Over the twenty three and change years I’ve been hanging out here on Earth, my mother has made it her mission to teach me a great many things about life and success. More than just a mother’s duty, it seems her calling to instill certain lessons upon me, true to the through-and-through educator that she is. One particular lesson cropped up first in my mid-teens, and has continued to be a frequent topic of conversation time and again as I now approach my mid-twenties. If I had a dime for every time I heard my mother say “Drinking kills brain cells,” well, I’d be a lot less nervous about the culinary school student loans, let’s just put it that way.
Unlike many of the other life lessons she’s taught me (“everything happens for a reason,” and “you’ll go broke saving money”), this one never seemed to hold much water, thus intensifying her mission to engrain it into my (and now, my twenty-year old brother’s) brain. It seemed that as a teacher, she found it personally crucial to protect the education imparted on her children over their two decades of schooling by creating a barrier between our knowledge and the evil drops of liquor and beer that sought to destroy all evidence of it.
To everyone out there that has stood by the claim that alcohol and education just don’t mix, I respect you. I even believe that there is some truth to your argument. And I’m here to prove you wrong.
Enter my Thursday nights for the next six weeks – Wine Essentials at the Institute of Culinary Education; an in-depth course on fundamental knowledge of wine and pairings, and a requirement to graduating from ICE’s Culinary Arts program. And I’m here to share the whole thing with you, dear reader. Sorry mom, but you just can’t argue with this one. In vino, veritas.
Last Thursday was the first session. Now, I’ve been to my fair share of wine tasting for someone who’s only been legally drinking for two years, but still, I was way more excited for these tastings at ICE than any of the others in the past. What I already knew about the course impressed me: ICE has a special room just for wine drinking, complete with its own ventilation system to prevent the delicious aromas from the pastry classes just outside from wafting in and muddling the scents you detect when expertly sniffing wine. Isn’t expertise nice?
We all filed into a room that reminded me greatly of the arc-shaped classrooms at University of Maryland’s business school, and took our seats. Each place was set with nine wine glasses, a tenth glass for water, four plastic cups of unmarked liquids, a spitting bucket, and a carafe of water. Every time someone moved an inch, the whole table rattled with the clinking of glasses.
We quickly met our instructor for the next six weeks, a Mr. Richard Vayda, who was instantly likeable. His bio in our binder told us the following about Mr. Vayda: “… has broad experience with wines, wine list formulation and food and wine pairings … a graduate wine captain of the Sommelier Society … has orchestrated major wine and spirit tastings, wine competition events, regional wine and food dinners …” and so 0n. What he told us himself was that he was raised in the Midwest by an Italian mother and Russian father (represent!!) and that drinking was in his blood. He grew up drinking wine and beer, and when his parents caught him making wine in his bedroom at the age of fourteen, they were proud rather than disappointed. He told us that he drinks every day, which seemed superhuman considering his fit physique. Needless to say, the crowd warmed to Mr. Vayda within minutes.
He taught us a great many things that I never knew about wine that night. We delved into the history of wine, learning that wine is the oldest identifiable alcoholic beverage on Earth and was most likely invented about five thousand years ago by mistake. He told us an “origin of wine” fable, describing an early clan who had discarding some crushed grapes in a vat, only to return days later and find the mixture frothing and spewing forth a pungent aroma. Perhaps it was force-fed as a punishment to some vandal, but when the vandal wound up drunk, the villagers rejoiced that this mysterious liquid had been given to them as a gift from the god. Dionysus and Bacchus were huge in those days, and later eras of humanity continued to worship the gods of wine, dancing and debauchery for all the good times the beverage brought them. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that anyone came remotely close to understanding the science behind the (wonderful) effect wine has on us.
So why do we like wine? Well, we discussed the many reasons. It’s relaxing. We associate it with celebrating and special occasions. It tastes good. Alone, or with food. And it makes food taste better.
