Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wine for The Bordeaux Smile

Holy Bordeaux day!!

I can certainly see what all the fuss is about now. We tasted eight different dry red Bordeaux, and they were all pretty terrific. So terrific in fact, that I am going to share four of them with you, because I can't pick just one.

These wines all smell wonderfully warm, and just inhaling the aromas made me smile; remembering them makes me smile, and the smiling, and the catching myself smiling, makes me think of one of the major pitfalls of tasting a lot of red wine: what I will from here on out call The Bordeaux Smile. This is a smile that says: "I just dumped a whole bunch of pen ink into a glass of water and gargled with it."

By the end of class we are all talking and smiling at each other with oddly blue mouths. I don't know why the red wine turns teeth blue, but it is a bit of a concern. How long before the staining is permanent? How long before I just give up on the AquaFresh altogether and just start brushing with shoe polish, since my teeth are going to look the same regardless?

This is the reverse of a look that I had years ago when I was acting in a production of The Threepenny Opera at A Noise Within, and was playing one of the filthy urchins. While my fellow urchins chose to strategically place sooty colored make-up on their faces, I went for the all-over approach and smeared the stuff over my entire face, so I wound up looking like I had just stuck my whole face into a pile of coal. The main issue with this was that I decided not to bother with the yellow stain that some of the other cast members painted on their teeth to make them look dirty as well. So I had a filthy face and perfectly white, shiny teeth, which prompted one of my fellow actors to comment that I was the only urchin with a dental plan.

Here we go, the wines for that Bordeaux Smile:

Chateau Tour Bayard Montagne-St. Emilion 2006. This Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec blend is a nice smooth wine with subtle aromas of earth, cassis, stewed blackberry, plums and cherries with a hint of smoke. It is medium-bodied without being overwhelming.

Chateau de Pez St. Estephe Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels 2005. This wine was an unequivocal hit with the class. A beautiful garnet color with, yet again, aromas of stewed red and black fruits and added layers of baking spice, tobacco smoke and vanilla. It was full, bodied, round and rich. Yum. And with a retail price of $45, it is a Bordeaux buy.

Chateau Hosanna Pomerol 2004. This wine was rounder and plumper than the previous wines, with sweeter, juicier cherry and black raspberry on the palate along with some smoky cedar, coffee and sage.

The final wine is the Chateau Magdelaine St. Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classe 2001. This wine was another winner. It has aged beautifully, and has still retained a lot of its acid, tannin and fruit, giving off lovely stewed and candied fruit aromas as well as prune and fig along with maple syrup. On the palate, the figs and fruits linger with dried herbs like basil, rosemary and black tea. This wine retails for $80, but our teacher suspected it could age for another 10 years and still be delicious, so it could be an investment/special occasion wine.

Enjoy. And smile...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wine for Learning to Learn

I had two textbook anxiety dreams last night. In the first, a friend of mine that I knew in high school invited everyone but me to a party. In the second, I was at an audition for which I was completely unprepared. I couldn't remember my monologue, had forgotten to bring headshots and didn't actually know what I was auditioning for. I raced home to get my pictures and monologue, and parked illegally outside the building. When I emerged, I not only had a $200 ticket, but also, the road behind my car had been completely dug up, making a deep crater. The back wheel of the car was was hanging over one edge, turning, and I wondered how I was ever going to be able to drive the car forward with that wheel hanging off. Hmmmm....hanging over the way to go back, no way to move forward...wheels spinning. A little on the nose? I will have to chat with my subconscious about being a little more original.

Why the anxiety dreams? What is starting to happen suddenly became clear last night after a long talk with Steve: I have begun learning for this class to pass the test, as opposed to learning to gain useful information as I move forward in the wine biz. Once I realized that, I also realized that it has not just happened to me, but to everyone else in the class as well. For the first two weeks we were all excited and open, taking everything in and having fun with tasting and smelling and exploring the wines. Then we had the first test, and it all went downhill from there. Based on the class averages and stats David, our teacher gave us, nobody was particularly thrilled with their results. Ever since then, there has been a certain tension in the classroom, a certain low-level panic. People were asking each other how they had done on the test, trying to assure themselves they weren't the only one who hadn't done so well.

I have fallen victim to it as well; what started out as an adventure to see how much I could immerse myself in wine, and how much I could learn has now become all about making sure I don't fail the Certified Sommelier Exam. If I have learned anything over the years, it is that studying for an exam is not the same as taking in and absorbing information. The desire to pass a test, to do well, to get good grades, to not fail can be so strong, and instead of opening me up to knowledge and information, it shuts me down, makes me tense, makes it almost impossible to open myself up to taking in new thoughts, ideas, tastes, and smells.

I am vowing from here on out to try to not obsess so much about whether or not I pass the Certified Exam. Because really, what does it matter if I pass it this time or I don't? Will that change what I have learned, all the new wines I have been exposed to? No. And if I don't pass it this first time out, and I want to try it again the next time they offer it, then I can. This course is so intense it is essentially cramming years of wine study into eleven weeks. Considering that I had basically no wine knowledge at all when I started, that is a LOT of new information I am trying to take in. I have never tasted 95% of the wines we are trying, have never even heard of many of the grape varietals.

