Second Class, Sunday, 10 am: This week, Joe begins class by talking about cellaring wine, pointing out that restaurants and retail wine shops must cellar it (and therefore learn how to take care of their expensive inventory) and that regular folks might want to for two reasons: some wines increase in value over time and some wines improve (develop flavor or their tannins soften) over time.

We talk about how most American wines are aged 20 minutes. In other words, Americans buy it with the intent of drinking it right away.

Storing wine over the fridge is the very worst place in the world. Temperatures fluctuate, there’s vibration and heat rises, so that’s bad news. I knew that one, just as I also knew that putting it in my laundry room, where it’s too light and gets a little too hot in the summer is no better. And I’ve done it, like an idiot. Joe says dark and cave-like is best, even under the bed!

Some wines require aging: think Barolos, top Bordeaux (like, 30-40 years) and Vintage Ports. Other wines simply benefit from aging: like Napa Valley CS or top white wines, which might age well for 10-20 years.

We talk about how the colors change (reds turn to brick/tawny, white to dark gold/amber), tannins soften and the wines acquire a bouquet.

Bouquet vs. aroma: Aromas are the smells associated with a young wine. They are almost always fruity. A Pinot Noir, for example, may smell like strawberries, while a Syrah may smell like plums. As wines age, the intensity of fruity smells declines and the wines pick up aromas not inherent in the grape. That’s when reds start smelling like leather, tobacco, coffee, dried fruit and licorice. And a white might go from smelling like fresh apple to baked apple, from vanilla to caramel, from creamy to something more akin to cheese. I like thinking about these things, and I’d love to smell and taste a young wine and a mature wine of the same grape back to back. Oh, guess that means I want to do a vertical tasting.

Back to cellaring . . . cellared wines need constant temperature (55 degrees) and high humidity (75%), the latter so that the cork won’t dry out.

After some new language development associated with cellaring (ullage, topping up, chai, vertical tasting, tired, carbonic maceration), we move into wine tasting (yay!).

First, Merlot. I know that Andrea Immer says that Merlots can never truly achieve greatness and I think the folks in Sideways said some downright nasty things about it too. I’m convinced, though, that some of this is just backlash against its incredible popularity.

We went through this with both Chardonnays and Cabs, I don’t know, like maybe 12 years ago. Remember when people would say “ABC,” meaning anything but Chardonnay or anything but Cab? I agree that it’s great for people to go out and try other things, but for Pete’s sake, why knock perfectly good wines because they’ve become popular?

I have a soft spot for Merlot namely because it’s the first red wine I ever took a shine to back in the early 80s. It seemed so much more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, so it was a starter red wine for me. Now I like lots of reds, but I could never say a mean thing about Merlot. It sort of got me here. But I digress.

Next, we talk about Cab Franc, which is often a blending grape. Get this: Cab Franc is Cab. Sauvignon’s Dad!! Cabernet Sauvignon appeared in Bordeaux in the late 1700s. It was a wild cross between Cab. Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Always, always wondered about the names. Very cool to have that question cleared up!

Cab Franc is the #3 blending wine, which begs the question: what are #1 and #2? Don’t recall learning yet. Wait. Is one of them Merlot? Crap. Gotta find this out before my test tomorrow.

Next, we sample and talk about Zinfandel, another popular and much maligned wine. In southern Italy, Zinfandel is called Primitivo. Hunh. I’ve had some good Primitivos and some not-so-good Primitivos in my day. If memory serves, they’re earthier than CA Zins, which doesn’t always ring my bell. But then, I’m learning how undeveloped my palate really is. I mean that in a good way. I’m open to learning.

Zinfandel is the grape grown in CA for raisins, which might explain why I like it. And get this: if you can sense different levels of ripeness in a wine, say, fresh fruit and cooked fruit, that’s a Zin indicator. Not that I can do that yet . . .

Later in the afternoon, we move on to Sparkling Wines and Fortified Wines, two categories I really, really like.

First, we do the language development thing (filtration, fining, spirit) before moving into sparkling wine production. There are four methods for making it, some laborious, some quick. The more laborious, the more expensive, naturally, and only Champagne (which is so named because it’s made in Champagne) can use the term “Methode Champenoise.” Sparkling wines made elsewhere usually say something like “Methode Traditionale.”

Of course, the tasting and analysis is the fun part. Joe explains that tiny bubbles typically indicated a good quality sparkling wine. We try a $6.49 Spanish Cava and a $30 Montaudon Champagne. Believe it or not, the Cava is good for the price. You could make a very nice Mimosa, Bellini, whatever with this.

After that, we sip a Moscato d’Asti which is light years from the Asti Spumanti of your youth. The nose is floral and absolutely gorgeous. I could dab it on my wrists. Yummy, yummy, and guess what? It’s terrific with wedding cake. I’m filing this information away, not that I imagine a marriage in my future, but my son is almost 21, so I might need to know this in 7 or 8 years.

Next, we try a sherry, which almost no one likes but Jason and me. I don’t love it, but I think I could if I had it with tapas. And get this: it smells a bit like toasted almonds and briny olives, two ingredients used constantly in Spanish cooking. Isn’t that fascinating?

Next, we do an LBV Port that smells like berries, cream, figs and Red Vines (trust me, I didn’t come up with that last one, but it’s true!). Nice. I love Ports with all my heart, but now I’ve found my new thing — Madeira. Oh. My. God. We try Blandy’s Malmsey and seriously, it’s just scrumptious. It smells like raisins, hazelnuts, malt, almonds and maple syrup. It tastes like chocolate, almonds, hazelnuts, brown sugar and butterscotch. What’s not to love? This one, for me, is perfect.

