Monday, March 29, 2010

Wine for Woo Hoo!

Well, I did it; I passed the Certified Sommelier Exam! Phew.

I'm not going to lie, it was a little on the stressful side. Part of that stress is all the build-up. As you know, I made it through the Introductory test, and returned on Friday for the Certified exam. The first thing we did at 8:30 in the morning was a blind wine tasting, followed by another theory exam.

I felt pretty good about the blind tasting portion, but the theory exam was really hard and there were a lot of questions that I just had no idea what the answer was, and since they were fill in the blank questions, there is much less of a chance of just guessing the right answer than if the question is multiple choice.

I left the theory exam seriously thinking that I might have failed. And if you fail one part of the test, then you fail the whole test. I had two hours to wait after the theory exam until my service exam, and I went back to my hotel room and seriously debated whether or not it was even worth my returning for the service exam. Of course I knew I would, but I was just feeling incredibly deflated.

After a while, and several phone conversations with Steve, I decided it was fine and that all I could do was relax and enjoy the service portion of the exam. After all, I reminded myself, I was talking about a wine certification; I wasn't, after all, trying to, oh I don't know, devise a whole new health care system.

So I went back for the service portion of the exam and I just didn't worry too much about it. And overall I did well on that section. There were glitches, of course: I had no idea what the base spirit of a Rob Roy was ( I mean seriously, who the hell has ever even HEARD of a Rob Roy?); my Champagne cork popped really loudly; I served one of the imaginary men at the table before i served one of the imaginary ladies; and the examiner asked what country "Pxarelladfesta" was from and I had no idea. That's not really the name of it, of course, but it might as well have been because I had never even heard of it before. Was it a liqueur, a spirit, what? I confessed that I didn't know what it was, and my examiner kind of chuckled, as if to say "You and me both".

I was so relieved when the exam was over, and since we had 2 hours to wait to get the results, we all went to a bar, where many other people told me they thought they had failed the theory portion of the exam, too, so I didn't feel so bad.

I'll say one thing for that testing body: they certainly know how to build tension. They gathered all of us candidates at one end of the exam room, where they proceeded to drag out giving us our results for another sixteen hours. The head tester made a speech, and then another guy made a speech, and then the testing committee thanked us, and then the testing committee thanked each other, and then the testing committee talked about the Court of Master Sommeliers, and then they thanked the school for hosting the exam, and then they thanked Riedel for making glassware and then they thanked the makers of the carpeting in the room of the exam, and then they thanked the sun for shining and the air for having oxygen in it, and then finally, finally, they began to read out the results.

Even the reading of the results is designed to torture you: they read out names in no particular order, and my name was the second to last one called and by the time they said it my heart was pounding and my hands were sweating and I almost dove across the room and scratched one of the examiners eyes out, just to ease some of the tension. But instead I shook his hand, said thank you, took my pin and certificate, and guzzled the glass of champagne we all toasted with.

So now what? I'll tell you in the next post.

Since I am no longer in the class, tasting ten wines every day, and since, let's face it, I'm just not interesting enough to write four posts a week at the moment, I will return to writing new posts Mondays and Thursdays with the wine recommendation on Thursdays.

Until then...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wine for Clearing the First Hurdle

Well I did it-I passed the Introductory test!

Tomorrow will be the Certified Exam. We will arrive at 8am, and at 8:20 we will have a blind tasting of one red wine and one white wine, followed by a written theory exam. Then we are given a time to return for our Service exam, during which we have to open and pour a bottle of sparkling wine, suggest food and wine pairings, and walk around the room with a full tray of glasses.

Lots of interesting things can happen during the service portion: I have heard stories of out-of-control champagne bottles that parted violently from their corks and bounced off the floor, spraying wine everywhere; trays of full glasses have been dropped; fingers have been sliced open by corkscrews and foils; and wine has been spilled on Master Sommeliers.

Let's hope I don't do any of those things!

I don't have a wine to suggest today, but what I would most like to have at the moment is a Moscow Mule, a deliciously refreshing cocktail made of vodka, ginger beer and lime. The perfect study tonic!