So I am going to give myself a break. I am going to try and get back to what brought me to this class in the first place: a desire to learn about wine. Nothing more, nothing less.

We tried 12 wines today, and honestly by the end I had total palate fatigue (I don't know if this is a real term, but it should be). So no wine recommendation today, but tomorrow we start Bordeaux. I have never tried a Bordeaux wine before; from what I hear, they are pretty special! I'll let you know what I learn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wine for Didier Dagueneau

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Didier Dagueneau. If anything could make me love The French again, it would be this. Didier Dagueneau was widely considered one of the best producers of Pouilly Fume in France.

In the United States, you would never find one of the most celebrated winemakers looking like this. Take a look at a photo of Robert Mondavi and his family. They look like they could just as easily be working in a bank or a tech company as at a winery. But good old Didier looked like Jerry Garcia and Grizzly Adams had a baby, and that baby grew up, went insane, and then decided to make wine. Wonderful wine apparently.

I have never tasted a Didier Dagueneau Puilly Fume, as they are quite pricey, but from what I hear they are delightful. This area called Pouilly Fume makes wines primarily from Sauvignon Blanc, and apparently the fog and clouds can create a smoky look in the slopes where the vines grow, hence the Fume (there should be an accent over the 'e' but I don't know how to make that happen), which means smoke, in the region name. Normally Sauvignon Blanc is not oaked, but Didier came along and decided to oak his wines (which can sometimes add a smoky, or toasty aroma and taste to a wine), thus mirroring the smoke of the countryside. In this way he took the concept of Terroir (which maintains that it is possible for a place to impart particular characteristics to a wine) to a different level.

From what I've read, Didier was a risk-taker: he rode motorcross, raced sled-dogs, flew ultralight planes (which ultimately proved to be his demise when he died in one in 2008), and he harvested his grapes riper than anyone else in the region. He followed his own path, his own loves, and his own passions. And in doing so, he made Sauvignon Blancs unlike anyone else in the world.

So raise a glass to Didier, and to the little piece of each of us that wants to blaze new trails, create something new, and never shave or cut our hair!


Monday, January 25, 2010

Wine for Wondering Why

Why, France? Why must you do this to me? I have always defended you from the many people who insist that you are snobby, rude and lacking in deodorant. I have always loved you, have always thought that Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, I swoon over Rodin and Camille Claudel, think that the French language is music to my ears, and believe that nothing in the world can be wrong with a people who believe that a good breakfast is a hunk of break dunked in a bowl of hot chocolate, and who introduced me to Nutella, French Macaroons and the Croque Monsieur.

Why then, must you have so many wine regions with so many different vineyards and wine producers? Why must you have so many different appellations (classifications), that are different in every single region so that you essentially have to treat each region within France as if it is a different country from any other region in France? Why must you have names like Reuilly and Rully which are, in fact, completely different regions and wines, as are Pouilly Fume and Pouilly Fuisse? Why, damn you, why? How on earth is anyone supposed to keep track of it all?

Today we tasted seven different Burgundy wines. All of these wines were made from Pinot Noir except for one which was a Pinot Noir/Gamay blend. My favorite of the seven wines was a Nuits St. Georges Clos de L'Arlot 2006. It is a beautiful garnet color and has a lovely mellow nose of red cherry, wood-smoke, tobacco and smoldering leaf-pile, with flavors of the same. It has a medium body, and a nice long finish. All I could think about was drinking it with a Croque Monsieur or a bowl of beans and sausage. Just thinking about that almost made me forgive France. Almost...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wine for Unusual Tasting Notes

Apparently, so I learned yesterday, I have a low tolerance for Volatile Acidity (VA) and Brettanomyces (Brett) in wine. What the hell am I talking about, you might ask? Well I'll tell you: Brett is a strain of yeast that can get into a wine and cause a flaw that manifests as varying degrees of an odor that is most commonly referred to as "barnyard"; VA is a sign of an instability in a wine (though not always in a bad way) and is caused by, as the name suggests, acids in a wine that can evaporate at low temperatures and create an aroma that is likened to that of nail varnish or nail polish remover. It is often a by-product of "noble rot".

Neither of these flaws necessarily make a wine undrinkable, and often the strength of the aromas subsides as you drink the wine. I seem to be particularly sensitive to both Brett and VA, and can smell them in smaller amounts than a lot of other people. This doesn't necessarily mean anything about my ability to tell what wine comes from where, but it is an interesting thing to note about myself. I'll see down the line if it comes in handy or not.

What I love about these flaws, and the whole reason I bring them up is because they provide a perfect example of some of the odd aromas people pick up in wines. Frankly, to me, saying that Brett makes a wine smell like "barnyard" is kind at best. When very strong, to me the Brett makes the wine smell like dung. Others may describe it as horse blanket or even sweaty horse. What I love is that we can smell a wine that essentially gives off the aroma of poop and still taste it and say: "Tastes good, though."

