Learning to Love Wine- An Introduction

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My partner Ken has a lifelong love of learning. He’s a teacher too (among other things), having taught both at Art Center and currently UCLA. The thing about great teachers is they are always learning new things. Ken is taking a wine appreciation course at UCLA. Not that Ken and I don’t know or enjoy wine. But a course in wine tasting could give Ken the tools he needs to take his enjoyment of wine to a whole new level.

Ken is going to write a report for us after each of his weekly classes. This is the first report in this series. GREG

I decided to take an introduction to wine class through UCLA Extension. While it’s common knowledge that I know how to drink wine, my goal here is to advance my understanding and appreciation of wine through structured tastings. Plus I’d like to be able to toss off a pithy phrase or two at parties. Something more original than “an unassuming yet amusing little wine…”

I believe that you always need a baseline (as in a scientific study) so I jotted down a few notes prior to the first class:

I enjoy most wines. Except, of course, wine that has gone off and one-note, flat reds. I’d rather drink an inexpensive white than an inexpensive red. I hate cheap sparkling wine. I‘m influenced by label and bottle design, by how much the wine costs and by recommendations of others. Wine glasses make a difference in my perception of the quality of the wine.

Red Wine SwirlMy favorite wines if money is no object: Barolo, Brunello, Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape (maybe I just like saying this), Sauterne, French Chablis, Oregon Pinot Noir. Moderate price: Unoaked Chardonnay, Brouilly, good red blends (Coppola Director’s Cut). Inexpensive: Vinho Verde, Gruner Veltliner, Beaujolais, Zinfandel, Shiraz. Really cheap: Aconga Chenin Blanc-Chardonnay (Argentina, $2.97 when you buy 6 at Ralphs).

OK, here’s my takeaway from the first class: I loved it. The instructor is an experienced wine consultant with a ton of credentials and the guest speaker is the sommelier of a very fancy westside restaurant. There are about 20 students, from undergrads and hipsters to a lovey-dovey couple. We were each given a set of (nice) tasting glasses to use throughout the course and beyond. We also were provided with some great “tools” – three simple categories (appearance, nose, palate), a set of commonly accepted descriptors and a protocol for breaking down your impressions of the wine. It’s all personal, and to a certain degree subjective – everyone’s taste sensors and their ability to articulate their impressions are unique.

We taste eight different wines per session, four whites and four reds. There’s a theme (country of origin or varietal) and rule of “spitting not swallowing.” Though disappointing, I guess this rule makes sense. You want to be clear-headed enough to discern the various properties of the wine. (Not to mention the liabilities that could result if things got out of hand because of over-imbibing.)

On to the tasting. The whites went, logically, from dry to sweet(er). If you taste a dry or more astringent wine after a sweeter, less acidic wine it will taste bitter. So we started with a Sauvignon Blanc, which I liked. I was surprised that this nearly “clear-white” wine had so much, well, flavor (I’ll get better at the descriptions, I promise.) It was definitely in the citrus, lemon-lime, slightly mineral category. The next wine was a Chardonnay, which I don’t generally like on its own, especially if it’s oaky (see above). This one had a “winemaking” (wood, spice – aromas that come from the process of, well, making wine) intensity to it – not my favorite. I really liked the Riesling Trocken (German for dry). Though the nose was delicate and floral, the palate had a nice acidic tingle to it. I found it complex and yummy (and naturally, it was the most expensive white). We finished off the whites with a Gewurztraminer, which was OK, not very distinctive in my opinion – though I somehow blurted out “herbal varnish” when the instructor asked for impressions. It also exhibited a bit of winemaking in the aging or “lees” (which is the last name of a dear friend).

When the instructor and sommelier opened the reds, they discovered a “corked” bottle. You might think that corked means “pieces of cork floating in the wine” – which makes sense, but is wrong. A corked wine is tainted with a fungus called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole). TCA comes from cork bark and can be a huge problem for winemakers – it can infect wood pallets or even an entire barn. We were told that approximately one in twenty bottles of wine is corked to some degree. If someone gets a corked bottle, they could easily form a bad impression of a particular varietal or even of a certain winery. The upside is that if you buy a bottle of wine that happens to be corked, you can return it. Just say “this wine is off” and ask for a replacement or a refund.

Another upside was that we were able to compare a corked pour with a perfectly good one. No contest! You couldn’t even get the corked wine very close to your nose before you started to gag. Descriptions like “wet dog”, “moldy newspapers” and my favorite (because it was mine) “Loehmann’s Basement” were offered up.

box of wine bottlesThe reds were tasted from light to heavy body (with dry to sweet added in where possible). We began with a 2010 Pinot Noir from Napa Valley. Although it had a lovely red fruit berry nose, and a definite fruit forward (strawberry) palate, I didn’t find it particularly interesting. Might get better with age. Onto Merlot, not usually a favorite of mine (and in fact I gave this one an “eh” rating). My first impression was “boysenberry” – which the instructor disagreed with, her thought was “cherry”. I did buy into the cocoa nose and winemaking core notes. Next came my favorite of the evening, a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma: winemaking (like most cabs), black cherry, cassis and even peat moss (I had a bit of a hard time getting this) on the nose and a rounder, astringent palate with a hint of “pencil shavings” on the palate. Could have been even better if it was decanted – or if I had a rib-eye to go with it. Last but not least was the uncorked Syrah – ripe, jammy with an aroma of pepper. Nice. In this case sweeter won out over body for the tasting order.

What have I learned so far? That, like most things, wine tasting is a combination of innate abilities and practice. That although I have my own preferences, I’m open to new ideas and really enjoy new tools and frameworks (“love of learning” is my top character strength). That I have expensive tastes.  KEN

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