X. LEARNING ABOUT WINE
COURSES ON WINE
The University of California at Davis confers college degrees. Their web site is http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/.
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma is recommended to UK students considering studying for the "Master of Wine" examination. However the Master of Wine is an international qualification with study courses and exams run in Boston, Sydney, Montpellier and London. It is open to any one in the trade who can demonstrate adequate experience and knowledge as it is a difficult exam to pass. It takes two years with a dissertation on an aspect of viticulture or vinification in year 1 with written and tasting exams in year 2. Potential candidates should contact the Institute of Masters of Wine. Five Kings House, 1 Queen Street Place, London EC4R 1QS, Great Britain; +44 171 236 4427, fax: + 44 171 329 0298.
Many people have asked for an on-line compendium of every winery in existence. The best place to get this information is from a book. If you insist on using the Internet, then you are relying on the talents of some dedicated compilers or the commercial leanings of the wineries themselves. (I'm not saying they may not have altruistric motives, the Internet is cheap, but let's be real.) For some lists of wineries on the Internet, see the section on Internet Resources. As of this writing, more wine magazines are setting up web sites. They probably will provide a great deal of information (perhaps for a fee) on specific wines and wineries.
Wineries are an excellent place to learn about wine when approached with the proper frame of mind: drunkeness is not a particularly good way to remember much about what you were drinking. Another very important point to remember about tasting at wineries is that you probably aren't tasting the wine the way you would at home. Besides the somewhat crowded, sometimes rushed situations you face in the winery, the bottle might have been open for hours or even days. In my mind, however, the most important thing is that you probably will drink the wine with food at home. The differences in the way a wine tastes when you are eating can be momumental. What might be a so-so wine in the winery might be wonderful at home, and vice-versa. Nevertheless you can usually get a good idea of the wines you like when tasting a various wineries in a particular area over a short period of time. Take notes, have a good time, and use the "dump bucket."
While traveling through wine areas, you will find that many wineries let you come in and taste their wines free of charge. Since we aren't really out to get drunk on these trips, we find ourselves constantly asking the pourers to "go easy". Purists may say that you need more than we ask for in order to get enough wine in the glass to swirl and smell. We find that we get along just fine without a large pour. Makes us feel better about not "wasting" wine. Perhaps we are naive about the wasting part, since the wineries know what they are doing when it comes to the promotion and sale of their wine. But this brings us to the subject of charging for tasting. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, so the saying goes, but free wine tastings seem to come awfully close. Once you're used to the concept, walking into a place and being charged for the "priviledge" of finding out whether you want to spend a lot of money on buying something you can't otherwise personally know anything about seems almost offensive! (Really, how much more subjective can any subject be than the choice of wine to drink?)
Or course it all comes down to supply and demand. Wineries that find that people will pay may charge. Answer? There are still lots of wineries making great wine that do not charge. If you are so inclined, tell the charging winery so and walk out. (We're not going to get into the argument that charging cuts down on drunkeness; there are enough people that will pay and get drunk anyhow.) A winery may not often be pouring their best wines, which, in many cases, are in short supply. However, if you look like you are somewhat knowledgeable about what you want to drink, know a bit about the particular winery's wine, and are genuinely interested in purchasing the more expensive wines (and show up when things aren't so busy), you may find that you will be allowed to taste them, for the asking. Sometimes a winery will charge for tasting the better wines. This seems a fair compromise (so maybe we'll support them on this one, though perhaps we're still naive). Some wineries, for a price (if not outrageous, certainly justified, this time), go all out and will pour much older "library" wines which they have stored and are now again releasing for sale. Such tastings are very informative, for even if you can't afford to buy the wine, you can get some idea of how more current wines will "age," or just what all the hoopla is about when people talk about drinking wines that have been around for a long time.
For a more personal look at visiting wineries, check out the section on Learning About Wine: Starting Out.
