Tag Archives: #wine

Maui Wine: Not a complete oxymoron – a novel tasting experience

The idea of Hawaii as a wine producer may seem far-fetched. But Hawaii’s wealth of climatic zones means this tropical paradise has opportunities to create decent, even good wine. Maui Wine offers delicious wines made from Pineapple, as well as up and coming estate grape wines.

Faithful readers, please forgive me for my lack of posts of late. My job has offered great opportunities to travel and collect some very blog worthy food and wine adventures, but it leaves me virtually no time to write them. So here I am writing this post on a rare flight with no WiFi to distract workaholic me!

The drive along the lower slopes of Haleakala


On my recent (ok not so recent as I get around to posting this, and the trip itself was sadly quick!) trip to Hawaii, I needed to quickly learn the island of Maui to prepare for an upcoming event. Having found myself driving around the scenic island in a bright red Ford Mustang, I made a slight detour to the slopes of Haleakala, a cratered volcano, and on it, to Maui Wine’s winery and tasting room. The drive was absolutely stunning, offering views of nearly 2/3 of the island. After a flight from O’ahu and this drive, it also was time to stretch my legs and try some wine.


The tasting room is in a converted, whitewashed cottage surrounded by large deciduous and palm trees. The manicured grounds and picket fences of surrounding Rose Ranch are a reminder of Hawai’i’s colonial, sugar plantation-filled past. The tasting room itself offers a glimpse into the ranch’s past, as well as the lengthy history of winemaking in Maui. The ancestor of Maui Wines, which has changed ownership and branding several times, began winemaking in the late 19th century.


The wines: Pineapple


Pineapple wines are the winery’s most produced and most popular. It’s easy to understand why. Its dry, sparkling Hula O Hawai’i pineapple wine is made in the traditional (champenoise) method. It is a perfect aperitif for a home gathering. The semi-dry Maui Blanc still wine was my favorite. It was full of complex aromas and an almost floral fruitiness. The sweet pineapple Maui Splash wine was smooth and drinkable, not as heavy or sticky sweet as dessert wines.

The wines:  Grape

I tried the Lokelani sparkling rosé, which is part of its deceptively named Rose Ranch line – not made from estate-grown grapes but instead sourced from “all over”, primarily from California. The wine was crisp and tasty, but the disappointment in drinking a California wine that just happened to have been blended in Hawai’i, knocked it down a bit in my esteem.

I had to try one wine made from estate grown grapes, and with Maui’s restrictive liquor laws, I had only one more to sample (note: go with a group so you can try one another’s three samples!). So I chose the Chenin blanc, which is among their most popular (but low production) wines. I’ll just say that it was a good start; it was a crisp, drinkable wine. It lacked the complexity of a Vouvray, a South African chenin, or even my favorite Chenin Blanc blend from California (Pine Ridge).


I would have loved to try all of Maui Wines’ selections. Perhaps next time! While it is off the beaten path (road), make it a stop on the Road To Hana. It’s not every day one can see amazing tropical scenery and taste delicious pineapple wines.

Gloria Ferrer: California sparkling house with Spanish Catalonian flair

Sample some French-style, Spanish-influenced sparkling wine (yep, that’s a thing!) made in Sonoma County, California at Gloria Ferrer.

Nestled in the cool bayside Carneros region of Sonoma County, the vineyards of Gloria Ferrer are well situated to grow Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes, the key components of most sparkling wines. Having visited nearby Domaine Carneros just across the Napa County line, I had wanted to try Gloria Ferrer.

The winery is a venture started by the Ferrer family, which grew Freixenet in Catalonia into one of the most prominent Cava houses in Spain in the past century. For those that haven’t had much exposure to Cava, it is a sparkling wine made in the champenoise style and made primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot noir grapes -sometimes, juice from other grapes, like Spain’s Xarello, may be blended in.

 

A sliver of the panorama facing east from the patio

 
Gloria Ferrer’s tasting room is hard to spot from highway 121 (which, annoyingly is still only a two lane road, which really cramps my style when heading to Napa), but its cheery stucco walls and red Spanish roof tiles are a comforting indication of the sparkling house’s Spanish roots. Tasting outdoors on the sizeable patio is a must when the weather cooperates. Sunshine and a better than expected view of the Vaca mountains that shield Napa and the rest of the region from the (worst of the) inland heat.

