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Taking on the International Court of Sommeliers

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A sommelier class held at Mccrady's several weeks ago tested the mettle of even the most dedicated oenophile - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • A sommelier class held at Mccrady's several weeks ago tested the mettle of even the most dedicated oenophile

I found myself rather nervous in the banquet hall at McCrady's as the names rang out, separating a herd of hopeful restaurant types into those who would earn their introductory certificate from the International Guild of Sommeliers and those whose $500 and two-day investment, cramming information about the astonishingly complex world of wine, would be in vain.

My palms were sweating. The managers at McCrady's were looking at me, obviously amused at my anxiety. I knew that I probably failed the exam — I didn't even know the questions regarding the first growth classifications of Bordeaux in 1855, let alone the zingers about the Dry Creek Valley (was that Napa or Sonoma?) and the illegality of chapitalization (adding sugar?) in certain regions of France.

I wished I'd never signed up. How did I let my editor talk me into this? How stupid am I going to look? What kind of food critic can't tell Chardonnay from Riesling? "Jeff Allen," the man called out. Holy cow! Did they curve the scores? Did all those days getting sloshed and sleeping penniless on park benches in Italy somehow sear the geographies of aglianico, barbera, arneis, and cannoneu into my mind — and was that enough to make it through?

I stepped forward, grabbed my official lapel pin, a stout handshake, slaps on the back all around, a celebratory glass of wine, drained it in a single swill, and then I had another. It was a tough couple of days.

You think you know a lot about wine? I did. I was cocksure and stupid. I paid my money, looked over the familiar reading list, and decided it wasn't all that tough. Besides, I drink wine all the time. I've had every bottle I can get my hands on. When I'm not drinking or eating, I'm reading about it. I make nerding out on food and wine into a weekly endeavor, covering the food scene in this town, and I certainly could walk into a dinky little two-day seminar and do enough to pass, right?

Twenty minutes into the class I knew I was in trouble. Having always thought that those floral descriptions on the back of wine bottles were there only to sell the stuff to unsuspecting suckers (and they are), I never really gave much thought to the individual smells, the defining scents, the way the acid bites your tongue, or how the viscosity makes little streams of juice run down the side of the glass. So it was rather embarrassing to be standing up in front of about 35 other people, most of whom probably knew way more than me, with a microphone and a glass of wine that came without the helpful label, the mention of a producer, region, or grape — in other words, blind and under immediate pressure from the instructor.

"Tell us what's in the glass."

"Excuse me?"

"What do you smell in there?"

"Wine" came to mind, but somehow I knew that the guy in the crested blazer wouldn't be too pleased. I thought it tasted like Sauvignon Blanc and barked out a couple of things I'd read on the backs of bottles, "uh, gooseberries, flint, maybe a hint of herbs."

"What herbs? Are they growing on mossy rocks or is this a lush meadow full of basil?"

This was getting deep.

"Rocks. Definitely rocks," I blathered, suddenly seized with the realization that I could just as easily be talking about underwear from K-Mart with Tom Cruise in Rain Man. And this was just the smelling part. I felt overwhelmingly lucky a few moments later when the guy a couple spots down had to tell the whole class where the wine originated, what grape it came from, and how old it was — something I quickly learned I was completely inept at.

One by one, we swirled, sniffed, sipped, and spit our way through dozens of wines, always blind, always having to stand up and fume into the microphone about how this one tasted or smelled or where it came from. They called it "tasting through the grid," using a deductive taxonomy of characteristics to better understand the structure and provenance of a particular wine. I routinely veered off course and was usually wrong.

"A young Merlot from Australia?" Nope. Malbec from Argentina.

"Definitely a Pinot Noir from Oregon." Cabernet Franc from the Loire.

"Really ripe Riesling?" Chinon Blanc.

"New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc?" Saveineres.

It seemed like a useless pursuit, all this tasting and pondering and getting it wrong — not even coming close. "Who cares about being able to perform some blind tasting parlor trick?" I wondered.

My breakthrough came with our first Italian offering. A defining part of my youth was spent backpacking alone through Europe one hot summer getting hammered like any self-respecting frat boy and thinking about why I was such a loser. In the process, I fell into a long romance with Italy and Italian wine. So when I walked in from one of our breaks between flights of wine and impossibly detailed PowerPoint presentations on every wine region in the known world (not to mention cigars, spirits, and beer), I called it with one look.

"That's Chianti," I told my neighbor.

"You think? You haven't even smelled it!"

I took a sniff and a taste. "OK. I know Chianti; that's Chianti." And I was right, for the first time.

"How did you know from looking?" he asked.

"I guessed. But it's the tinge, man. Look at the edge. It's all tawny and the color has that worn look like an old shoe leather shop outside Florence or something — and it tastes like that shop, you know? You get the smell of that Tuscan countryside, minty herbals, and wildflowers, all mixed together with those tall cypress trees, and a dusty gravel road, and that funky stable-like back note — sort of like an old dirty side street in Sienna after the horses run, and that dried cherry thing, like a withered slice of pie sitting in the sun on some lady's windowsill. It's just Chianti."

He laughed. "You should write the labels that they put on the back of wine bottles."

It clicked. I'd been drinking wine for 15 years, and from Boone's Farm to Cloudy Bay, I never really tasted it, never sat down and thought about where it came from, what that place was like, and why it produced wines of certain character. When the '99 Barbaresco came around, I nailed it too, and I understood why it was Barbaresco, I knew it as a living thing, saw the age in its complexion, and realized that every wine I had ever consumed would need to be revisited and evaluated in these terms.

I left the class relieved that I'd pulled it off, put up against these guys who uncork Latours and Lafites on a regular basis, and besting them in some of the tastings. I stopped by Avondale Wine and Cheese on my way home to boast. Proprietor Manoli Davani handed me a small glass of red wine from the ongoing tasting inside. I swirled, sniffed, sipped, thought a couple of seconds and blurted it out: "southern Rhone?"

"Jeez Jeff, how'd you know that?"

Want to match wine wits with Jeff Allen? He can usually be found at Avondale Wine and Cheese's bimonthly blind tastings, getting most of them wrong but having a good time nonetheless. www.avondalewinenandcheese.com

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