Wine Wonk Wannabe

Back Story

A few years ago (okay, quite a few years ago), when I was still hosting a food-related radio talk show on KFYI, Jan D’Atri told me about a wine seminar she had just completed through the International Sommelier Guild. It might be more accurate to say she raved about it.

“Nikki, you have to take this class,” she told me. “You’ll learn so much.” Then she laid out the details: a six-hour class on a Sunday, running for, like . . . 12 weeks. 12 weeks? As in three months worth of Sundays devoted to wine glass swirling and sniffing, sipping, spitting and evaluating? It sounded fun, yes, but also intimidating and maybe a wee bit grueling: learning wine at a gallop and retaining it all? Whew!

Somehow or other, she got me in touch with Joe LaVilla, who is the Assistant Academic Director of Culinary Arts at the Art Institute of Phoenix. Joe, who first earned a PhD in Organic Chemistry, later attended The Culinary Institute of America and worked for a time at Windows on the World, Spago Las Vegas and Tarbell’s.

Now, among his many other duties there, he teaches weekend wine classes at the Art Institute on Dunlap. He’s a great guy, very down to earth, and his cooking background enriches his commentary tenfold. “This would pair beautifully with an apple tarte tatin,” he says, and my mouth waters imagining the combination. Well, or just imagining having a slice of apple tarte tatin period. But I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

Joe and I discussed my taking the class years ago. The idea was that my tuition would be waived if I could write about the experience somehow.  When I lost my job at Phoenix Magazine, the whole thing sort of fell apart and I forgot about it. Recently, Joe contacted me again to let me know that I could take the class and the tuition would be waived if I were willing to blog about the experience. So here I am. Ms. Wine Bloggah.

Last week was my first week, but it wasn’t the first week of the class. I missed the official first class (long story, not interesting) so I’m a bit behind. According to the notes Joe sent me, they started out learning about the history of wine, sea-faring Phoenicians spreading the wine gospel, Greeks improving on it, Romans even more so, yadda yadda. Will get back to that (or not) some other time. So let’s just start with what happened last week.

First Week

10 am: I walk in to a class of about eight people seated at two long tables in the AI’s café. Joe’s up at the front opening wine bottles. “Wow!” I’m thinking, “So we’re just going to start drinking wine at 10 o’clock in the morning? Very provincial of me, I know.

We begin with food and wine pairings, which makes me happy. This is precisely the sort of thing I want to learn, given my line of work. I’m sick to death of people saying, “Oh, just drink whatever suits you. Don’t worry about wine and food pairing. There are no rules.” It’s an anything-goes over-reaction to the wine snobbery of the 70s, when the somms, who wore those little tastevins around their necks, made people feel like perfect idiots. Now, it’s swung way too far the other way (in my humble opinion), creating a kind of reverse snobbism, which still keeps the wine knowledge limited to a select few. Let the heathen drink anything they like, but WE’LL know what’s what. WE’LL still be the true experts. Very condescending.

There ARE guidelines for pairing food and wine. There are matches made in heaven — foie gras and Sauternes, for example, or a big bad Cabernet with a juicy, red steak. And as Joe points out, there are elements in food and wine that can complement or detract from each other. There’s the kicker. When you DON’T know what you’re doing, you don’t enhance (but rather diminish) both the taste of the food you’re eating and the poorly matched wine you’re drinking with it.

One thing to think about: match the weight of the wine to the weight of the dish: light, white fish = light, white wine. Rich, heavy meat = full-bodied red. This is the one old-school rule everybody knows, but Joe points out that it’s not a tried-and-true. Pinot Noir, which he calls a white wine in disguise, often goes well with richer fish (salmon, for example). Sauces and accompaniments play a part too. So it’s not just the entrée you must consider.

Other guidelines:

Wine flavor may echo food flavor

Wine flavor may contrast with food flavor

Complex wines are better with simple dishes

Simple wines are better with complex dishes

Pair regional cuisine with wine from that area (roast pork with Alsace Riesling, for example)

We learn loads more; I just don’t want to start reciting chapter and verse.

Now we do a bit of tasting. Joe has brought in a few bites of this and that to prove his points: tomato slice, peppered mozzarella, baked meringue and lemon slice.

We taste Sauvignon Blanc with a lemon. Hmm! Pretty good! The acid of the one decreases the perception of acid in the other. That’s why Sauv Blancs work so well with salads.