Another recent descriptor I was introduced to is "cat pee", which is apparently a common characteristic aroma of Sauvignon Blanc. Now I can deal with thinking of horse manure when I'm drinking my wine, but cat pee is another story. I had a cat, and never when I was scooping out her litter box did I say: "Now that's the wine for me". Similarly, I have never found myself sitting outside on a hot summer's day thinking: "What would really make this moment complete is a nice cold glass of cat pee." Call me crazy...

All kidding aside, though, the whole act of smelling wines and trying to deduce different aromas is, for me, one of the most fascinating, challenging and joyous aspects of wine. I read recently that the human nose can distinguish something like 1,000 different aromas, and there has even been recent research which suggests that each nostril may be able to distinguish different aromas from the other. What amazes me even more is that we can put our noses deep into a glass of wine and smell fruits, grass, smoke, wood, vegetables, flowers, chalk, clay, dried leaves, damp leaves, tobacco, cigar, leather, horse, herbs, spices, nuttiness and a whole host of other things...all in what is a glass of fermented grape juice (in some cases a glass of grape juice that was fermented 10 years ago). That is just extraordinary to me.

My wine for unusual tasting notes has to be the Charles Jouguet Chinon Cuvee Terroir 2007. This is a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, and was the wine we tasted yesterday in class that brought to my attention my Brett sensitivity. This is the dung beast in the flesh: horse-blankety, manure-y,musty dusty and mushroomy. On the palate (when you taste it), it leaves a slightly sour black cherry flavor combined with cigar and ash. It's a funky wine, what can I say. But it could stand up to heavy rustic country foods like steak frites and cassoulet. If you try it let me know what you think. Maybe you too will find yourself saying: "Now that's good manure."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wine for a Wardrobe Malfunction

I made an unfortunate wardrobe choice this morning: it was another cold, rainy day, so I thought I would stay nice and warm with a dark grey wool sweater with a cowl neck. Under normal circumstances, a sweater with a massive neck would have been a fine choice, striking even. But when I am spending half my day leaning over and spitting wine into a small sink, it is not perhaps, the best idea.

I have never liked the idea of spitting out wine during tasting, partly because I hate to waste good wine and partly because I think spitting is disgusting. It was one of the things I disliked most about living in New York: how often people spat everywhere. I once was walking behind some guy on my way to the subway, and he spat sort of behind him, and it almost landed on my shoe. Gross.

But in a wine class, spitting is sort of necessary. When you are tasting nine different wines in an hour or less, you can't very well drink it all and then hop in the car to drive home. So down the sink it goes. This at the best of times is hit or miss. There are red wine drips, dribbles and splashes everywhere. When wearing a massive cowl neck that comes up to your chin, however, it gets even more exciting. I think half of my wine actually wound up in the neck of my sweater. Maybe I'm onto something here, though. I could design a whole line of clothing for Sommeliers: "Forget those cumbersome and unsightly spittoons. Now you can just dribble into your sweater and no one will ever know!"

Maybe not.

Today we continued with the Loire Valley in France, specifically focusing on reds and sweet wines. I felt much more comfortable overall with the wines, partly because I love sweet wines, and partly because I have realized that I just feel much more comfortable with red wines. I feel more connected to them, if that makes any sense of all. White wines feel a bit foreign to me, I have trouble figuring out what they're all about. But when I take a deep whiff of a red wine, I right away relax and think: "I know you." It's hard to describe, but I love the warmth of red wines. I feel like I can smell the sun on them, the ripeness, the mellowness, the fullness of the fruit. I love smelling those red and black cherry, blackberry, black currant aromas along with the spice, smoke, wood and tobacco that so often are a part of the smell and taste (nose and palate) of red wines. What can I say, red wines just make me happy.

I think I can say that overall, wines from the Loire are not my favorites. The climate tends to be cooler there, so the fruit just doesn't get as ripe. This contributes to a tartness, an acidity in these wines that in my opinion makes them hard to drink by themselves. They really need food, hearty, flavorful, fatty foods like cheeses and cassoulets to make them more drinkable.

That said, my wine for a wardrobe malfunction is a Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgueil 2007. This wine is made from the Cabernet Franc grape, and while it is tart and acidic, it also has nice black currant, black cherry fruit and an aftertaste of tobacco smoke/ash and dried leaves. The smokiness of this wine would be delicious with barbeque and/or bacon!

Let me know if you give it a try.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wine for Getting Stuck in an Elevator

Let's just say the day did not start out well. To begin with, it was pouring buckets again; massive sheets of rain that were blown about in the wind. Then, I got in the elevator to go down to our garage, and got stuck in it (the elevator, not the garage). It is one of those old-fashioned elevators with the metal interior door that closes after the outer door does. And this morning I got in, and the outer door closed followed by the inner door and then...nothing. The elevator didn't move. I pushed the button for the garage again. Still nothing. Oh well, I thought, I'll just get out and walk. So I pushed the Door Open button. No dice. The elevator wouldn't move and I couldn't get out. I called the manager who came to try to open the door from the other side, but the outer door won't open as long as the interior metal door is closed, so that didn't work. The manager left to try to call the other manager, and about 5 minutes later, for no apparent reason, the interior door slid open and I could get out.

