Sep 10, 200912:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
Or How Do I Learn About Wine When Everyone Seems to Already Have the Knowledge?
To fully appreciate wine, it helps to know as much as you can about the subject. Classes and books are a great place to start.
Photo courtesy of sxc.hu
Very few of us, me included, actually grew up in wine-centric families.
My dad loved Schlitz, so you can imagine the depth of the quality of wine that was in our house. Whenever a bottle of wine popped up, which was infrequent, it was pretty sweet and without structure. Even at 11 years of age, I was certain that the really grapey liquid in the 1-liter bottle was not very good. And if that was what wine was all about, then I would follow in my father’s footsteps and continue the family legacy of drinking Schlitz in quart bottles.
So when I actually discovered wine, through a girl (no surprise there –– the other bit of good news is that I married her), I was way behind on the information curve that I perceived everyone else already had.
In reality, “everyone” really did not have that much wine information, but when you have none, even the rudimentary act of opening a bottle was awkward and embarrassing. Sort of like singing a cappella: You think you are doing fine. The looks on the faces of your friends tell you otherwise.
And, for a lot of reasons, adults are not much into questions. That puzzles me a bit because I actually have no problem asking the most inane question, the kind that if I gave the matter even a moment of thought, I would hold my tongue. Incidentally, that standard response from a knowledgeable source, “That’s a very good question,” has long since ceased to fool me. I know it’s a stupid question, and now I know you have taken Dale Carnegie to try to avoid hurting my feelings. Thank you, but please come up with another pithy phrase.
OK, back to how to learn about wine when all those around you are absolute founts of information. I’ll bet they aren’t but that they have learned to mask their lack of knowledge with b----- … Oops, I don’t think I can use that here. Sorry.
One of the finest ways to get a base of understanding about wine is to take a course. Yes, go figure, an educational course during which you will learn and drink. What’s the downside there?
Courses are offered from time to time at wine retailers, such as Martin’s Wine Cellar, as well as sometimes at Delgado or one of the other schools that have active culinary arts programs.
The wine course route allows you to learn in an orderly fashion; ask questions; listen; and experience the wines as regards their origins, locations and histories, with the added benefit of meeting some good people who are seeking the same goal as you, getting more out of wine.
Of course, if you are bit antisocial or if feel you can pick up good information if you could just find the right books or if wine courses are not being offered (understandable in this post-Katrina world), then good books are indeed the next best method.
The best of the lot, in my opinion, is Kevin Zraly’s legendary masterpiece, Windows on the World Complete Wine Course. Zraly was the guy responsible for putting together the largest wine cellar of any restaurant in the world, the incredible collection at Windows on the World atop the North Tower, on the 106th and 107th floors, of the World Trade Center in New York. The restaurant was reputed to be the highest-grossing restaurant in the world, due in no small part to Zraly’s outstanding wine sales.
Along with everything else that was lost on that terrible Sept. 11 in 2001, Zraly lost five colleagues (and, on a much more trivial level, every bottle of wine) as the towers fell. It is thought that the famous photo of the “falling man” depicted an employee of the restaurant because the man was dressed in a white smock, but, of course, that is impossible to verify.
Anyway, the wine course created and taught by Zraly is considered one of the finest ways to enter the world of wine, and he literally wrote the book on wine education. In the next few weeks, the updated 25th anniversary edition will be released.
Zraly’s course, more than 300 pages, takes you through the story of wine, featuring wines from around the world, and explains why they are the way they are. Along the way, you learn about the sensory facets of sight, smell and taste along with some suggested wines to taste that demonstrate exactly the lessons he is teaching.
He has once again begun to teach the course live, but the book is the best thing you can read to get a handle on a very involved topic.
Another volume that makes sense as a reference book is Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. This is not exactly a book for beginners because you have to possess certain knowledge of wine in order to look up the answers to your questions. But just about every question about wine is answered in the 900-plus-page volume.
MacNeil heads up the wine program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Calif., also known as Greystone. The CIA is a massive complex that boasts state-of-the-art educational tools, and the wine program is not treated as a second-class citizen.
The theater-style classrooms are designed so that every student feels involved in the lecture, and even the choice of fabrics in the room is driven by the desire not to bring any strange odors or textures into the proceedings.
The Wine Bible was praised by the late Robert Mondavi as “the most complete wine book ever.” As I said, it is not assembled to serve as a teaching volume, but as a reference work, it is unmatched.
The key to learning about wine is to come into the exercise with an open mind. Don’t turn your nose up at anything. Try everything. Get out of the beverage as much as you can, and keep good notes.
When you drink wine as a pleasurable pursuit, you are not seeking “a favorite.” Rather, you are looking for the adventure of finding new sensory experiences and the stories that accompany every bottle.
Although the best way to really learn about wine is to pull a lot of corks, it will help –– and you will get so much more of the pleasure –– if you possess the knowledge that serves as the movie in your mind while you are sipping to your heart’s content.