With education in mind, I’ve been asked to begin a series of columns devoted to the basics of wine knowledge. OK, basically I asked myself. You're never too old to learn. What qualifies me for this daunting task, you may well ask. Like I care what you think. Like anybody reads blogs. Like I wouldn’t exaggerate my qualifications just like you did when you applied for that miserable job you’re doing now in this crappy economy that’s about to collapse like a travel agent school. But since you asked, for nineteen years I was a sommelier. You can ask any other sommelier--I know everything there is to know about wine. Ask renowned sommelier, Rajat Parr (if he has a stroke, is he then Rajat Bogey?) I combine the absolute authority of Wikipedia with the brilliant insight of Glenn Beck. Only I would think to compare wine tasting groups to Hitler Youth. After all, both grow up to assign numbers.
Let us begin with the basics. When this occasional series ends, you too will be a wine expert. Just what the world needs.
What are grapes?
Grapes are the berries produced by grapevines for the purpose of spreading their reproductive seeds via the intestinal tracts of animals. This is detectable on the nose of many wines. Grapevines are self-pollinating, and often embarrassed when caught at it. Interestingly, it’s those grapes caught self-pollinating that go on to make Blush wine.
How many different varieties of grapes are there?
Most authorities agree that there are at least two. Red and white. This ignores the most popular grape among wines that score fewer than 89 points--sour. OK, all kidding aside, there are approximately 6000 different varieties of Vitis vinifera made into wine in the world. Vitis vinifera is the botanical name for the European grape species that the great wines of the world are produced from. Literally translated, “Vitis vinifera” means “I’m vine, how are you?”
When was wine first “discovered?”
Scientists recently discovered a winery in Armenia that was 6000 years old. Surprisingly, a few amphorae of one of the original vintages were still intact and for sale. The “Reserve” had Cher’s picture on it.
Why do you swirl the wine in the glass?
Wine needs exposure to oxygen in order to release its aromatics. Sort of like a flasher. Swirling the wine in your cheap stemware is basically unzipping.
Well, that’s a nice mixed metaphor. Who wrote these questions? Sheesh. OK, first of all, you are smelling the wine to see if it displays any noticeable flaws that would keep you from putting it in your mouth—corkiness, sulfur issues, it smells like Marvin Shanken in a Speedo… We’ll get to wine flaws in a later volume of “Wine Basics.” If no flaws are detected, you are probably not qualified to be a wine taster. Virtually every wine these days is flawed in one way or another. (Sure, they seem gorgeous and hold a lot of promise, but, underneath, they’re poison, they’ll make you gag and leave a bitter taste for the rest of your life! Oh. Sorry. I was talking about my ex. Never mind.) It’s the wine expert’s job to uncover that flaw and ruin everyone else’s enjoyment of the wine by declaring that the wine is “Undrinkable!” in a loud, inebriated, sports talk radio voice. Remember, in today’s world, volume conveys authority. Always better to be loud than right.
What about specific aromas you detect?
OK, here’s the problem. Humans can’t detect specific aromas in wine. Nor can anyone else, like wine critics. Come on, raspberries?! Really? Cherries, cola, vanilla, cedar? Get over it. Essentially what happens is wine experts memorize fruit that supposedly goes with a variety. Chardonnay = peach, pear, pineapple. So you stick your nose in a glass of Chardonnay and you say, “I get pears, maybe some pineapple, is that vanilla?” Voila, you’re a wine judge! Or you can make up outrageous aromas and get everyone else to agree those aromas are present. “You know what I smell? You know when you eat fruit cocktail off a naked Japanese woman? Yeah, that.” I guarantee people will nod their heads and say you nailed it. The aroma, I mean.
Don’t most wines smell about the same?
All 89 point wines smell like other 89 point wines. They smell like failure.
After you’re done smelling the wine, then what?
Pour it down your pants and pretend you’re on “Glee.”
You taste it, numbskull.
What is the proper method to critically taste and evaluate a wine?
Take a sip. Don’t be in a big hurry. Slosh the wine around in your mouth. Most experts actually slurp the wine, inhaling air through pursed lips and making sounds like Kim Kardashian sitting on Naugahyde. This doesn’t do anything to help taste the wine, but it sounds cool.
Try to taste the different components of the wine to see if they are in balance. The basic components are alcohol, acidity, tannin, fruit, oak, and WD-40. Does any one of those components stand out? If a wine is balanced, they should all work in harmony, like the Flying Wallendas. If it isn’t balanced, it’s like Flying Wallendas on unforgiving pavement. A Wallenda omelette. This is not good in a fine wine.
Why do we spit?
You don’t have taste buds in your throat any more than Chaz Bono has an Adam’s apple. Expectorating means you can taste more wines and not become inebriated, and that’s the purpose of tasting. If you’re nervous about spitting, practice at home. Use water and practice spitting into a cup, preferably your spouse’s. Eventually, use the method professionals prefer. Go to YouTube and search for “Danny Thomas Spit Take.” That’s the way Robert Parker does it.