Thanks to the wiliness of its marketing department, I once visited the Robert Mondavi vineyards for an all-day tour. I was working as a waiter in a fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco and the winery wanted people like me to understand and respect its wines - so I would push their house on the floor and buoy high-end sales.
The tour began under the hot Napa Valley sun examining grapes and ended with a tasting of Robert Mondavi's reserve wines in a special room in the compound, flooded with light. Suddenly, in walked Bob Mondavi himself, and, although 80, his gait was spry and his eyes twinkled. "How does it taste to you?" he asked us.
And that's the nut of it. Your experience is the final arbiter. There are real differences between wines, but there are no absolute standards. Once you realize this, wine tasting becomes a lot more fun. For once, it really is all about you!
First, a brief history of wine. Archeological evidence suggests inhabitants of modern-day Iran and Georgia were making wine more than 7,000 years ago by smashing and fermenting grapes. Wine was an essential component of ancient Greek society as described in Homer's epic poetry, where it was served in bowls - the Greeks always mixed two parts water to one part wine just before drinking.
In ancient Rome, the art of viticulture grew more refined, and scientific wine production was born. The first vineyards of Bordeaux, which have survived for 2,000 years, were planted during the Roman Empire, after the occupation of Gaul. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church was a great protector of wine for purposes of the sacrament, and the vineyards of France emerged as world leaders in the art of wine making.
In the 19th century came a pivotal event: the devastation of vineyards from Phylloxera. This insect attacks the root of the grape plant and utterly ravaged Europe's wine production infrastructure. The only ray of light was that the scorched-earth effect killed all but the most robust and resilient vines, resulting in a super-hardy biological core that considerably refined our collective definition of great wine.
In 1976, a bottle of 1973 Stag's Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, a California wine, upset the finest French houses when it won a much-ballyhooed blind taste test in Paris.
More recent developments include the hard-fought victories of producers from South America, Australia and South Africa, winning consumer favor not by luck but by paying attention to the market and offering low-cost yet entirely quaffable varietals.
What's a varietal? The word refers to a wine made primarily from one grape. Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are all varietals. In America, regulations require that 75% of a bottle must have been made from a single grape; the remaining balance for the varietal Chardonnay might include Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc grapes. In France, the producer must be awarded the approval of Appellation d'origine contrlée, and there is more emphasis on the region and the vineyard. True Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France and be prepared in accordance with méthode champenoise, a strictly regulated process formally defined in 1662.
Now that you are up to speed, your first task is to buy a bottle of wine from an informed vendor, asking questions and taking mental notes.
Happily, this is easy in Madison. Star Liquor, Cork & Bottle, Brennan's and Steve's Liquor are all good bets for a wine-buying adventure. Matt Weygendt of Barrique's Wine Cave also frequently advises neophytes. "Don't worry about the price tag," he emphasizes. "Price can help direct you, but you can't take it in isolation. The notion that 'if it costs more than $30, it is good wine' really doesn't help. In fact, we have the opposite rule: 'Don't spend more than $30 unless you understand what you are buying.'"
Okay, you have your bottle. Prepare a plate of bland crackers and a carafe of water. Pour the wine, and not too much (fill the glass less than halfway). First the nose, or bouquet: delicately smell the air above the glass while gently swooshing the wine around (this allows the air to mix in). Then really stick your nose into the glass, and don't worry about how it looks. Take a sustained sniff. It may be floral, or remind you of citrus, or even smell dank.
Next, take a sip and roll it around your mouth. Swallow slowly and observe the whole process. You'll end up saying something like, "Well, it was mild and berry-ish and then seemed to get more intense." It doesn't really matter if you can articulate your experience eloquently, just try to pay attention.
It's a good idea to use a spittoon if you are tasting many wines - your observations get pretty loosey-goosey otherwise. Also, eat crackers and drink water between tastings to cleanse the palate.
After tasting wine at home and getting a handle on the basics, you are ready to intelligently order for a table at a restaurant.
If you are going upscale, you will find the sommeliers (wine stewards) at both L'Etoile and Johnny Delmonico's to be deeply knowledgeable and refreshingly approachable. Michael Kwas of L'Etoile offers this advice: "Trust, be open, be adventurous. Be honest about how much money you'd like to spend and what wines you want to avoid. Try lesser-known wines, and couple more than one half-glass of wine with a single dish."
Lombardino's is an excellent place to study Italian wine. For a more casual outing, the waitstaffs at Nadia's, Samba and Eno Vino are all very helpful resources for beginners.
The first order of business is to get an idea of what everyone will be eating (if your family is like mine, this may be the hardest part). Then choose a varietal that will pair well with the food.
If the entrees are going to be very heavy, like filet mignon with hash browns or pasta with sausage marinara, order a powerful red that can stand up to the food: a Cabernet Sauvignon. If it's sea scallops on glass noodles with peanuts or a chicken salad with walnuts and Granny Smith apples, pick a complementary light white, like a Pinot Blanc or a Sauvignon Blanc.
If you really aren't sure how to order because the entrees are too varied or you can't get a handle on the wine list, try a Pinot Noir or a Zinfandel - they can both skirt down the middle. "White wine goes with fish and chicken; red wines go with beef and lamb" is not a rule to hew to. Look at the meal holistically, and balance food and wine against each other.
When serving, the waiter will remove the cork and place it beside you for a sniff. This is usually superfluous, but part of the tradition. Then comes a little pour, meant for you to formally taste. Taste the wine as you've learned how to, then signal your approval (you almost always will), and the pour will continue around the table, ending with you, as you ordered the wine. Smile, and propose a toast.
In vino veritas means "in wine, truth." In life, it's good to know a little about wine. Wine selection is an important part of hosting a party, serving a dinner or elevating your restaurant experience. And oenological savvy is widely recognized as a laudable element of any well-rounded person's panoply of social weaponry. Your learning is never complete, and that's why it's a fine pursuit. We are all students in wine, as in truth, and life.