Gloria Ferrer’s specialty is sparkling wine; however as is typical for American sparkling wine producers, it also makes still wines. One aspect I loved about the winery’s tasting room was that one could also try wines from its Spanish and Australian wineries – a nice change of pace when you are a frequent visitor to California wineries.

At the tasting room, wines can be sampled by the glass, bottle, or one of five tasting flights. The tasting flights include two sparkling only flights, one still flight, and two mixed flights, each consisting of 3-4 different wine samples. I chose the 90 point flight, which is one of the two all-sparkling flights.

This flight started off with the extra brut, which was lemony and crisp from its Chardonnay grapes. It wasn’t the most complex of wines, but sparkling wines often aren’t.

We moved on to the Brut rosè. It had
Sweet berry notes, but the fruitiness of the Pinot noir was a bit more subtle than other houses’ varieties. As a brut, it was crisp and dry, a pleasant aperitif.

Next on the list was the royal cuvée, a source of pride for the winery. I wasn’t quite so impressed with it, as it just felt heavier, and our bottle may have gone a bit flat from an earlier opening. But the memory also quickly disappeared after our final wine.

The Va de Vi was fantastic. With a small amount of the aromatic Muscat grape blended into the two usual suspects, it was more complex than the other three. In addition, though a small enough dosage (sugar and yeast mixture added to the bottle for second fermentation) was added to qualify it as a brut (dry) wine, had a touch more sweetness than the other three. That hint of extra sweetness nicely balanced the citrus tang of the wine. It was by far all of our favorite.

Other friends, not fans of bubbly, opted to try one of the Spanish Ferrer family wines. Their chosen Morlanda wine is a blend of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carineña (Carignan) from the rocky, austere Priorat wine region of Catalonia. It was a smooth balance of fruit and tannins.

In any tasting experience, service is key. Our server, Diego, was friendly and happy to share wine knowledge yet left our group free to enjoy our sunny midday tasting and company of friends. I’ll be back!

TwoBirds/OneStone: When you want an amazing meal to go with your Napa wine tour

Today, I highlight the newest breakout in Napa’s wine country restaurant scene. Two Birds/OneStone, located on the property of St. Helena’s Freemark Abbey winery, is Japanese-Californian yakitori fusion at its best.

Part of Freemark Abbey Winery’s Grand Re-opening festivities

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to experience the Grand Reopening celebration for Freemark Abbey’s renovated winery and new tasting room facilities. The gorgeous integration of old and new – the historic winery building was gutted down to its frame, and as rebuilt it features both old/reclaimed materials from the original building and new – adds new energy to my favorite winery.

But just as exciting is the Freemark’s partnership with TwoBirds/OneStone. The result of a happy friendship between Master Top Chef TV show contestants Douglas Keane (Sonoma-based Michelin starred chef) and Sang Yoon (LA based Asian specialty chef), the restaurant has ambitious aims. Upscale Asian restaurants, while plentiful in San Francisco, are few and far between in the Euro-centric Napa Valley – much less the casual small plate cuisine (such as yakitori, which traditionally are skewers of meat, primarily chicken) of Japanese Izakaya. At first glance, wine – particularly Freemark Abbey’s bold Cabernet Sauvignons – doesn’t seem the best match for Asian fusion.

Yet my group of friends and I soon learned the genius in combining regional poultry and produce with perfect execution. The nuanced flavors somehow worked well with California wine.

Surprisingly, the restaurant’s wine list featured no Napa or Sonoma Ames, instead highlighting select international wines. Baffled, we realized the restaurant’s goal was not to sell Freemark or Napa wines (why, when you can just walk next door!) but to offer patrons something unique for the area. If local wine is your fancy, however, you can take advantage of its FREE(!) corkage on any Napa or Sonoma county wine. For a restaurant of this caliber, this policy wins my support (especially after paying $65 corkage for one bottle recently in San Francisco). We took advantage of it on our visit, enjoying both a bottle of (unnamed) Sauvignon blanc made in a friend of a friend’s garage and Freemark Abbey’s Bootleg Blend – a powerful, yet smooth Bordeaux Blend concocted by Ted Williams, Freemark’s head winemaker.

Ok, so let me get to the food. The food was simply outstanding. Our group of five each ordered two of the restaurant’s small plates, which included a smattering of both cold and hot, both meat and vegetable based dishes. Dishes arrive as they’re completed, which was like a parade of culinary gifts for the palate. Each bite was a new surprise.