Think of me tomorrow and send me wishes for a sharp mind, peppy taste buds and steady hands...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wine for When the Hills are Alive

I made it through day one of the introductory seminar, which was, to be honest, really boring. I just want to take the tests already and get it over-with.

On the upside, I am currently doing one of my favorite things: sitting in my hotel room bed in my jammies, watching movies on HBO. Earlier "Fatal Attraction" was on and now it's "Patriot Games". I love hotels. As long as they're clean and don't smell like mildew or poo or something. I don't know what it is about hotels and why I love them so, but i just do. They seem to bring up something of childhood happiness and escapism, reminding me of jumping on hotel room beds when I was young and sharing the bed with my sister. And ordering room service always felt, and still feels, like a secret indulgence.

When I was young, we used to go once a year to The Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. This was the lodge started by the actual Maria Von Trapp and children of "The Sound of Music" fame. The lodge was built in the Austrian style, and the setting up in the mountains of Vermont made me want to run around singing "The Hills are Alive..." Instead, while cross country skiing, I slid down an icy hill on my face while my sister laughed at me.

The meals we had there were unbelievably good, and consisted of German and Austrian delights that I can neither pronounce nor spell. Wienerschnitzel, spaetzle, schvatsweilderkirschtorte, dobishtorte (I did warn you that I couldn't spell any of it, but I sure could eat it!!). After one particular meal when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I was so full that I moaned with a certain level of distress: "Mommy, I think I'm going to blow up."

I'm sure you know that level of fullness, where you don't feel like you're going to be sick, you just feel like you're going to go full-on Violet Beauregard, swell into a gigantic blueberry, roll away and then pop somewhere.

In the spirit of Violet, and since at the moment I am really sick of wine, I am going to recommend a delightful cocktail: Sake and Chambord. I had this at a Sushi restaurant where they called it a Purple Haze, and it is absolutely delicious; warm and slightly sweet, with that lovely black raspberry flavor from the Chambord. A nice way to start a meal.

Introductory Exam tomorrow. Will let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wine for Test-Related Meltdown

Oh dear. I had planned to return to the blogging world yesterday, but instead I wound up blubbering away to Steve in the car on the way home for no apparent reason. I believe it would be safe to call it a Stress-Related-Blubber-Fest. I hiccoughed, I sobbed incoherently, I took shuddery breaths, and told Steve: "I...(hiccough-breath) wa (hiccough-breath) famma (hiccough-breath) wanna (hiccough-breath) flabetharathblu. Waaaaa." To which Steve replied: "Wait.....What?!"

This seems to happen a lot, this sort of test stress build-up that results in some kind of sobbing or massive panic. I have had a couple of doozies in this department. When I got accepted into UCLA as a transfer student, i had to take a math placement exam to figure out which calculus class I should be in. Now, you may not know this, but I hate math. I HATE IT. It makes me cry. And that evening at UCLA extension, as I stared at this placement test and realized I had no idea how to do any of it, I had a massive freak-out in which I imagined that my failure in this test and subsequent class would mean that UCLA would withdraw my acceptance, my parents would disown me and my life would be over.

So after staring at this test for 5 minutes or so, I got up from my chair, went to the bathroom where I hyperventilated and cried like a four year old, and then went home. The next day I called a lovely admissions woman at UCLA, and with shaking voice that devolved to quavery weepiness, I explained that I just was not very good at math, and could in no way, under any circumstances, possibly make it through a calculus class, and this sweet lady very wisely put me in an Algebra II class instead. Bless her heart.

Flash forward to my last few exams at UCLA. I was in the final for my required Statistics class, and I looked over all those pages with all those numbers on them and felt my heart beat faster, my breathing speed up, my palms sweating, and my eyes welling up with tears. And I realized that I had no idea how to answer any of the questions on the exam, was going to fail the exam, not graduate from college, get disowned by parents and wind up being the crazy lady who danced outside the clothing shops on the Venice boardwalk.

In full-on Blubber-Fest mode, I dragged my poor unsuspecting TA outside where I proceeded to panic and cry all over her, at which point she promised me that no matter how badly I did on the exam, she would still pass me. I'm not sure if she did this because she took pity on me, or if she did this because she was a little bit afraid of me, but either way, I graduated from college.