Once in the car and on my way, I had to deal, once again, with driving rain, terrible visibility, occasional spots of flooded roadway, slow-moving traffic, and the very strong wish that I had not drank so much water before I left the house. This wish became stronger and stronger as I became more and more uncomfortable. Of course, the more I had to pee, the slower the traffic moved, and with about 19 miles to go I began to feel desperate. I wondered if I could manage to pee into my water bottle while driving, but decided that both clothing and anatomy were against me on that one, and more than once I cursed whatever evolutionary fluke led to women having such ill-placed wee-holes.

I did everything I could: I loosened the lap portion of my seatbelt, I unbuttoned and unzipped my pants, I tried with all my might to ignore the splish splash plop plop of the rain on the car, and I prayed with all my might that I wouldn't have to sneeze. I wondered why adult diapers are just for old folks. Finally I made it to the parking lot, and tried to figure out how to best make it to the lavatory without losing both my pants and my dignity. Since my bladder was now the size of a small child, there was no way I was going to get my pants zipped up, so, clutching my bag, all my class materials and my pants I tottered toward the door. As anyone who has found themselves in a similar predicament knows, you have to be careful in this final stretch. Move too slowly and you may not make it at all, but run too vigorously and you can jiggle the wee right out. So sort of a medium trot is the best approach. Thankfully, I made it to both the loo and to the classroom without further incident, though I was late of course, and discovered that one of my class members had taken my favorite seat. He refused to make eye contact with me, but he knew I was there. Oh yes, he knew.

That was how the day started, and it continued with day two of France. Loire Valley to be precise. Loire Valley whites to be even more precise. The reds have a whole day to themselves tomorrow. Frickin' France. It is confusing in so many ways I don't even know where to begin. There are so many wine regions, varietals, producers, and different classifications for French wine it is hard to know where to begin. To make matters worse, each wine region will have completely different classifications for their specific wines. And even wines which are from the same region and are of the same varietal will taste completely different. How are we supposed to be able, in a blind tasting, to tell a Sauvignon Blanc from France from one from California, New Zealand or Australia when two Sauvignon Blancs from France don't even taste anything alike?! What makes me even crazier with most of the "old world" wines is that the labels are "place" labels as opposed to "varietal" labels, so a bottle from France might say "Chateau LaPoop" on it, but does not say if the wine inside is Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Chenin Blanc. So how do you know? Well you just have to hold the bottle up to your forehead and let the wine speak to you. Or you have to google it. Or you have to just suck it up and learn which varietals correspond with which region. Guess which option we're supposed to choose?

I know I usually recommend a wine but honestly, we tasted nine wines today and I can't even begin to separate them in my head. So I'm afraid you might have to wait until tomorrow for a good Loire wine suggestion. I tend to enjoy reds more anyway. Maybe I'll make it up to you and suggest two. In any event, I suppose it's better not to drink wine when stuck in an elevator; best to keep that bladder nice and empty.

Until tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Wine for France - Day 1

So I have decided to try writing new posts every day, Monday through Friday, and plan to make each post a bit shorter. I think this will be easier both for me writing them and you reading them. Let me know what you think!

Back to class after the long weekend to rain, rain, and more rain. Driving in the rain can be a drag, mostly because nobody seems to modify their driving at all ("I don't need to slow down, it's just water, man up!"). In fact, commuting in general can be a bit of a snooze, but luckily I have discovered the joy of listening to books on CD. I got three John Grisham books on CD for the low low price of $20. That's hours of listening pleasure! It would be the perfect solution to the grind of commuting if not for the battle that is being waged between my GPS and my John Grisham.

The audio quality of the books is not so hot (this is probably why I could get three books for $20), so I have to bump up the volume quite a bit to hear it. Now my GPS is downright bossy at the best of times ("Turn left ahead", "TURN LEFT", "proceed on route 280 South", "bear right", "speed up" , "slow down", "stop singing!", "those aren't the right words", "good, god, woman, what have you been eating?!"), but when I am listening to my books, she cuts in with directions at a glass-breaking volume that causes me to feel like I am about to be smacked by a ruler-wielding nun. I fear the GPS is going to go HAL on me, and suddenly take complete control of the car, driving me to some unknown destination until I decide to abandon my audio books and agree that she is the only one who is allowed to talk to me.

But I digress. I am back to class, where today we began France. As my teacher himself said "France is a beast". The world of French wines is so detailed and complex that we are spending 42 hours on it. Today we discussed the wines of the Alsace region, which include such delights as Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat. The most unusual wine we tasted today was a Domaine Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Jebsal SGN 2003. The SGN label refers to a wine that has been made from grapes that were rotting with a fungus called Botrytis. If you see a bunch of grapes with this fungus on them, you might think they look like something you found when you were younger, say when you opened your lunchbox after a school vacation to find that forgotten baggie of grapes you mom had packed for you two weeks ago. In short, they look like something a haz-mat team should come and remove. The last thing that would have occurred to you would have been "Yum,these will make delicious wine."