 

Kimchi lotus root

 
The lotus root kimchi was a great palate cleanser, its marinade lighter and less salty than traditional varieties. 

 

the black kale salad – so good, we ordered two!

 
The black kale salad married interesting textures and delicate Asian flavor. I couldn’t stop eating it. 

  
 The spinach with sesame-rice dressing also was a nice departure from the often overbearing, standard sautéed spinach that graces many a restaurant menu.

 

tender scallops and turnips with pea puree

 
As for the meat dishes, poultry, seafood, and beef each were outstanding. We sampled the night’s special – a raw scallop and radish concoction. Its subtle flavors and freshness were ideal for an appetizer, yet something about it (floral note?) reminded me of my grandmother’s house somehow.

  
 The rare salmon met my picky standards with zero fishiness that I usually pick up upon instantly.

 

duck breast, almost indescribably delicious

 
While these dishes were amazing, I much preferred the duck and chicken meatballs. I cannot do either dish justice in words. The duck was tender, its tamarind and cherry-based glaze the perfect, intensely sweet match for the meat. 

 

The humble meatball is as good as it gets at Two Birds/OneStone

 
The chicken meatballs were light, almost weightlessly melting in one’s mouth amidst a base of hoisin sauce. In fact, the chicken meatballs, deceptively humble, were the most memorable dish of the night. 

 

tender wagyu

 
Lest I neglect it, the crispy-on-the-outside, softly marbled inside Waygu beef short ribs also were about as good as wagyu gets.

   

kikori whiskey and chocolate custard, topped wirh cherry compote.


 We couldn’t skip dessert after such a great meal. We all shared the matcha (green tea) soft serve, as well as the kikori whisky and chocolate custard. The latter earned high praise from me. I could have eaten three orders of it single-handed. Like our savory dishes, it managed to be satisfyingly intense yet light. 

 

matcha green tea soft seeve with ginger crumbles

 
The matcha soft serve fit well with the restaurant’s theme, and the flavors were interesting, but it felt a little too much like eating sushi for dessert.

Unanimously, our group felt our dinner was a complete success. We managed to enjoy every bite and sip, along with great company, in a lovely, spacious winery setting. We also were happy that a meal at this level did not break our wallets – less than the equivalent of a bottle of Napa wine per person. I can’t wait to return.

The Funk Zone: Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, Part 2

Curious about wine – but find wineries to be pretentious? Santa Barbara, CA’s Funk Zone is for you!

In our last post, the CD showed you three refined tasting rooms along Santa Barbara, California’s Urban Wine Trail. Today, we’ll switch gears and visit a few of the irreverent, well, funky tasting rooms and a brewery in the city’s four block Funk Zone, where wine is fun and the crowds much livelier than most of the wine trail’s low-key and polished tasting rooms.

The Funk Zone feels a bit industrial, college-y, and more social. The energy runs much higher than the average winery (anywhere in the world). I think of it as Wine University. Go there and you’ll discover (or re-discover) the fun side of wine, from local, experimental varietals or blends to wines from other regions and countries, to little known traditional styles. The crowds are friendly, the hosts happy to share the joy of wine with patrons (or just as happy to leave patrons alone to enjoy the wine among their own friends if they don’t seem to care about wine education).

First stop for us was a drop into Municipal Winemakers. The name is as atypical for a winery as is the ambience. Industrial and purposefully unfinished on the inside, the tasting room feels like it could be someone’s converted residential garage. The wine list is an unpretentious board with moveable plastic letters. The top line reads, “Wine tasting costs $14 dollars, unless you’re awesome” (the “awesome” is a nod to their Club Awesome wine members). They make quite a few Grenache-based wines, including a Grenache blanc, and they also sell wines from Fox Family Winery to compliment the Municipal brand.

  
Next, we made a longer visit to Cork and Crown, a cozy tasting room and wine shop that sells only other people’s wine and beer. Featured wine and beer flights change monthly, each bearing a theme. My friend chose an Italian-themed flight to continue her streak after enjoying a Californian Super Tuscan blend. A Sicilian white and Tuscan and Sicilian reds completed the flight. Those selections were great representations of Italian wine. The Sicilian Nero D’Avola was my favorite of the three, with its bouncy, fruity character befitting of the popular tasting room’s bustling vibe.

