaric acid out before bottling the wine, all they have to do is turn down the tank temperatures to 45 degrees, or open wintry doors to the barrel room.  Either one works.  The lower temperature squeezes the acidity out of the wine’s chemistry.  


This precipitation, as the chemists call it, takes the form of big chunks in wine vats or as smaller grit in wine bottles. (One will need 6-8 bottles worth, dried and ground, to make a batch of Snickerdoodles.) This grit is flavorless, odorless and has no impact on the resulting wine except that to cold-filter a wine before it is bottled also removes other, desirable flavor characters.  These little bits of grit, most easily photographed in white wine, speak of conscientious winemaking, not careless winemaking.

Red Wine tartrates are easiest to find on the cork.


Red wine sediments are also made of tannins and pigments that polymerize and precipitate out as they become too long to remain in suspension.  In red wine, that process requires years, if not a decade or two to happen.  Tartrates in any color of wine form as quickly as the wine is bottled and chilled, if they have not been previously chilled out at the winery.

Aged tartrate deposits are less well-defined and will cloud easily if disrupted.


The lesson in service is this: old tartrates require slow, gentle decanting to prevent them getting to your guest’s glass; young tartrates or ‘wine diamonds’ are almost as easy to catch as pouring slowly across the shoulders of that Bordeaux bottle, letting them collect there while the wine pours over the top. 


Look for wine bottles with these sediments; the wine you find inside will taste better than its peers – and probably better than any Snickerdoodle.

The Edges of Wine Knowledge

Relax.

 

It is an understatement to say that fermented grapes inspire anxiety. Am I doing this right?  Will I know if this wine is good or bad?  What is this salesperson/sommelier trying to push off on me?  Am I paying too much for this?

As a one of the wine folk of the world, I consider it every wine person’s first job to reduce that anxiety – after all, that’s what wine does, in the end.

Toward this task, we earnestly describe grape varieties, wine traditions,  tasting techniques, sulfites, types of soil, food affinities, glassware – to name a few. And we keep it up. And describing and learning more.

 

But, here’s a fun secret. We don’t know.  Even the Master-est Master of Wine doesn’t and can’t know some things.  These things are unknowable in wine and therefore a taster’s opinion will always remain supreme.

 

To balance this perspective, sure, we know plenty about grape varieties and verifiable details, but the rest of the influences on perception and value remains a happy cocktail of hypothesis and fashion.

 

For example, why can’t screwcaps age wine like a cork-stoppered bottle? We don’t know. (There’s a gob of money for whoever figures it out – and synthetic cork producers will tell you they already have…. they are drinking their own kool-aid.)

 

How do we communicate meaningful scent impressions? We don’t know. (More gobs of money…)

 

Which glass is best for capital-C Champagne? The fashion today is for the conventional white wine glass, away from the bouquet-numbing flute and not all the way back to the bubble-flattening coupe. Today’s fashion would would scandalize Marie-Antoinette’s admirers.  Try Champagne in a variety of different glasses to see where you prefer it – and let it be warmer to the 55-65 degree range for optimal perceptability.   Riedel’s Oregon Pinot Noir glass has been a personal favorite for years as it has enough volume to really let the wine express itself and enough closure to concentrate the aromas it offers.   I think I heard one of the kids say, it’s pretty woke up?  In language and in taste fashion, there is always more to explore – even when it’s done awkwardly.  In wine as in so much else, opinion and fashion have shelf-life.

 

Teaching people the pathways to finding their own taste preferences, I find it common to not trust one’s own opinion.  We want to bounce it off other’s like echolocation.  A recurring student at a wine class cleared it up for me one night. I told him I was surprised to have him attend as he had been to so many classes before. He said it was reassuring to hear it again.

 

Ok, I get that.  Hearing a familiar song or watching a familiar play on a new production remains a fine way to make sure your key still fits the lock.   We all play a little bit of Doubting Thomas when it comes to our own wine knowledge.

 

Take heart if you can’t recall all the grapes and their min/max percentages allowed in Morellino di Scansano. Or, why you would (probably) like it better than Chianti with grilled Beef Ribeye…

 

To this end of education and explanation, your questions give good sommeliers job security.  Genuinely curious tasters and diners offer that in return for the informed guidance.   Second, the recommendations with food are all fashion or fashion with a solid dose of nostalgia.  They live, however, as fashion we know, fashion sommeliers represent in context not mere recitation.

 

Away from fashion, back to the edges of wine knowledge, why do grapes taste like the place they grew?  Not one of the world’s wine-folk knows for sure – but everyone agrees it does.