But make delicious wine they do. This SGN designation can only be given to Noble Grapes (Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Muscat) that have the botrytis rot. This "noble rot" tends to only occur in very small amounts and only in exceptional years. The particular SGN wine we tasted today was a dark almost orange color, with a full mouth feel and a honey, dried apricot flavor, and it was sweet without being cloying. It was definitely unlike anything I have ever tasted. It is definitely worth a try for a special occasion.

Well, so much for a shorter post. I will try again tomorrow!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wine for the First Blind Tasting

Today was our first test: 25 multiple choice questions and a blind tasting of one red wine and one white. For those unfamiliar with this, a blind tasting is a tasting of wines when you have no idea what they are. In the case of our class today, and at the Certified exam, which is administered by The Court of Master Sommeliers, we are given one glass of red wine and one of white. We are also given a tasting grid on which we rate things like nose, or aromas in the wine (do we get fruit? If so, what kind of fruit? Do we get spice, herbs, if so what kind? Earth or mineral? If so, what? Do we think the wine was aged in oak, and if so, why?) palate or taste (does the wine have low, medium or high acid, sugar, tannin, alcohol, a long or short finish), and overall conclusions (warm, cool or moderate climate; country we think the wine is from (the options on this grid are France, Italy, USA, Australia, New Zealand); varietal (Chardonnay, Riesling, Cab/Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, etc.) and finally vintage.

Needless to say, this is very hard, and today, I got both wines wrong. On a brighter note, I did very well on the theory exam. But I like to do well. I always like to be good at whatever I do, and when I don't do well I start to doubt whether I will ever be able to do it. So of course I start to question my decision and worry that I have made a big mistake. What if it turns out I'm no good at this at all and I will have to try and find something else that I enjoy? What if I actually have a terrible palate and I never improve?

But before I go too far down that road, I have to stop and remind myself of a few things: I am new at this, which is why I decided to take a class in the first place; if I already knew how to identify every wine in a blind tasting, I wouldn't need to take the class, I would just go straight to the exam; the teacher himself said that this test is used as a baseline, so we know where we are starting from and where we want to go. Perhaps most important for me to remind myself is that NO ONE in the class guessed both the red and the white varietal correctly, not even the know-it-all guy (there's always one in every class, isn't there?). Out of 21 people in the class, 9 of us got both varietals wrong, and twelve people guessed one. Only two people guessed the red varietal. So I am not the only one who has a lot to learn!

What I also have to remember is that it is possible to guess the varietals wrong and still pass the exam, because each of the other items on the grid (tannins, fruit, acid, climate, etc.) has a point value, and guessing the actual varietal is only worth about 2 points. So The Court is not only looking at what conclusion you finally draw, they're also looking at how you get there.

So I am going to give myself a break. Tomorrow is my birthday, and Steve and I are going to spend the night in Napa. I will relax, have a delicious dinner, and of course, a nice glass of wine (or two).

My wine for the first blind tasting? Well I don't know, do I? It is a blind tasting after all. But I can tell you this: it's red. You decide what kind.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wine for a Champagne-Opening Meltdown

So I am getting in the groove now: I wake up at 6:15, and do about 20 minutes of yoga. I am more surprised than anyone by this, as I do not normally consider myself to be a yoga person. I love the idea of it, but it's just not something that my body naturally takes a shine to. I am, to put it very mildly, a bit on the tight side. My hamstrings are so tight it is a wonder I am still upright, and the muscles around my shoulders are so knotted and tense, they are often mistaken for bone. Really, it is only a matter of time before I am permanently in the fetal position. Massage therapists who work on me will often poke around my back and shoulders and say things like: "Wow, that's some tension you've got there" or "That shouldn't be there" or simply "Whoa". So when it comes to yoga, my body tends to have a "I'm sorry, you want me to put my legs where, while my arms do what? Yeah, good luck with that" reaction. I have been doing some kickboxing DVDs lately, and I enjoy them, but there is something about getting up at 6am and whipping myself into a frenzy of "I punch you in the face and kick you in the groin" just didn't feel right. So yoga it is.

By 9am I am in the car. Don't ask me why it takes me 2 1/2 hours to get ready in the morning. It just does. I am getting used to driving the hour to class and back. And I am getting used to filling the gas tank every 4 days. It's really not that long a trip, it's just that our car gets about six miles to the gallon. Yes, I have one of those cars: it's big, it's loud and it could not by any stretch of the imagination be called fuel-efficient. Let me just say in my defense that when Steve and I got it we only drove about 6,000 miles a year. Now, with this class, I am doing our yearly mileage in three months. We did not plan on using this car as a daily commuting car. It is not your zippy, down-to-earth, get-you-where-you-need-to-go car. It's more like a living room on wheels.

