Bottoms Up! Wine Tasting 101
Can I really taste oak and butter in my wine? What is really the point of swirling my
Those questions, among many others, are what I set out to get answered when
It's probably important to disclose that two weeks ago the extent of my wine
This is why, going into class, I was nervous that my low wine IQ would be ousted instantly and I would be scoffed at. But that all melted away within minutes of the
Pucilowski has around 30 years of experience in the wine world and is deemed an official "Certified Wine Expert" by the Society of Wine Educators. He has served as chief judge for the wine competition at the California State Fair and has judged other notable shows like the International Wine Competition at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Lodi Wine Awards. He is also the wine editor for Sacramento Magazine.
Most people, including myself, envision "winos" with their noses in the air while they swirl their wine, then submerging their noses in their glasses while claiming to pick up hints of tobacco or pear in their pour. Pucilowski, with his approachable and laid-back demeanor, puts that myth to rest and makes students feel comfortable asking any question they might have.
The courses are spread out over two weeks. There are two two-hour classes, "Tasting Like a Professional" and "Fives Types of Wine Flavor and Identification." The third "class" is an optional wine-pairing dinner, held on a Thursday evening for this particular class series. While I could not attend the dinner, I snuck a peek at the menu. With menu items such as California goat cheese croquette with Serrano ham and arugula, pinot noir-braised duck, and pumpkin crème brulée, it's clear that I missed out.
Just like a real college course, we were not only given something that resembled a syllabus, but school began with the quintessential icebreaker exercise where everyone talks a little bit about themselves.
There was a wide-range of professions, ages and reasons why students wanted to bulk up their wine expertise. Among the students were a 20-something who will eventually become a sommelier at his family's bed and breakfast, a middle-aged woman who investigates food stamp fraud for the U.S. Department of Food & Agriculture and the owner of a chrome-plating shop who hopes to own a wine shop some day.
The setting was picturesque. The dining room's doors stayed open, allowing the river breeze to blow in. If there's a better place to learn about wine, I can't think of one. Platters of cheeses, crackers and fruits welcomed us before being seated at tables covered in white linens and wine glasses.
We each were given a paper cup to spit our wine out after each taste. The idea of a spit cup has always been ridiculous to me. Who in their right mind would spit out a great mouthful of wine? But Pucilowski encouraged us to use the cups in order to take away more from the class.
"Every single ounce of alcohol in your system will diminish your ability to judge wine," he said.
So I (hesitantly) resisted the urge to swallow in effort to get the most out of class.
While the first class' purpose was to learn how to sip like a judge, Pucilowski explained that the difference between wine judges and consumers is what we're looking for when tasting. Judges look for stylistic characteristics such as how a type of wine is supposed to look, smell and taste.
Consumers, on the other hand, are looking for a wine that tastes good to us. We sampled eight wines during each class and analyzed each by color, smell and taste as a group. A common reminder Pucilowski gave us throughout class was that there is no wrong answer to what you're seeing, smelling or tasting.
"What you like is what you like. What you smell is what you smell," he said.
Things I learned about analyzing color:
* Remember that everyone has their own spectrum and we all see colors differently.
Things I learned about analyzing smell:
* Don't be embarrassed by what you're smelling. When smelling the same glass of wine, students called out everything from egg to apple to vomit (yes, vomit).
Things I learned when analyzing taste:
* There is no right or wrong when it comes tasting. Just like smells, everyone has different tastes.
As the first class ended, we were given the best homework I can ever remember being assigned in the history of my education: drink a bottle of wine. I gladly accepted and almost asked for extra credit.
The confidence gained from just one class was clear when class two opened with a sharing of our homework assignment. The students were clearly excited to incorporate their new vocab picked up from the week prior.
Once again we were given eight wines to sample, and this time champagne, or "sparkling wine," was added to the mix. Perhaps the best part of the class was that we were given permission to not just taste but drink the delicious nectar that was poured into our glasses.
We learned lots of interesting tidbits including all about the different processes of grape fermentation and why drunk birds (yes, you read that correctly) can be seen flying near vineyards. While juice is busy fermenting inside the blume (the grape's skin), some birds just can't resist getting their beaks on it and will peck right through. Who can really blame them though?
To cap off the final evening, Pucilowski taught us all about the different types of bottles and their origins. For example, the "Bordeaux" bottle usually contains Bordeaux varieties from that region in France. This includes merlot, cabernet and cabernet sauvignon, among others. He explained that winemakers aren't required to bottle wine according to the type, but it is a tradition and so winemakers generally stick to it.
As icing on the cake, we were privy to an exclusive Q&A session with Pucilowski. The only question he wouldn't answer? His favorite wine.
He put it best when he explained that, when choosing wine, "it depends on who's buying!"
If I could sum up Wine Tasting 101 in one sentence, it would be the recurring theme of the classes: Everyone is different and all that matters is what tastes good to me.
Dates for 2011 have not been locked in yet, but the next series of classes will begin January 2011. When he's not traveling the country judging wine, Pucilowski also does house calls for private parties, company retreats and bus tours to local wine regions.
For reservation information and pricing for Wine School 101 visit the Delta King website or University of Wine.
* Legs (the tear drops of wine that run down the insides of a glass) don't tell the quality of wine, as many believe. This just means there is alcohol in the wine.
Photos courtesy of Delta King and University of Wine