  
I sampled the Gold flight, which highlighted three award winning wines from across California. This particular flight included a rare, tart , and crisp Californian Albariño from the cool, foggy Sonoma Coast; a medium-bodied, fruity Pinot noir from Monterrey County, and an herbal, relatively lighter, less fruity Zinfandel from the Sierra Foothills AVA. All three wines were great picks and nicely contrasted with each other.

  
After a dinner break, we made an unplanned visit to Oreana Winery, lured by live music from a guy with a guitar. Oreana, housed in a converted commercial auto body shop, was truly the quintessential first stop for new wine drinkers. Its long list of uncomplicated, light wines were varied enough to help someone discover wines without breaking the bank. It is a great place for a group social outing, to relax and unwind after a long day with its late evening hours. The unoaked Central Coast Chardonnay was my favorite.

We thought Oreana would be our last stop in the Funk Zone, but once again, live music changed our minds. The amusing phenomenon that was a funk band playing in the funk zone seemed to ridiculous to refuse, so we hopped on over to Figueroa Mountain Brewery.

  
The brewery serves a wide variety of enticing beers, some of which seemed a bit head scratching: did they brew both a blood orange wheat beer and Mandarina wit beer to settle a Brewers’ dispute? (“My American wheat is better than your German wheat?”). I was tempted to try the “Future Ex Wife” due to the name alone but was deterred by its potent 13% ABV. “Redneck Hot Tub” also sounded fun, but in the end, I chose the blood orange wheat, which was pretty much the perfect summer ale in my opinion. A pair of charming local gentlemen we met there told us that the brewery is a top draw in the funk zone. They also told us later that the Future Ex Wife was even better than expected. With the lively band, an all-ages crowd, and great beers, Figueroa is a great Saturday night hangout for locals and tourists alike.

At the end of our Urban Wine Trail adventure, my friend and I reflected and marveled at how much we experienced during our short hike – from premier boutique wineries to unpretentious, fun wine and beer tasting rooms, from the local to the international. Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail is an experience not to miss!

Wine on the American Riviera:  Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, Part 1

Join the CD for the first in a two-part tour of Santa Barbara, California’s Urban Wine Trail, where we’ll visit three of Santa Barbara’s more refined tasting rooms.

The crown jewel of the self-proclaimed American Riviera, Santa Barbara is part beach resort town, part college town, and increasingly, part wine town. The city’s Urban Wine Trail offers a convenient alternative to the scenic but long drive between vineyard-based wineries in California’s geographically large Central Coast AVA/wine region.

CD followers know well by now that I make good use of my recent proximity to Napa and Sonoma Counties in Northern California. I am a huge fan of their big, fruity, bold and balanced Cabernet Sauvignons, Zinfandels, and the surprisingly delicate but memorable rosés and sparkling wines. The wines of California’s Central Coast region, however, offer a contrasting style – one I wasn’t sure I could embrace. After a recent trip to Santa Barbara, an adventure on its Urban Wine Trail, converted my skepticism into real appreciation.

  
What initially was to be a beach weekend retreat turned into a full day of trekking – wine trekking, that is – when the weather turned gloomy and rainy. If you’re unfamiliar with Santa Barbara, the American Riviera is a pretty good descriptor. The city’s Mission style architecture and cobblestone-paved, pedestrian alleys adjacent to State Street, its main avenue, are filled with an odd mix of retail, restaurants, and wine tasting rooms adorned with sometimes inexplicable sculptures and painted wall signs. It’s Mediterranean Europe – and I mean all of the Mediterranean plus some not-so-Med German and UK influences – meets California; resort chic meets college Bohemian; NorCal meets SoCal. With so many contradictions in personality, it is little surprise the city’s tasting rooms are equally as diverse and eclectic.

We began our afternoon on the northern end of the Urban Wine Trail, in the La Arcada pedestrian shopping area just off State Street, at Cebada Winery‘s tasting room. The small tasting room (really, a loft) opened in 2015 inside/above Isabella Gourmet Foods, so it is quite the newcomer. Yet it draws fervent devotion from its reviewers, so I had to try their vertical tasting.

The 2013 Chardonnay was significantly lighter in body than a Napa Chardonnay, and its nose and overall complexity perhaps not as high, but it was smooth and appealing to me, as someone who doesn’t gravitate towards Chardonnay. Cebada’s 2014 Chardonnay, in contrast, was a bit too new and neutral and could use a few more years’ aging in the bottle.