Now before you give me a hard time about SUVs and start blaming me for global warming, let me just say two words to you: moose farts. That's right. Moose. Farts. Allow me to explain: I was leafing through a Lonely Planet travel guide to Norway, and I came upon the startling statistic that an adult moose will fart and burp its way to a methane output that is the equivalent of driving about 8,500 miles in a car. So see, that farting moose is causing a lot more damage than I am. The clear solution is to shoot all these gaseous moose so we can drive our big-ass cars guilt-free. That sounds like solid Sarah Palin-esque logic to me!

But to get back to wine, class continues to bombard me with information. And last week, though I hate to admit it, I had my first wine-related anxiety attack. As some of you may know, I am prone to a bit of anxiousness. Much of this is related to my assumption that something terrible is bound to happen. I come by this honestly, since both my parents are, I firmly believe, the ghost-writers of those Worst-Case Scenario books. Let me give you two examples: my father used to hate us running around in grass in our bare feet (in our own backyard) because we could step on glass and cut our feet. These cuts would become infected, turn gangrenous and force us to have our legs amputated. And my mother, in trying to teach me not to run or laugh with gum or food in my mouth, drew me a diagram of the throat and included graphic details of food or gum getting lodged in my windpipe. This would then, she assured me, be followed by my turning blue and dying.

Now I can hardly argue with their logic; these things of course can happen. My father being a surgeon has no doubt exposed him to all manner of horrible and freakish things that can happen to people. It also probably has given him a slightly skewed idea of how often these freakish things actually happen. In any event, the combination of my own nature and a slightly alarmist upbringing makes me inclined to create very odd and dangerous scenarios in my head. So it was that when David our teacher was showing us how to properly open a champagne bottle and filling us in on the reasons why certain measures were necessary, I began to have images of my champagne cork flying out and breaking the massive glass window of the class wine cellar, shattering it beyond repair and causing thousands of dollars worth of wine to overheat. I also imagined the cork shooting into not only my eye, but also into the eyes of everyone else in my class. The best scenario of all was the one in which the cork flew off the bottle with such force that it actually took my thumb with it. That's right. I was sitting there in class, hyperventilating at the thought of this champagne cork actually blowing my thumb clean off.

So when it came time for all of us, in groups of five, to get up in front of the class and open bottles of champagne, I couldn't do it. I actually was too freaked out to do it. This somehow managed to go unnoticed by my teacher, but when I got home I had Steve stand with me for moral support, while I tried to open a bottle from our fridge. I couldn't do it then either! I tried, I really did. I cut off the foil, I put my napkin over the cork and held it with my thumb the way David showed us. As I loosened the wire cage, I kept by thumb on the cork and my hand on the neck of the bottle and with my other hand, began to twist the bottle as we had been taught. And nothing happened. I turned and turned and turned, and nothing. And Steve was watching me, and I was growing more and more panicked, imagining that the more I kept turning, the more the pressure was building to Vesuvian heights, and the more likely the whole bottle was to just explode. I froze. I begged Steve to help me, and he carefully took the bottle from me, keeping his thumb on the cork as I insisted he do, and he gently twisted and twisted and the cork came off gently and beautifully, with barely a sound. The bastard. It turns out I had kind of misunderstood what I was supposed to do with the cork-hand, and while I had had my thumb over the cork just as I was supposed to, I did not also have one of my fingers around the cork, so in fact all I was doing was turning the bottle around in my hand, without actually twisting the cork at all. oops.

Luckily, the third time was a charm, and I managed to open a bottle of Champagne with a few twists and no pop at all. I am proud to say that I didn't break any windows or take out any light fixtures or eyes, and I still have all of my digits. Well done, I say.

My favorite wine from the last week was a Riesling from Germany. I had heard of Riesling before, but honestly, I'm not sure I'd ever tasted one, or if I had, it just didn't register. Now that I've tasted it, though, I think Riesling might be one of my favorite wines. This particular one we tasted was a Von Buhl Riesling "Armand" Kabinett Pfalz 2008. It was slightly dry with a hint of sweetness to it, and it was bright and fresh-smelling with a little bit of lime and (our teacher pointed out) a slight burnt match smell to it. That hopefully doesn't make it sound gross because it was delicious!

Bobby, I know you mentioned that you had a few favorite Rieslings. Please put them in the comments, I'd love to know what they are!

This Friday is our first test, consisting of multiple choice questions and then a blind tasting of two wines, one red, one white. Please check back here after Friday and I will let you know how it went. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wine for the First Week

Well we're off! Three days into my Certified Sommelier wine program and so far I am loving every minute of it! There's a lot of information coming at me, and the first two days I felt exhausted with what I can only think to call "brain drain". It's been so long since I've felt that kind of tiredness that happens from taking in and processing a lot of information, where my body is ready to move but my brain is chocolate pudding. Now though, I am finding it energizing. I guess I have to cop to being a bit of a learning geek. I love me some learnin'!