Tomorrow the fun begins. We have a massive all-day wine lecture tomorrow, then a half-day lecture on Thursday followed by our Introductory exam, If I pass that, I will return on Friday for the Certified exam. Hopefully I will manage to get through all three days without crying, though as I think I illustrated above, my track record is not so good.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wine for Being Tipsy

My teacher added more stress to my life today when he told us that not only do we need to have wine recommendations for our service exam, we also have to be able to recommend scotch, brandy, beer and cocktails. I'm so screwed. There is only so much information I can cram into my noggin, and I feel like I reached my limit about a week ago. It's sort of like when your trash can is full, but nobody wants to be the one to take it out, so you keep pushing the trash down, compacting it so you can cram more in. That usually buys a few more days, but eventually you can compact no more, and then paper towels and apple cores start overflowing. I imagine that the next time I try to drink a glass of wine it will just come oozing out my ears. Either that or each new fact I try to stuff in there will simply force an old one out.

In response to my stress, I did what any sane person would do: I picked Steve up from work and took him to a wine bar! Now it was not my intention to get tipsy, I simply wanted to avoid going home where I knew I would start to panic about how much studying I have to do. The tipsyness just sort of happened.

We ordered a glass of wine each, but then, because the bartender could spot a wine geek from a mile away, he started pouring us little tastes of other wines, and I hadn't eaten for a while, so...

This has happened to me before when I go to wine tastings. I start out fine, and before I know it, Steve has to drive home while I sit there in the front seat giggling uncontrollably at the discovery that if you combine Engelbert Humperdinck and Art Garfunkel's names you get Engelart Humperfunkel.

Today's wine is not actually a wine at all but a lambic, which is a Belgian ale flavored with fruit. The one we had in class was a Lindeman's Kriek Lambic. I must admit that this one flavored with cherry was so much like Robitussin or a Sucrette that I couldn't drink it, but I have had the Framboise one before and it is absolutely delicious. It's sort of like a raspberry soda with a beer-ey kick to it. Yummy.

I am going to take next week off from writing this blog (which I know will be very upsetting to the four of you who actually read it!), so that I can spend every spare second when I am not in class studying. I plan to return the following week to keep you current on the joys of the testing week.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wine for Freaking Out

It's happening. I am starting to feel that pre-test panic setting in, the kind that brings on the feeling that I will never remember it all, that I don't have enough time to learn my made-up wine list for the service portion of the exam, will never remember all the first and second growths of the Medoc in France, never have time to write this blog, get all our tax stuff ready, set up possible internships for afterward, and plan a gigantic trip which I will tell you about another time.

So I can pretty much guarantee that these blogs will get shorter, contain a lot more spelling errors, and most likely be more frantic every day.

Today we discussed beer and sake, and I found myself thinking, as I often do: "Who on earth ever thought to make this stuff?" I am fascinated by how different foods and beverages come into existence. Who on earth thought that if they polished rice and mixed it with mold it would make a delicious beverage? Who thought to grind up barley, add yeast and hops and make beer? Who figured out yeast would make bread? Who ever looked at or touched an artichoke and thought, "I bet if we steam that for hours and then peel off all the pokey leaves, there will be something absolutely delicious inside? And cheese...who was the genius who looked at a scary-looking and smelling glob of moldy blue curdled milk and said:"That is going to be really tasty on a cracker." For that matter, who the hell came up with the idea of a cracker!?

I know that most of these things are happy accidents, like the discovery of penicillin, but still. It's pretty cool.

There is a funny-shaped, squat wine flask from Franconia Germany called a Bocksbeutel, which literally means "goat scrotum". Now, I want to meet the person who looked at the back end of a goat and thought "I want to drink wine out of THAT." Actually, come to think of it, maybe I don't.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wine for Feeling Overwhelmed

Maybe it's natural for this to happen in the home stretch of anything, but I am just feeling overwhelmed and to be honest, a bit discouraged. We had our Germany/Eastern Europe test today, and while the theory portion went fine, the blind tasting was a bit of a disaster. It seems like just when I start to feel confident in my ability to pick out some of these wines, we have a test like this where I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, like all this information is creating a massive tornado in my head, and I am struggling to pull one or two bits out of it to try and piece together something that makes sense.