Which led us to the main event of the night, which we had all been patiently awaiting since we were invited at the onset of class to make a plate of assorted cheeses, grapes, and crackers from a buffet along the side of the room, but please, don’t eat them just yet. Vayda stated that we certainly could dig in, but assured us that we’d appreciate it so much more if we waited until the wine.
So after about ninety minutes of the history of wine and an exploration of wine production, two waiters began to circulate the room and fill our glasses, starting with white first.
Before we began to drink, we had to address the mysterious four unmarked cups set before our wine glasses.
We were instructed to examine each one for color and clarity, swirl, sniff, sip, and taste. We did this slowly and with precision for each cup, and by the end of the exercise we had realized that each cup represented a different tasting component we’d experience in tasting wine: neutral (water), bitter (tannin), sour (citric acid), and sweet (fruit sugars). And then, we poured a bit of each of the flavored liquids into the water, gave it a swirl and a sniff and a sip, and guess what? It tasted just a bit like wine.
Talk about a prelude.
We got to tasting. We tasted three whites together, sipping and sniffing and swirling ourselves into a frenzy, switching between heavier and lighter whites, deeper bouquets and lighter aromas, interchanging sips of water to cleanse our palates. We learned to use not just our sense of taste, but our sense of smell, sticking our noses deep into the glasses to retrieve all the elements of a particular wine’s bouquet. Vayda told us that despite what you might assume, flavor is really the result of taste plus smell. As we tasted, slurping air over the wine we held in our mouths and flicking our tongues upward and downward, Vayda urged us to shout out the flavors and foods the wine reminded us of. Soon the air was thick with people shouting, “Grapefruit!” “Lemon!” “Papaya!” “Cinnamon!” “Tobacco!” “Oak!”
We were told to spit after each sip, or else everything would start tasting good before long. A sound idea in theory, but then I realized, free wine! Free good wine! Needless to say, few people were throwing their sips away, myself included.
During this exercise we moved from light whites to heavier, aged ones, onto a sweet dessert white and a champagne (which Vayda pronounced “shom-pan-gya” every time). Then we progressed to the reds, starting with a lighter Pinot Noir, one of my favorites, onto heavier reds and finally a syrupy Port that would be drunk from a smaller glass, and likely served with dessert. With each sip of each wine we would, in unison, take a nibble of one of the various cheeses we had before us (Camembert, blue cheese, goat cheese, and gruyere). Every time we did this, Vayda would study us over his folded hands and ask: “But who wins – the cheese, or the wine?” Though a perplexing question at first and one I had never before considered, I quickly came to realize that answering this simple question could also unlock the mystery behind why some wines and cheeses seem made for each other.
It’s all about balance.
Of course – the flavors should complement each other and leave a rich, sweet and savory, succulent finish, rather than leaving you overwhelmed with the flavors of just one or the other. For every glass, Vayda made us (as if we were unwilling) try each cheese, sampling until we got closer to achieving that perfect balance. For the Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay, it was the Gruyere, though the Camembert worked quite well too; with a spicy, oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, the blue cheese worked best, though we learned that the ideal pairing for this dish would be a rich red meat, perhaps with a nice pan sauce. If none of the cheeses worked, as was the case with the Brut Nicolas Fueillate Champagne, we weren’t afraid to say so, only question what cheese or other dish would work better with a wine of that character. Chef always says that cooking is merely a series of analytical questions you must ask yourself before you act; that night, we learned that tasting and pairing wines works much the same way.
Despite the call to spit, I finished most of my wines that night, even the ones I didn’t like at first; by the end of the evening, I had acquired a deeper appreciation for each of them, understanding their flavors and thereby virtues more than when we’d started. The fog of the day had seemed to clear, and any troubles or problems that had seemed overwhelming before I’d walked into that room had diminished in their catastrophic scope, leaving behind only a grand appreciation for the night, that feeling, and all the good things around me.
This is why we love wine so much, isn’t it? Well then, I look forward to sharing this road to deeper appreciation of this euphoric elixir with you all.