  
The Pinot noirs impressed me much more. The 2011 Pinot was smooth and pleasantly fruity, but the 2012 was an outstanding Pinot. It was smooth and light. Its cherry aromas had depth – a mix of sour, ripe, and a hint of dried cherry, and with slight spice on the finish from the neutral oak. It was even better paired with dark chocolate. It was no wonder that Wine Enthusiast rated it 92 points.

How could we follow up the ’12 Pinot? Why, with one of the best California dessert wines I’ve ever tried, Cebada’s 2011 Forbidden fruit Libation! The 90% blueberry wine is fortified with 10% brandy. Yet it lacks the cloying heaviness and sweetness of a port and would be perfect in all seasons. We were told that once open, it remains drinkable for more than four weeks in the refrigerator, perhaps even at its peak after two to three weeks.

We followed Cebada’s suggestion and walked through La Arcada to Sanford Winery‘s posh tasting room for their winemakers’ flight, which allows the taster to compare wines horizontally (same vintage, same grape varietal, different vineyards). Two sailing partners, Sanford and Benedict, launched the winery in 1981. Sanford boasts the oldest grapevines in production, and they still grow on original 1976 root stock.

The 2013 Gravity Flow chardonnay is the product of grapes from two vineyards. I found it to be light with notes of vanilla on the oaked finish. It had a moderate complexity characterized by delicate hints of minerality, green melon. The Estate-grown 2013 Sanford and Benedict Chardonnay, produced from those “oldest vines in Santa Barbara County,” was less noteworthy for me, as it seemed slightly heavier and less complex.

As for Sanford’s Pinot noirs, La Rinconada Pinot noir was marked by the aroma of sweet, fresh cherries and a touch of oak. It drank smoothly; I enjoyed it. Again, the Sanford & Benedict vineyard didn’t quite deliver for me. Its Pinot noir was tart and acidic to me but more smooth and with a touch of spice on the finish.

  
Our next stop was a planned visit to Jamie Slone wines, which I picked based on reviews and their own advertisement of their Bordeaux blends. We were not disappointed at the family-owned winery and tasting room’s selection and quality.

Their Sauvignon blanc was straightforward and light, mimicking the style of New Zealand’s. The rosé was one of the more unique and best I’ve had lately, with bold watermelon notes. Pinot noirs were respectable, if not memorable. They offer more unique blends, including P1, an Australian blend, BoRific, a merlot-heavy Bordeaux blend, and their own Super Tuscan-style Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese blend. The Super Tuscan was full of lush, ripe red fruit; the BoRific a less complex but decent imitation of a right bank Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon had more of a cool-climate, earthy feel like a Chilean cab. I’ll still take Napa cabs any day.

  
The first half of our urban wine trail trek concluded with three great finds from Santa Barbara County’s notable wineries. Next week, I’ll take you to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone for a more eclectic, crowd- and newbie-friendly tasting adventure.

Sommelier 101: Real wine lessons for real wine drinkers

Let’s face it. Wine can be intimidating. While decent wine has become more accessible of late – particularly for those of us in the New World (my European friends, consider yourselves fortunate), the world of wine is vast. That fact became even more obvious as I began studying for my Introductory Sommelier Course and Exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers (check out the posts chronicling my experiences here and here).

I’ve compiled a few basic takeaways from my own experiences and wine education to help you get the most enjoyment out of your wines and to avoid a few common mistakes. Even if you might be more experienced with wine, you may find some pointers you can use.

   
   
Picking wines:

  • Perhaps the most important question: Are you drinking a glass alone, or with food? Choose fruitier, riper “New World” wines [i.e. NOT Europe] if drinking for happy hour or apéritif; Old World wines were meant for food.
  • You get what you pay for; However, pay for wine only as much as you value the wine. In general, I’ve found reliably good white wines between $5-15, but cheaper reds are likely to leave me with a headache and bad experience that isn’t worth it. Unless you’re buying from your favorite winery, look for reds in the $12-30 range. A $30 bottle of wine (of a varietal or style I like) is often 3 times as good to me than a $10 bottle of the same varietal; however, I wouldn’t spend more than $30 on a wine about which I knew nothing.
  • When faced with a lot of choice, choose wines from a region known for that particular style, but don’t pick the cheapest ones.