Now to be fair, I don't love learning all things equally, as anyone who has tried to teach me math can attest to. Whenever there is math involved, invariably panic and tears follow, so I have done my best to avoid it at all costs. I didn't much take to learning how to ride a bike either, as evidenced by the fact that I just didn't do it in my childhood and then, by the time I got to be an adult, I was too afraid to try and teach myself. I wound up enrolling in a class in New York, taught specifically to adults like me who never learned how to ride a bike. The class went fine, the teacher was very good, and I did, indeed, learn how to get the balance and ride the bike very slowly in a straight line (while 6-year-olds raced by me laughing). Well, I say a straight line; it was a straight line punctuated by spontaneous and unintentional figure-eights and circles which I was totally unable to prevent or control. But once I got the balance, that was it; I got off the bike and have not been back on to this day. The final thing I have not been a good student at was learning how to drive a manual transmission car. Steve tried to teach me once, but every time the car stalled I had a minor panic attack and began shrieking in a pitch that only dogs could hear. So that was the end of that.

But wine class, I mean, come on, what's not to love? We talk about wine, we drink wine, and then we talk about it some more. Not a bad way to spend the day. The worst thing about this class for me is that I have to dress up. I can't wear jeans, and I live in jeans, so this has caused me a bit of wardrobe panic. I do not own very many clothes, and out of what I do have, at least half of it was bought in 1999. I kid you not. I have about 15 pairs of jeans and one, that's right, ONE pair of black dress pants. And I seriously cannot remember what year I bought those pants, but it could have easily been in 2001. So I went to The Gap and bought a black and white pair of dress pants to shake it up a little and give the other pair a rest. For the Sommelier exam I have to wear a nice suit. I have one pant-suit which I bought for auditions in 2004, and that's the only one I have. And I've gained weight since I bought it, so it doesn't even fit!

The solution is easy I know, but I hate clothes shopping. I don't like sterile shops with their florescent lighting and their recirculated air. I know nothing about fashion and what's more, I don't really care about it, and I end of feeling guilty about every penny spent on clothing, and though I know it is a necessity, I feel somehow like it's frivolous. So as a result, I rotate between the same four pairs of jeans, the same four t-shirts, the same four sweaters and the same four...nope that's about it, I have nothing else. I was going to say the same four shoes, but I don't even have four of the same type of shoe! I have one pair of hiking shoes, one pair of sneakers, one pair of every-day black slip-ons, one pair of high-heel boots, one pair of sandals and one pair of high heels. Really. That's it. And it doesn't really matter, I know, but I do worry that everyone I know has, at some point registered the fact that I essentially wear the same four things ALL THE TIME. This information will probably cause some dismay to my girl-friends in the building who have been coming to me for pre-date wardrobe advice. Even Steve couldn't argue with me when I said; "I mean, have they SEEN me?" High-class problem I know, but nonetheless...

Back to the wine-class: it is taught by a Master Sommelier named David Glancy. He is a very good teacher, who imparts a lot of information in an easy-to-understand format and is funny without seeming like he's auditioning for a job hosting The Oscars. The class itself is an interesting mix of people: 12 men and 10 women, which is different than I would have thought. I expected fewer women for some reason, but I'm glad to see there are so many of us! There are a lot of people like me who have been in other careers and are making a switch. A sign of the times, there are quite a number of people who were in finance, real estate, and mortgage lending prior to this, and who are now having to think of alternate careers. And a number of people who said they were tired of the jobs they had been in and hated for the last 25 years, and were trying now to do something they enjoyed. Everybody seems to be at a similar level of wine-knowledge, which is comforting.

There are a few interesting human-nature quirks I have noticed that have made me laugh: the first is seating. On the first day, we all chose seats at random, and every day since then we have all sat in the exact same seats. We don't have to, but we all do. Except for me today, because I was the last person to arrive and some dirty rat had taken my seat and for the whole class I kept turning around, giving him the stink-eye and staring at my seat with longing. Tomorrow I plan to get there extra early to re-plant my flag, dammit. The second thing I've noticed is competitiveness. It's very subtle and friendly, but it's there. And it all seems to be the guys being competitive with each other. Today we had a whole series of component tastings, in which the instructor took a Chardonnay and doctored it a million different ways, to get us to sharpen our senses and identify varying levels of Tannin, Acid, Alcohol and Sugar in the wine. He also took twelve glasses of that same Chardonnay and spiked each glass with a different fruit, vegetable, spice or herb, and our job was to see how many of these we could identify first by smell alone and then by taste.

This was loads of fun by the way, but as we were tasting, and afterward, when we found out if we had guessed right, I could hear a lot of the men all over the room, hissing at each other: "Dude, I totally know what this one is, do you?" "I got all of those right" "I would have gotten that, but I've been smelling so many wines my nose is just shot" "Dude, I swallowed fire last night, but I still got that one right", and so on. It just makes me laugh. It seems very hard to leave the locker-room behind. And honestly, it doesn't get more sissy-fied than wine, but these guys were still finding a way to macho it up. And I say that with much love and affection. Tomorrow we start service, for which we have to open a bottle of champagne, decant a bottle of wine, pour multiple glasses, carry these glasses on a tray and serve these glasses to people. I can't wait to hear the boasts/counter boasts for this: "My champagne cork popped so hard", "Did you see how far my cork flew?", "I can carry fifty glasses on a tray", "That's nothing, I can carry one hundred glasses balancing the tray with one hand", "One hand? I can carry one hundred glasses, balancing the tray on my fingertips", "Fingertips? Check it finger my friend", "Dudes...I don't even need to hold the tray. My tray just rides ahead of me on a wave of my testosterone. I'm that much man."

