A Tasting Room Education

During our first weeks in Healdsburg we attended a winemaker’s dinner at a local restaurant.  When we sat down at the long, communal table, I was seated next to the owner and founder of the sponsoring winery, which bears his family name.  The owner is a congenial, gregarious bear of guy who always speaks his mind, sometimes without regard for the conventions of social grace.  He was quick to denegrate the fading aromatics on the pinot we’d chosen from our own cellar to share at this “family-style” event, while promoting his own juice as vastly superior to most other donated selections.  (Really, though, who can blame him for wanting to promote his own stuff?).  That said, bringing together a table of strangers under the premise of a communal, three course meal, affording everyone the opportunity to taste 6-10 different wines with food, including multiple bottles gifted from his own label, all for $60/person, is a supreme gesture of goodwill and generosity.     The woman to his other side was wine novice, and the winery owner was eager to educate her about his different wines and why they paired appropriately with different food courses.  When I divulged that I write a wine blog, he immediately accused me of being just another contributor to the “wine problem.”  The problem, of course, being the continued mystification of wine, making it seem inaccessible and downright scary to the uninitiated quaffer.  “You bloggers are always telling people what to drink and making it harder than it is,” he opined.  “Listen, deciding if you like a wine is simple:

#1) When the wine is in your mouth, do you have the urge to swallow it and then take another sip?

#2) When you take a sip and eat a bite, does it make the food taste better?

#3) When you taste it, do you want to share it with a loved one, like, ‘Hey honey, you’ve got to try this stuff!’”

I absolutely agree.  Wine is that easy.  And wine should be shared; it is a communal beverage after all, meant to be consumed with food, like a food.  But this is where things get dicey.  You’d be hard pressed to go to a grocery store and ask the clerk, “Can you help me?  I am looking for something for dinner,” without some foreknowledge of what you enjoy eating.  The clerk replies, “Well what do you like to eat?  What are you looking for?  Fish?  Beef?  Pasta?  Salty foods?  Fruit?  Spicy stuff?”  You tell her, “I have no idea, but I know that I like it when I swallow it…” 

I think you get the crux of the dilemma.  Without some framework for talking about food or wine, absent a common language that includes some set criteria and descriptors, it’s hard to capture exactly what satisfies your deepest cravings.  To a non-wine geek, this can be a frightening prospect.  In fact, I recently queried our nanny about what wines she likes to drink.  The response?  “Oh I don’t know.  Usually white but sometimes red.  Oh, I don’t know.  I like it when I have it.”  If I were a sommelier or even bar tender at a local restaurant, I would be seriously hard pressed to help her order a glass of wine.  And when you’re paying upwards of $8/glass, you’d better hope you like what that waiter delivers.

So enter the wonderful world of the winery tasting room.  For those of you who have never visited a winery or sat in a commercial wine tasting room, now is the time.  Lickety split, I sent our nanny off to taste (for her first time ever) right here in the central Healdsburg square, where both big and small wineries have well appointed, tasting outposts.  Her best experience?  The Kendall Jackson tasting room.  Yes, that behemoth of buttery, oaky chardonnay whose reputation has almost become a parody of itself reigned supreme.  (And I now vow to never again mock KJ chard and posit its wine as apotheosis of commercial, homogenized, industrial, mass produced, toxic, oaky drek).  She came home absolutely elated, excited about food and excited about wine. Not only did tasting room guru “Father Frank” explain the wines and guide her through a tasting but also he rambled off innumerable ideas about how and when to drink them, complete with recipe ideas and basic food/wine pairing guidelines.  The best bit was halving a watermelon, carving out the heart to leave the empty watermelon shell and filling it with a fun, easy summer white wine.  Then chop up the heart, put the cubes back into the wine, and let the melon soak up the fruity juice.  Serve icy cold.  If Michael Pollan’s somber article about the demise of home cooking is truly representative of “The Family Dinner” on an average night (“Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” NYT Magazine, July 28, 2009), then “Father Frank” may be onto something, doing his best to bring the energy, verve, and magic back to homemade meals, one bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay at a time.

Better yet, our nanny now has a rudimentary toolbox of wine know-how that she can employ at will.  Presented with a restaurant wine list or even just browsing at Bev Mo, she can use her newly minted wine vocabulary to convey exactly what she hopes to purchase.  Now I bet she won’t feel like her 8 bucks/glass were wasted.

Epilogue:  I am excited to try the Kendall Jackson Anderson Valley Pinot Noir she gifted us.  I had no idea that the KJ corporate machine was cultivating vines in the quirky, remote Anderson Valley.  I misjudged the giant, and I stand corrected!