Now we try it with a bite of crunchy baked meringue. Good again!

This time, the acid is mellowed in the presence of something sweet.

Cabernet Sauvignon with pepper cheese is bad news. The tannins in the wine increase the perception of spice and/or alcohol.

Riesling with pepper cheese works great. The sugar in the wine counterbalances the spiciness of the black pepper.

Next we learn some vocabulary related to wine production: must, chaptalization, cap, pigeage, remontage, barrique and more. How on earth will I remember all this?

After lunch, we watch an ancient video of perfect wine service. The towel draped over the arm, always turning the label toward the customer, placing the cork on a plate. Huh? Never have I seen a plate for the cork, not even at Mary Elaine’s back in the day. And get this: the sommelier actually tastes the wine himself before serving. The video was made in Canada, I think, and Joe says they’re more formal about it there. Seems so incredibly old school.

The video was followed by a little slide show — pictures of the various grapes, which is cool and something I never thought much about before: how different the grapes themselves might be.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are small and thick-skinned, growing in loose, long bunches. Pinot Noir grapes are plumper and relatively thin-skinned, growing in compact clusters.

We talk about when they bud or ripen (early or late), their yields, their susceptibility to mildew or fungal diseases. And now mild panic is really starting to set in. Seriously, this is one hell of a lot of information.

We talk about Pinot Noir and why everyone loves it and of course, the movie Sideways comes up. So I chime in with the line, “Because it’s so f***ing good,” which is a direct quote from the movie, but nobody laughs. Great. So now my classmates think I’m a potty mouth and they don’t know I’m making fun of the overly dramatic “ode to Pinot” made by the chick Paul Giamatti falls for in the movie.

I’ve always liked Pinots for their versatility, but now I have another reason to feel a bit of the same reverence for them that Virginia Madsen so fervently expressed in the movie. The Pinot Noir grape is so good on its own that it’s rarely blended with anything else. Even oak-aging has to be handled delicately so that the oak doesn’t overpower the aromatics of the grape. To me, this means that there is only so much manipulation the vintner can  — or should -— do. He should concentrate on growing the best Pinot grapes he can grow and stop trying to play God.

I was noodling around on the internet and found this guy, who says it far more articulately than I do. Check it out here.


By the time Joe gets to the notable regions for Cabernet Sauvignon, I am hopelessly, woefully lost. The map is too little; I have no idea what I’m looking at and it means absolutely nothing to me.

Does anyone else feel this way? Who are these folks and what do they already know? The two guys to my right are from Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz, so it’s a good bet they know PLENTY.

A guy behind and to my right owned a restaurant (I think I heard that), so he’s probably pretty well versed too.

When we start swirling and sniffing and sipping and spitting, I can really see how some people are infinitely more comfortable than others, like, ummm, me.

“What do you smell?” Joe wants to know, and people start throwing out answers. We are told there are no wrong answers. You smell what you smell. And man, some people are truly imaginative on this score. Damp leaves, Hall’s cherry lozenges, eucalyptus. To me, a lot of it smells like wine.

Greg, the guy to my left, must be part bloodhound. We’ve got our noses in a Riesling and he says, “You know the smell of an air mattress, like when you’re going camping?” Holy Cow! He’s right! It smells just like that to me too. Is this the power of suggestion? I think not. Well, maybe a little, but it sort of makes sense because one of the characteristic smells of a Riesling is petrol, and rubber (the air mattress) would be made with petroleum. So it’s really not that far-fetched.

Restaurant guy in the back says something else (forget what) smells like the glue you use for papier mache. Jeez, where do they get this stuff? Then Joe riffs on that and comes up with gypsum, which has something to do with the soil in which the grape is grown. I am so out of my league here. But I have faith that things will get better because at some point, I could smell the cedar (and said so) in a Cab, and the peaches (but too chicken to say so) in a Riesling Kabinett. I also smelled black pepper in one of the Cabernets, which I read later was a typical characteristic. So maybe there’s hope for me yet.

I’m going back tomorrow for my second class, and I don’t know how to access my online textbook (my bad, had a week to get it), so I’m already feeling super behind. Not the student I want to be. Will have to cram and taste and cram and taste in the weeks to come, but looking forward to it. Wish me luck!