Well, I think we have a winner...

The wine I am recommending for the first week of school is a 2006 Chappelet Cabernet Sauvignon. This is one of the wines we tasted in our very first blind tasting yesterday, and it is just lovely: dark, rich red color, and it smells dark and rich too, of stewed red fruits mulling in spices like cinnamon and clove, and you can almost taste and smell the warmth of the Napa Valley in it. A perfect winter wine for stews and other hearty fare.

Enjoy. I will be thinking of you all tomorrow while I am balancing a tray of 500 glasses on my head and opening champagne bottles with my teeth. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wine for Back to School Jitters

Well I thought I had seen it all in the way of bad drivers, I really did. From the people who drive an inch behind you on the freeway; the people who drive 50 mph in the fast lane and refuse to change lanes, no matter how many people honk their horns or flash their highbeams; the people who merge onto a freeway and refuse to yield to oncoming traffic, assuming that it's everyone else's job to get out of their way; the people who change lanes willy-nilly; the people who never use their turn signals (turn signals are for suckers, dude); the people who still have not gone hands-free with their cell phones; the people who text while driving, swerving all over the road; to the woman I saw driving with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee cup in the other, and the man who had a newspaper open across the steering wheel and looked to actually be doing the crossword puzzle. I pretty much thought I had seen the worst of it, but no.

Today, while driving north on the 101 freeway, I saw a man in a small white car driving while...wait for it...playing the guitar. I kid you not. He had an electric guitar across his lap, and was playing it while, I am presuming, steering with his knees. I was so flabbergasted I temporarily lost the power of speech. And I know I sould have called the police, I know I should have, but this guy looked like he had as many IQ points as he had fingers, and I was afraid that if I reported him, he would somehow find out where I live and garrote me with one of his guitar strings.

So tomorrow, I start my wine course. It's funny how going back to school, no matter how old I am, seems to bring up so many of the same insecurities that it did when I was young. I don't worry so much anymore about people liking me, not because I assume they will (but I mean, come on, who are we kidding, right?), but because I already have so many wonderful friends that I'm not desperate for more. But I do worry about how I will do in the class: will everyone know more than I do? What if it turns out I have a terrible palate and can't taste anything? What if I can't pass my tests at the end? What if, during the service part of the class and exam, when I am supposed to be able to suavely open wines and champagnes, I let the champagne cork fly and it takes someone's eye out?

These are things I worry about, and things that will probably keep me up tonight. The night before the first day of anything I usually find is a very long night.

But to make it better, Steve, Katie (our friend who lives two floors below us) and I are going to hang out and chat for a while, and share today's wine selection, a 2006 Canihan Family Cellars Pinot Noir. This Pinot is from their Certified Organic vineyard, and is a really lovely wine. It is great with food but it also stands up on its own. It has the rich red fruits that Pinot is known for, but it also has a woodiness. The winery describes it as cedar and cigar-box, and I absolutely get that. The first time I tasted it, I articulated that cedar smell and taste as 'closet'. And I meant it in the best way. Like the smell of a wonderful, warm, fragrant closet in a cabin in the woods. It had a very cosy connotation for me.

So I hope you will raise a glass with me, and let's toast to all of our new adventures, whatever they may be.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Wine for Starting Off with a Bang

Well, what do you know, it's a bonus post? I had to write another one right away because my 'possibility' seed has immediately grown roots: a spot opened up today in the wine course I mentioned, the one that ends with testing to become a Certified Sommelier. So I have taken that spot and I start on Monday! This coming Monday!

Eleven weeks of wine; studying wine basics and exploring the wines of the world. Add to that beer, spirits and cigars, and you have a very full glass, ladies and gentlemen! What's more, I'm excited, I'm really looking forward to it! We will taste 6-8 wines a day. A day!! Which means I will have to write more posts each week so I can share all these wines with you.

Now, I was going to share the wine I'm about to mention with you next week, but since I will have so many wines to choose from as of next week, I decided to put this one forward today. I have to be honest with you here, I haven't even tasted this wine yet, but the timing is just too perfect for me not to mention it now. I know I really should open the bottle and taste it now, but honestly, I'm a little hung over. It is New Year's Day after all. So as soon as I can, I will try it. And if you taste it before I do, let me know what you think.

I bought this 2008 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at Trader Joe's for three reasons: 1) I love Sauvignon Blanc; 2) It cost $6.99 a bottle; 3) The Winery is called King Shag.

King Shag!! How great is that? Being married to an Englishman I will tell you, it's pretty great. The ad for this wine practically writes itself: "King Shag...start your year off with a bang!"

If you don't know what a 'shag' is, ask your nearest English person. Just be careful...and make sure you don't ask them if they'd like to shag you. Unless, of course, you really really like them.