I thought the white wine in today's tasting was a Riesling from the United States, and I thought the red wine was an Australian Shiraz. Neither of these was remotely right. The white was in fact a Chenin Blanc from France, and the red was a Cabernet Sauvignon also from France.

The girl who sits next me also thought the red was an Australian Shiraz and that the white wine was a Riesling from Germany, and she has worked at a restaurant/wine bar for many years, so I'm not completely out of my mind. I don't actually think anyone in class got both of the wines right, even the guy who is part of a wine making family, and who has been tasting different wines for over 15 years, which just goes to show that this stuff is pretty freakin hard.

I keep reminding myself that I only need to get 60% in each of the exam components (theory, tasting, service) to pass, but it is in this last week and a half of class leading up to the exam that I need a vote of confidence, and not being able to figure out either wine just leaves me feeling at loose ends.

Now that I think about it, it's not so different from the last couple weeks of rehearsal before a play opens. People forget their lines and blocking, something always goes spectacularly wrong in tech and dress rehearsal, no one feels like the play has been rehearsed enough, the sets aren't done, the costumes aren't done, people walk around like zombies from all the stress, worry and lack of sleep, but then somehow, miraculously, on opening night, everything just seems to fall into place, almost effortlessly, and the show, as they say, literally goes on.

Let's hope that is what will happen for me on testing day. I should be able to recommend a red and white wine to you today, but apparently, I don't know what they are. Sorry.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wine for the Beginning of the End

Today is the first day of our second to last week of class. It was our very last wine lecture, and encompassed Russia, Greece, Israel, Lebanon (wine in Lebanon...who knew?!) and Slovenia (wine in Slovenia...who knew??!!).

From here we move on to beer, whiskey, brandy and cigars. Seriously...cigars. The most disgusting-smelling things, in my opinion, ever to be lit on fire. And they just conjure up images for me of big, fat, rich, bald white dudes. Is that just me??

I'm not going to lie, today's wines, overall, were not good, but one of them really surprised me. The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee Israel 2005 was really delicious: full and round with a lovely nose and palate of blackberry, black currant, black cherry, coffee, chocolate, tobacco and smoke. I never would have thought to get such a lovely wine from Israel. One of the students in a previous wine class was from Israel, and she said this was a pretty average wine for Israel, that there were much better out there, though they can be hard to find in the marketplace.

Nothing in my mind is a patch on good old Manischewitz. I think if you grew up Jewish in the United States, you grew up tasting Manischewitz at all the holidays, and this was your first exposure to wine. This stuff is kind of the Yoo-Hoo of wine: it's thick, sweet and grapey, and tastes great with all the classic Jewish holiday fare, from pot roast and matzoh to challah bread and gefilte fish. Boy I miss some of that food: lean corned beef on rye, knishes.

I need to find a good New York-style deli in San Francisco. If any of you know of one, let me know, and the first knish will be on me!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wine for the Love of Riesling

Today is not for stinky-wee Madeira, today is for the joy of Riesling. Ahhh...Riesling. I think I'm in love. What a wonderful wine. We already tasted the French Rieslings and US Rieslings, all of which are delicious, but the German Rieslings are something special. Basically the German wine world is all about Riesling, so there are a lot of them. There is even a spectrum of six different ripeness categories (or really sugar at harvest) for Riesling.

All of the German Rieslings are lower in alcohol, more delicate in style, higher in acid and slightly sweeter than their French counterparts. They have this wonderful aroma of canned and dried fruits, white flowers, green and white tea, sometimes nectarines and peaches. They have a beautiful full mouth feel, almost oily but not in a bad, greasy way, more in a smooth way. And the sweetness beautifully balances the acid, while the acid balances the sweetness by never allowing the wine to taste cloying. These wines can be served in a variety of ways: with citrusy salads, seafood, foie gras, cheeses, spicy foods like Indian or asian, desserts, or just by themselves.