Horace Rumpole, aging Old Bailey hack (also known as a barrister practicing law in the criminal courts in London), attending what undoubtedly was his first wine tasting after many years consuming the less than stately Chateau Thames Embankment, given a somewhat more pleasing claret, found that it was a vintage "Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth, tasting of Flora and the country green." And while he reveled in drinking the "flavour of Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth, mixed with a dash of wild strawberries," he was bedeviled by a fellow taster who demanded: "can't you spit?" [For a fun time, read Rumpole and the Blind Tasting, in Rumpole's Last Case, by John Mortimer, Penguin Books. Or read any Rumpole story! Also a popular TV program. Also a popular audio series, especially when performed (not just read) by Leo McKern--doing all the voices. OK, so wine isn't the only thing I like....]
Poor Rumpole. All he was trying to do was enjoy a decent wine and he is reproached for failing to use the expectoration area. Of course the idea is that you don't drink the wine, you merely taste it. Among other things, this means that you don't get drunk. The concept of spittoons, or sandboxes, properly placed, is real factor in "real" tastings. It should be OK to drink the wine when there aren't many being served and care is taken. But if there is a large number of wines to sample, drinking them all is going to become a problem.
On the other hand, you don't have to be all uppity about tasting wine. Friends gathering to try out a number of wines (in moderation) is a good way to learn about wine. "Dumping" the glass eventually is a good idea just to avoid the drunkenness, which, among other things, will prevent you from learning anything at all.
The really serious also get into "blind tastings" where the participants (often contestants) must identify not only the type of wine, but the vintage and producer. There are those who can do that; there are also those who think the only way you can do that is to practice it 3 or 4 times a week. Having never participated in a blind tasting (and since I have an abysmal memory, I doubt that I ever will), I cannot attest to how much fun such a contest is. There are certainly those who take great pleasure in it. Many people seem to think that you add something to the wine tasting experience by injecting something like a contest into it. For many this can be intimidating.
Of course, the best reason for tasting wine under blinded conditions (meaning where the identity of each wine isn't known until after the tasting is done) is so that the tasters can judge the wine on its own merits, uninfluenced by any prejudices or expectations based on where the wine is from or what year it is. Blind tastings often yield surprising results, such as when an obscure wine is strongly preferred by the tasters over the first growth Bordeaux that was also in the tasting. Most people who taste blind do so in order to evaluate the wine entirely by its taste, rather than by its label.
A very knowledgeable wine person tells me: "What can be really amusing when you have a wine snob (not a knowledgeable connoisseur, but one of those who likes to put on airs and brag about how anything except first-growth Bordeaux is junk) over for dinner is to decant a bottle of something good bug cheap into a bottle with a posh label on it. Then, after the snob has gushed rhapsodic over the wine, show him or her the other bottle and explain what you did." I'm not necessarily a promoter of deception, but I certainly don't advocate snobbery; do this at your own risk!
An interesting idea in any event is to taste a "first label" against the "second label" of a vintner. Some wineries will put out their best wine under their own name, and then use a different label for wine that they like but don't think is worthy of their normal production. Tasting between the two can give a good opportunity to see what the winemaker thinks about similar products.
Robert Parker, an attorney who was able to do something which suited his interests and perhaps to many is a whole lot more fun. He got to become the ultimate wine expert. Lots of people "don't like Robert Parker." They miss the point. Robert Parker, like all of us, has his own likes and dislikes. The fact that "Parker" likes a wine is completely of no consequence; if you don't like the wine (or vice-versa). If you wish to follow Parker because you know nothing about a wine and want to know where to begin, that's certainly fine, and not a bad idea. If you like a wine and Parker doesn't and you change your mind about it because you believe Parker over your own palate, then I'll wonder about you. Taste is on the tongue of the beholder.
The only true problem with Parker is that if he really likes a wine, don't wait around long trying to find it. It'll be gone before you get a chance to buy (or the price will increase out of your range). Fortunately there are quite a few wines that Parker doesn't like that many find absolutely wonderful and remain bargains. Since wine making is an annual event, you get to figure this out every year.
Mr. Parker has been found on the Prodigy service at EXP42B@prodigy.com.
(A note: Posts indicate that Mr. Parker has an investment in a winery (with his brother-in-law) in Oregon; that he does not review the wine, nor mention the name of the wine in his writings and reviews. Posts generally liked the Pinot.)