Can I really taste oak and butter in my wine? What is really the point of swirling my wine glass around? Who cares if a glass of wine has legs?
Those questions, among many others, are what I set out to get answered when enrolling in Wine Tasting 101 taught by wine expert G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski. Taught aboard the Delta King, the three-part course aims to make wine drinkers more comfortable and confident when choosing and discussing wine.
It’s probably important to disclose that two weeks ago the extent of my wine knowledge didn’t go much further than knowing that one too many glasses of red seems to inevitably give me a headache, and that nothing melts a stressful day of work away like a glass of cold chardonnay.
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 first class.
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.
* The best way to analyze a wine’s color is with a white background. A piece of paper or your white shirt will work.
* Look at the wine with light coming over your shoulder.
* Browning is caused by oxidation and, generally, a darker/browner wine means a wine is older.
* Factors that affect clarity and color include how the glass was washed or stored. For example, being stored in cardboard boxes can lead to bits of cardboard in the bottom and make a glass murky.
* The color of a wine comes from the grape’s skin. This is where “blanc de blanc” (white wine from white grapes) and “blanc de noir” (white wine from red grapes) come from.
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).
* According to Pucilowski, scientists say we have the ability to smell 13,000 smells.
* The hardest problem we have is trying to describe what we’re smelling since no two people smell things the same way. To explain this difficulty, Pucilowski described trying to describe another person how a strawberry smells.
* Another common problem is “sensory fatigue.” Your brain has had enough. This is what happens when you can’t smell your perfume at the end of the day and others still can. To combat this, Pucilowski advised us to smell our skin or clothes in between sniffs.
Things I learned when analyzing taste:
* There is no right or wrong when it comes tasting. Just like smells, everyone has different tastes.
* Each taste bud in our mouths has the capacity to taste six tastes. They are sweetness, acidity (“sourness”), bitterness, saltiness, and “umami” (the Japanese word for “savory sensation”).
* According to Pucilowski, it is a wine faux pas to describe a wine as “sour.” Fellow wine drinkers might think you’re off the farm if you do.
* Always taste wine twice. The acidity will shock your taste buds the first time, but the second time is better.
* It’s best to taste in this order: white to red, dry to sweet and young to old.
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.
A random smattering of myth-busters, tips and facts I gathered from Wine Tasting 101:
* 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.
* If you don’t have a decanter available, you can naturally aerate the wine by pouring a little out, replacing the cork and shaking it all around.
* White wines generally have a higher alcohol content.
* Don’t rinse the glass in between pours when tasting. The residual water will change the taste more than the previous wine will.
* Wines aren’t made to age. A good rule of thumb is a maximum five years for red wines or three years for white from the vintage date on the bottle.
* In order to be “vintage,” at least 95 percent of a wine’s grapes has to be picked during that year.
* Judges will actually look for smells of cat urine to determine a good sauvignon blanc.
* Wine that is too cold can mask the tastes, so wine judges prefer warm wines, both red and white.
* Don’t use cooking wine! By law it has 6 percent residual salt in it so it can be sold in stores without a liquor license.
* When serving champagne, some restaurants or bars will actually scratch the bottom of a champagne flute on purpose. This causes more bubbles to rise from the bottom.
* Champagne bottles hold as much pressure as a car tire (90 lbs. per square in
Photos courtesy of Delta King and University of Wine