Since I have fallen completely in love, I am going to give you a couple of recommendations:

Willi Schaefer Riesling Graacher Domprobst Kabinett Mosel 2007 and Willi Schaefer Riesling Graacher Domprobst Spatlese Mosel 2007. As you can see from the names, these two Rieslings are very similar, apart from two words: Kabinett and Spatlese. These are two of the classifications I mentioned, and they refer to the level of sugar in the grapes at harvest. Kabinett is one level down from Spatlese, but the difference in sweetness can vary according to producer, year, etc.

The amazing thing is that the Spatlese and the Kabinett above smell totally different to each other, even considering that they are made by the same producer and from the same vintage. Where the Kabinett is lighter with more mineral, nectarine, honey, pear and vanilla, the Spatlese is more concentrated, with a bit of petroleum, canned pear, pineapple, green tea and match stick. Both of them are off dry, or slightly sweet. The Kabinett retails for $24, and the Spatlese retails for $40.

My favorite by far though was the Robert Weil Riesling Kiedrich Grafenberg Auslese Rheingau 1998. This is one of my beloved Botrytis wines, those wines that are made from grapes that have been affected by the "noble rot" or Botrytis. This wine has a lovely nose of honeysuckle, orange blossom, honey, canned fruit cocktail, white raspberry, dried apricots and dried peaches, with a lovely addition on the palate of poached pear and jasmine. It is a beautiful wine, though it unfortunately retails for $170.

A wine to dream about...

Wine for Cat Pee

Today we discuss Madeira's, tomorrow German Rieslings, because those babies are a delight.

First, the Madeiras. I'm not sure I had ever had a straight Madeira before. Certainly I had had Madeira-based sauces, and because of that I always thought Madeira was a cooking wine, but it is also often served chilled as an aperatif, or with cheese courses. It tastes a bit like sherry and port combined.

What I thought very cool is the fact that unlike most wines which are aged in a cool environment, Madeiras are essentially cooked, either in heated steel vats or left to heat in the sun in wood barrels, so it in essence becomes caramelized. Madeira can be dry or sweet, and to be honest, it is not my favorite, though I would like to try some with a cheese course, because I think the cheese would balance it nicely.

One of these Madeiras had a very unfortunate aroma. I kept smelling it and making "the face", and when I looked around, I saw others smelling it and also making "the face". The "I just sucked on a lemon" face, or in my mother's case, the "I smell someone smoking a cigarette in the next county" face. Or the cat face. Anyone who has ever owned a cat will know the face of which I speak: it is the face they make when they smell something that they simply don't like. My cat used to make it, and almost always after she smelled my feet. She would lean down, sniff my feet and then look up at me, mouth open, almost panting, a slightly stunned look on her face. It was always so insulting somehow, and I wanted to scream: "You just spent a half an hour licking your own ass, but my FEET are what send you over the edge??!!"

Anyway, this Madeira did not smell like feet, instead it reeked of cat pee, and the last thing we wanted to do was taste it, especially since it only tasted marginally better than it smelled.

Lest I make it seem as though all Madeira smell like kitty pee, I will say I tasted a couple of them that I really liked. One of these was the Cossart Gordon Rainwater Med-Dry Madeira. This was light and smooth, with a bit of raisin to it. Apparently this wine was used to toast the signing of the Declaration on Independence, so it is also a patriotic wine, and it does not, I promise, smell like wee.

Until tomorrow...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Wine for Spain and Portugal Exam

Had the theory and blind tasting today. Did surprisingly well considering I missed three out of four lectures and still can't smell much of anything through my stuffed-up nose.

That said I guessed correctly that the white wine was a Chardonnay from the USA, and I guessed that the red wine was a Syrah, which was also correct, but didn't get the country of origin right. I honestly don't know what I was thinking with this one. I had basically chosen Syrah based on how purple in color it was, since my nose wasn't quite up to snuff, but I wasn't sure where it was from. It didn't seem dark enough or potent/tannic enough to be from Australia or the US, and I completely forgot that the Rhone in France is a huge area for Syrah, and I ran out of time, so at the last minute I ticked off New Zealand, which is kind of out in left field, because New Zealand is just not known for Syrah (Shiraz). Even after I ticked off the New Zealand box and handed my test in to the teacher, I thought, Now why on earth did I say New Zealand? It was panic test-brain, that's my best explanation.

