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Friday, May 16, 2014


I took my sommelier exam 3 years ago.  I’ve been pouring regular tastings for 2.5 years, and I’ve been a wine rep just over 2 years.  Lots of people I’ve met in the wine industry ask me how I know so much about wine, from classics to esoterics, regions, grapes, etc., particularly since they tell me I seem to know lots more than plenty of people who have been in the industry since before I was born.

I’m flattered by some compliments like these, but it’s made me think - how did I learn so much about wine in so short an amount of time?

I didn’t have to think long about it.  Research is my sort of thing.  Ever since I was pretty young, I’ve encouraged myself to research different topics, especially those of interest to me or things I felt I’d need to know.  And all through law school, research was how it was - find a word, research it, find another word in that definition, research it.  Read up on a case, research it, see more case references, research them.  And so on.

But wine research?  That’s the most fun kind of learning that there is.  Pour a glass, look at it, sniff it, taste it, feel it.  Repeat.



Sounds like fun?  It is!

Yes, it’s important to read up on wines and wine terms - different grapes, regions, producers, production methods, history, theory, philosophy - it helps us understand what’s in our glass.  But the real life experience of walking among the vines, tasting from a glass, especially blind tasting - that’s what gets us to our real conclusions, and consequently more questions, more to learn.  There’s always more to learn.  But most of what we learn comes from that glass, when we let the wine speak to us.  Terroir driven wines, the wines that are most expressive, especially in terms of soil and climate, can tell us the most about their vineyards.  And certain grapes make for a more expressive wine (don’t over-oak a Pinot Noir or give it excessive sunlight, and you’ve got a wine full of things to tell us!).  And the more we taste, the more we know what to look for when inquiring as to the wine’s identity.

I learned a fair amount of basic wine knowledge while I was in law school, as I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time but I enjoyed wine research a lot more than I enjoyed case law.  Over the next couple of years, I’d do a lot more research, but most of it was on my own.  I’d read up on wines, and some nights I’d just watch episodes of Oz Clarke and James May in France or California.  And many evenings, I’d choose a bottle, go to the wine map, find the region so I’d start guessing what to expect from a wine grown in a particular part of the world, then I’d choose what to cook with it.  I’d read the label carefully (especially if it’s a German wine - the label can tell us quite a lot, if we know what to look for), and then pour myself a glass (or decant first), and begin observing, and writing it all down.  I’d make notes on color, rim, viscosity, aromas, intensity, flavors, finish, texture, balance, etc.  And then I’d pour my second glass, and as I observed how the wine began to change as it opened up, I’d begin cooking.  I’d make notes of what I cooked, what were my ingredients and methods used, and how they worked with the wine after tasting the wine and food together, making notes of how aromas and flavors worked together, and how textures either mirrored or countered each other, and what went right (or occasionally wrong), and oftentimes I’d even write down what time of the year it was, whether I was outdoors or indoors, and what music I was listening to at the time.  Everything mattered to me, and it still does.

That’s how I learned.

Now, sometimes I’ll “research” with someone else, family, friends, or most often my boyfriend, since he’s got so much experience in the wine industry but also knows how to approach it in a fun way, never too serious.  If I thought wine research was fun on my own, imagine how much fun I’m having now!

Something that disturbs me - too often I hear “wine experts” telling people that the right wine, or the best wine, is the one you like to drink.  So in other words, it’s ok to drink a Napa Cabernet with sushi, just because you like Napa Cabernet, or a Sancerre with a ribeye steak, just because you like Sancerre? Nonsense.  Do some basic research.  Figure out what you like, but I guarantee that you’ll like it even better if it’s paired correctly, or served at the right temperature, or with the right company.  For years, I had a policy that I would not drink any sparkling wines while alone.  I still stick to that, but now I’m not usually alone so it isn’t as much of an issue.  I won’t pour an Aglianico with oysters, and I won’t drink Muscadet with braised short ribs.  Why?  No, I’m not a wine snob, as some might want to call me.  Rather, I understand why one flavor or texture works with another, and also why a flavor or texture simply won’t worth with another.  You don’t just grab a bottle willy-nilly when preparing dinner.  You don’t drink chilled Provence rose by the fireplace at Christmas time, you don’t drink Sauternes at a barbecue, and you probably don’t drink Champagne after a funeral.  Why?  Because you took the time to learn what was the right wine for the right occasion, because you allowed yourself to connect with the wines and decided when you want them, and you experimented with different wines and foods, and decided for yourself what works and why.

No, you don’t just drink any old thing.  You took the time to do your homework, and it paid off.

Research usually does pay off.

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