  
Examples:
WHITES
-Riesling: Germany, Alsace (France), Willamette Valley, Oregon (USA). Pay attention to level of dryness/sweetness
-Sauvignon blanc: Marlborough (New Zealand); Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley (France)
-Chardonnay: Chablis (Burgundy, France if you like un-oaked); Australia or Napa, California (Oaked)
-Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Alsace (France); Trentino-Alto Adige (Italy)
-Chenin Blanc: Vouvray (Loire Valley, France)

ROSÉ
Provénce (France)

  

  
REDS
-Pinot Noir: Burgundy (France) not for the faint of heart or beginners; Burgundy Pinot can be very animalistic and funky; New Zealand; Willamette Valley, Oregon and Sonoma County, California (USA)
– Garnacha/Garnache or GSM [Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre blends] Rhône Valley (France); Australia; Priorat, Spain
-Tempranillo: Rioja (Spain)
-Syrah/Shiraz: South Australia
-Cabernet Franc: Loire Valley, France
-Merlot (or blends): Bordeaux -right bank (France)
-Cabernet Sauvignon (or blends): Bordeaux – left bank (France); Napa, California (USA)
-Malbèc: Mendoza (Argentina)

Pairing wines: 

 

An oily, spicy dish like this lemongrass chicken pairs well with a dry white – especially a dry or off-dry riesling or sauvignon blanc. A big red would overwhelm its delicate flavors, while the cool, dry white helps moderate the heat.

 

  • Don’t worry about rules. Just match intensity with intensity.

What does that mean? A light, subtle wine like Riesling or Pinot noir needs more subtle flavors (or, for Riesling, a bit of spice). An aromatic or full-bodied wine needs something equally intense.
Serving wine:

  • When in doubt, DON’T aerate or decant. Most decent wines don’t need to be decanted. White wines never.
  • Aerate (i.e. Use a Vinturi) only younger, cheaper red wines.
  • Decant older red wines – not for them to aerate or “breathe”, but to separate the sediment from the liquid.
  • Stemless glassware is pretty but not a good idea for drinking wine; it alters the temperature too much, which, in turn alters the aromas and other characteristics of the wine.
  • A Burgundy style glass (wide bottom, angled outward and then narrowed at the top) is one of the best for wine tasting. Its shape directs the aromas in the wine toward your nose.

I hope these tips are a help for those of you looking to unlock your inner sommelier!

‘Somm,’ Demystified: The Court of Master Sommeliers’ Introductory Sommelier Course

Step inside the first milestone on the elite and demanding road to Master Sommelier with The CD.

My heart pounded as I took the microphone. I was about to do something absolutely terrifying: I had to identify a wine from a blind tasting in front of four Master Sommeliers and over 90 fellow students. If there was ever a moment when I’ve felt what Sheryl Sandberg rallied against in her Lean In – the “impostor syndrome” that moment was now.

Picture this: You, along with four others students stand up in front of a room full of students in the wine or restaurant industries. One by one, each student must identify a particular set of deduced characteristics of one wine (sight, nose, palate, structure, preliminary identification, and conclusion). You know everyone else feels for you and, at the same time, is judging you. My turn came for the 4th wine in our first student-led flight. I did not have the benefit of watching the majority of other students attempt to do so. Luckily for me, I found that the jammy nose was matched by a fruit-forward, yet restrained blast on the tongue – familiarity. Whew! A California wine! Low acid, moderate tannins, high alcohol, almost purple in hue; it must be Zinfandel, I thought. Slightly more structured, with a hint of bittersweet tobacco on the finish, so it’s probably Sonoma County and not Napa. I rambled off my final conclusion – Zinfandel, USA, California, Sonoma County, 2012 – and was correct! Ok, except for the vintage (2014 – rookie mistake). I felt a wave of relief – and boost of confidence -after my turn concluded. Perhaps I wasn’t such an impostor after all!

That moment – and not my final examination – defined the two-day course for me. While I’ve always enjoyed the sense of discovery of place (terroir) and craft in the nuances of wine tasting, I realized that I absolutely love the challenge of a deductive tasting. It might be the most fun sort of investigative and analytical work I’ve ever done.