Apart from being a bit nervous during the blind tastings, I actually quite enjoy the detective aspect of them. It's fun to look at different elements and see what answers I can get from them. For example today, from the color of the red wine alone I was able to narrow the grape varietal down to Syrah or Gamay. And with the white wine, the vanilla and buttery butterscotch aromas tipped me into Chardonnay territory.

The piece that was so frustrating today with not being able to smell properly was that it was really hard to tell what part of the world the wines were from. As I think I mentioned before, a big clue can be found in how much fruit aroma there is in a wine vs. earth and mineral aromas. So if the wine is more fruity, or fruit-driven than anything else, that can be a sign that the wine is from the New World (North America, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, etc.). Whereas if the wine is more earth/mineral driven (chalk, clay, leaves, mushroom, etc.), then the wine is more likely an Old World wine from France, Germany, Italy, Spain. This is not 100% all the time obviously, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb.

Today I just couldn't tell the difference. I got just a muddle of aromas, but couldn't pick out whether there was more fruit or earth in either of the wines, so in the end I just had to guess. At least though, now I know what it is that I'm not able to figure out, which is progress!

I know I said I was going to talk about Madeiras, but I've already gone on too long, so I will try to remember for tomorrow. We move on to wines of Germany and Eastern Europe tomorrow. This will mean Rieslings, which I love, and a dessert wine from Hungary which I have never tried but is supposed to be delicious.

I wanted to give you the details of the Chardonnay we had in class today, because it was a nice mix of buttery, vanilla oak and apple, without making you feel like you were just drinking a glass of popcorn butter, but I didn't write down all the details, so I will owe you a second wine tomorrow.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Wine for Port Day

I was finally able to go back to class today after missing all of last week. I'm still blowing my nose all the time and coughing a lot (turns out I have Bronchitis), but at least I was able to leave the house for the first time since last Sunday.

What made my return even better was the fact that today was Port day, and I love me some Port!! Tawny Port especially...delicious, sweet, nutty, some like liquid toffee...what's not to love?

Ports are fortified wines, which means that a neutral-tasting grape spirit (77% alcohol) is added before fermentation is completed, creating wines that are both sweet and high in alcohol (around 20%). There are Ruby Ports, which are red in color, and Tawny Ports, which are brown. Ruby Ports tend to have more fruity aromas and flavors, while the Tawny Ports have more nuttiness and much less fruit.

I always thought that these differences were due to differences in grape varietals, but it isn't. It is due to the time that the port spends aging in wood. This fascinates me. Vintage (Ruby ports) will spend up to 2 years aging in wood, Late Bottle Vintage (also ruby) spend 2-4 years in wood, while Tawny ports spend a minimum of 6 years in wood. So what is the difference? Wood, unlike stainless steel or concrete, breathes. Oxygen gets into the wood and affects the wine, changing its color and flavor, often causing that nuttiness.

We also tried several Madeira's today, but they're a whole other ball of wax, so I'll save those for tomorrow.

In the meantime, tomorrow is our Iberian Peninsula test (Spain, Portugal) and a blind tasting of one white and one red wine from anywhere in the world except Germany. We'll see how it goes, since I still can't smell much out of my blocked schnozz.

While I study, I will enjoy the inch of port left in one of the tasting bottles I brought home from class. It is a Krohn 20 year Tawny Port, and it has all the toffee, nutty, golden raisin deliciousness I love. And at about $35 a bottle, it is quite a reasonable introduction to 20-year Tawny. Remember, unless you are me and Steve, you get more out of a bottle of port than a traditional bottle of wine, since most people drink much less port in a sitting than red or white wine. So where you might get 4 or 5 glasses from a bottle of wine, you might get 12 servings from one bottle of port.

Or you can do like Steve and I do, and just stick two giant straws in the port bottle and go to town.