 

Relax, enjoy the wine. Have another glass and talk about it. It will taste even better. Maybe, we get to know more about the wine, but we absolutely get to know more about each other – and I know that’s really the point.

How to Become a Sommelier

It’s harder and easier than you think.

It’s harder and easier than you think.

Organolepts are people who use their sense of taste and smell to help navigate an industry. Coffee uses them. Perfumiers hire them. The FDA uses them to assess the impact of oil spills on the taste of seafood. If you do it for ice cream, you have the lowest life expectancy of all organolept careers. Cicerones do it for beer, Sommeliers do it for wine.

David Litt of Berkeley Science Review lists a dozen careers in food sensory analysis, and none of those jobs involve thirsty guests, standards of affability, twitchy managers, alcohol consumption or arcane knowledge of Italian labeling laws. “Tasting Panel Associate” has training requirements that are nowhere near as arduous as a Sommelier certification.

But, in truth, there are 6 relatively simple steps to becoming a Sommelier:

  1. TASTE – spit. Taste again. Spit again. Professionals spit because it concentrates experience without the fog of alcohol. If a professional tasting only had 10 wines offering an ounce each, one might make it swallowing the alcohol. The last professional tasting I attended had 48 wines; one would have had the equivalent of a bottle by the 24th wine – and as for remembering the last 5, impossible. Professionals endearingly compare it to fishing; we practice catch-and-release. PRO HINT: practice attention on the first, second and final taste impressions each wine carries – and notice if these change over the space of time the wine is being tasted.
Taste often.

2. TAKE NOTES – Even if it is one line of 8-10 words for each wine, it sticks the impression in the memory far better than no written notation of the wine. “Sour black cherry jam on toast” will bring the experience of that wine back to you quickly. Will your words work for others? Not at first – and that’s ok. Will you look like a dork at the tasting bar? Maybe, but you will have a far better idea of the wines’ applications, nuances and value than those who do not. PRO HINT: step aside while note-taking so that others may taste also.

A structured system will be easier to compare wine to wine.

COMPARE NOTES – Tasting in a group is the most efficient way to learn insights into wine’s impressions. If you are sipping your bottle of Cheval Blanc 1961 out of a styrofoam cup alone in a greasy diner, you can take notes and compare them to any one of a number of publications, websites like CellarTracker.com or WineSearcher.com to triangulate a rounder, more complete “taste-picture” of the wine than any one taster could ever accomplish. There are more sublime ways to taste old Merlot-based wine than aside a cheeseburger and onion rings and your tasting companions can help find them. PRO HINT: when reading a publication’s reviews, keep in mind if the review is formed by one individual or a committee for calibrating your opinion in relation to theirs.

Miles’ despair. (Sideways – Fox/Searchlight)

4. TRAVEL – By now, there are favorite wines in your repertoire. Go to the vineyard. Shake the hand of the winegrower. Taste the wines again in situ. Are they the same? Discriminate your own perceptions of the differences. Stand in the vineyard and just soak it in, the views, the smells, the somewhereness of it all. Well-made wine will remind you of the place, bringing it full circle and leave you wondering why more wines don’t do that. PRO HINT: Every offer to taste an older wine from the winery’s cellar is a huge compliment. It will offer unparalleled perspective to how their wines develop in bouquet, intensity, complexity and general appeal.

Irrigation lines, pruning techniques and climate are hard to understand from a book.

5. SHARE/TEACH – Just like comparing notes, teaching makes you vulnerable to learning more by pointing out the “taste topography” of a wine or taste combination. Other people will taste differently and share with you. Get a job doing it; this is the ultimate way of sharing. A job in a restaurant, bottle shop or tasting room is the fastest way to curate your own experience and expertise. Further, local community colleges, libraries and restaurants welcome an organizer to lead a wine experience. Even if you just learned the material, you will be ahead of the class. PRO HINT: Be aware of alternate spellings and pronunciations of wine grapes or regions, i.e. – Piedmont is Piemonte as easily.

Coeur d’Alene Cellars teaches local restaurant staff the finer points of wine.

6. REPEAT – The cycle is repeated by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine the world over. Taste, take notes, compare, travel and share. Each cycle has a broader reach than the last time around. PRO HINT: The secret 7th step is to ENJOY.

Taste, take notes, compare notes, travel, share, do it again and ENJOY!

Every cycle gets larger and more inclusive, able to talk to more people more easily about deeper segments of wine. The next best reward is to earn the confidence of a diner with enough speed to choose their dinner wine for them. The absolute best is when they return to have you do it again.

Do you have a story about becoming a Somm? Did I miss any steps?