Deductive tasting – like many things in life – is part art, part science. And it’s overwhelmingly learned through experience – not so much palate as one might think. It requires one to pull through that vast memory bank of both factual knowledge and experience. So the good news to anyone out there who loves wine but fear they’re not “born that way” (with the ability to taste, say, tobacco, white flowers, mango, or leather in a wine): You can learn!

Deductive tasting was but only one element of the course. The two-day course functions as essentially a two-day cram session to review global wine knowledge before taking the final, multiple-choice exam that serves as the first of four levels of sommelier certification encapsulated by the coveted Master Sommelier certification, immortalized in the insanely popular documentary, “Somm.”

Lectures are designed to help students review the highlights of the world’s major wine producing regions – their grapes, traditions, and laws, as well as basic knowledge of beer and other alcoholic spirits. Students are expected to come to the course having already learned and studied this material in more depth. The lectures thus are tantamount to a two-day world tour, bouncing from country to country (or appellation to appellation) in mere minutes. Each of the four Master Sommelier instructors alternates as lecture. Each of the seven (four each day, including the lead instructor) Master Sommeliers offered a distinct personality and style. “Somm” viewers recognized Reggie Narito, a Master Sommelier who served as a talking head in the documentary. (In case you’re wondering, the documentary did not do his larger than life personality justice. A particularly funny joke about Green Chartreuse during his lecture on spirits resonated with me, reminding me of an education I had with the stuff in Latvia).

 

Sensory overload

 
This mental overload was, thankfully, interrupted periodically by each of five deductive tasting flights, four of which are student-led as discussed earlier in this post. The five flights culminated Sunday afternoon with a mock deductive tasting examination, consisting of two wines and a written test. This activity simulates the deductive tasting portion of the three-part, Certified Sommelier Examination (Level 2).

A service demonstration helps students visualize the Court of Master Sommeliers’ strict standards for fine wine service. If you’ve ever been served wine in a truly great restaurant by a true sommelier, you have witnessed the elaborate and formal dance that includes bottle and cork presentation, corkage, (optional) decanting, tasting, and serving order. For each step visible to the customer, the sommelier takes perhaps four more actions that are noticed by only the most vigilant of wine connoisseurs.

It is truly an art, and one at which I woefully am deficient. I have a checkered history of destroying corks in the process of wine opening and could barely use a pocket corkscrew if my life depended upon it. I take the easy way out with my trusted Rabbit, a sommelier’s cardinal sin (get your minds out of the gutter, people!). Clearly, if a sommelier-in-training had a report card, the service section would be marked “Needs Improvement.”

 

The classroom being readied for a mock defuctive tasting exam

 
The two-day global wine marathon concluded with the final examination. The test anxiety was almost palpable in the air by test time. It was at this point when I sympathized with my classmates who specialize in wines from a particular region – whether retail, restaurant, distribution, or winery. I also empathized with my classmates who had gone straight to work for a Saturday night shift at their bar or restaurant after Day One. A generalist and rookie like me was in the strangely more enviable position.

The test itself – I will divulge nothing specific – covered an impressive range of both specific and general wine and sommelier service knowledge. The questions were a mix of what some of us later termed “softball” questions and some really tough, specific (what I call “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” questions). I handed in my exam with the confidence that I’d at least passed the thing.

After time was up, all students were called back to the room. We were informed that not everyone passed but were eligible to re-take the course (To be eligible to take the Level 2 exam, the Certified Sommelier Exam, one must pass this exam). One by one, the lead instructor called out the names of only those that passed, the other Master Sommelier lecturers handing out certificates and pins. Rumor has it that the names are called in reverse order of score, with the final names as the highest scorers in the class. If that’s the case, mine was in the respectable middle of the pack.

I suffer from a lifelong disease. Some of you may be familiar; it’s called overachieving. Do any of you ever accomplish something, only immediately to start looking at what’s next? Maybe the fact that passing this exam didn’t get me a title or certification got me. Don’t get me wrong; I have learned so much more about wines around the world. I am happy to be able to say that. But now I’ve got to chase that title: Court of Master Sommeliers’ Certified Sommelier. It may seem silly for someone not actually employed by the “industry,” but that’s my logical next step. It just means I have a reason to learn more about wine – and sample more!

And so I left the two-day course with a certificate in hand and recognition that the more I learn and know about wine, the more I realize I don’t know! In my next post, I’ll share a few lessons learned from my studies about wine – and rookie mistakes to avoid!