Class ended at about 4:20, and once again, the day just flew. I know I have miles to go before I’m really good at this, but I sure am having a good time along the way.

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!

Multi-Faceted Diamond

Matt Diamond is a wine wonk through and through, a cork dork who’s worked with three of the most well-known wine guys in the Valley — namely, Craig DeMarco, Peter Kasperski and Tom Kaufman at Postino, Cowboy Ciao/Kazimierz and Humble Pie respectively.

So it seems odd that he and his wife Courtney would decide to open an ale house (think cozy neighborhood hangout minus sloppy-drunk college crowd) and not some la-ti-da wine bar with bruschetta on the menu. Not that I don’t love bruschetta, just sayin’ . . .

But they did, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m thinking they’re pretty damned smart. The place is called The Main Ingredient Ale House & Café, and it’s housed in the former Lisa G. location — a charming red brick bungalow they’ve furnished comfortably and decorated with vintage music posters plus cool pix of the surrounding Coronado neighborhood. The upgraded back bar looks great (check out the Schlitz lamp), as does the front porch vignette I intend to inhabit soon — a couple of comfy chairs with a table between: just perfect for a lazy afternoon.

Diamond told me that he and Courtney had decided the wine bar theme had been done to death (so true). They knew they wanted to have a fun, cool, inexpensive place that had a relaxed wine bar vibe but seemed a bit more “off the beaten path.”  A beer bar, specializing in craft beers, seemed just the ticket.

Of course, you can get wine if you want to. The California-heavy list has 14 offerings by the glass or bottle, seven other selections sold by the bottle only. As you might imagine, it’s hardly mainstream.

But beer is the big thing. The menu features some 20 of them in can or bottle, including Sam Adams, Bud, Miller High Life and Schlitz because nobody around here plans to be a beer snob. Diamond says other local places (The Parlor and The Roosevelt, for example) are carrying Pabst Blue Ribbon, so he figured they’d go with Schlitz. After all, they’ve got the lamp!

Four of the eight draft beers are Arizona-made: Four Peaks The Main Ale (a pale gold and refreshing Kölsch made specifically for The Main Ingredient), Four Peaks Hop Knot, Four Peaks Hefeweizen and Oak Creek Nut Brown. Stone Imperial Russian Stout and Oskar Blues Gordon are also on tap, which, I’m told, is very rare. With few exceptions, most of the beers here are revered regional favorites.

My pal and I nibbled around on a few things, but our visit was just for fun, not full-fledged reviewing.

I can’t wait to come back. This is my kind of hangout — especially when I can drink beer on the patio or belly up to the cozy bar.

The Main Ingredient

2337 N. Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602-THE-MAIN, 602-843-6246.

Knot a Problem

Double Knot with Spicy Buffalo Wings

When it comes to beer, I’m seldom adventurous. Most of the time, I gravitate toward the clean, crisp stuff you drink ice cold in a frosty glass. Anything much heavier, and I feel like I’m drinking bread.

As for IPAs, I’ve never been a fan — until a week or so ago when I tasted Hop Knot brewed by Four Peaks Brewing Company in Tempe. It’s classified as American-style strong pale ale, and it took the bronze at both the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival in 2006. So it’s been around. I just didn’t know it.

I took a sip of my buddy’s and was surprised to find that I liked it. Then I saw it on tap when I dropped by The Main Ingredient with a girlfriend last week. You know how that happens? You’ve never heard of a thing and suddenly, it’s everywhere you look?

According to the Four Peaks website, Hop Knot is made from American malt and four different kinds of American hops, each added at four separate times in the brewing process. I like it because it’s both hoppy and a little citrusy without tasting bitter.

Last week, I stopped at Four Peaks to have a Hop Knot and something spicy to go with it. Wings, I was thinking. But when I started telling my awakening consciousness story to my server – a darling girl who was kind enough to take interest — she suggested I try the Double Knot instead, a seasonal double IPA (which means, twice the amount of hops) that just came out the week before and only lasts about a month. She said she loved it.

And boy, do I get that. Served in a snifter, it’s a pale copper color with almost no head ($5). The nose is amazing — citrusy and pretty, almost floral to me. I absolutely love this beer for being clean tasting and well balanced. And it’s delish with the hot and vinegar-y Buffalo wings($8).

Apparently, it’s very expensive to produce, requiring 11 pounds of hops per keg. Oh yeah, and the alcohol content is 9.2, very high. So hey, let’s be careful out there.

Double Knot will be gone soon, so get over to Four Peaks while the gettin’s good. This is beer-drinking weather.

Four Peaks Brewing Company
1340 E. Eighth Street, Tempe, 480-303-9967,

Voila! Travis serves a whiskey sour

Travis Nass is the new bartender at Rancho Pinot, and already this sweet, self-effacing guy is shaking things up . . . in a manner of speaking. He makes a fresh sweet and sour mix so bright and delicious it’s otherworldly. Seriously, I think it may well be the elixir of life and I could easily drink his coral-colored nectar straight (okay, maybe with a little ice and a splash of soda) and by the gallon.

“What could possibly be so extraordinary about one component of a cocktail,” you might well ask, “especially when it’s just going to get all mixed up with a bunch of other stuff?” Members of the Cocktail Culture Club already know the answer to this one:  cocktails have gone the way of food in recent years. The quality of the finished product depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients with which it’s made. Any bartender worth his or her margarita salt is using fresh juices — not fake tasting bottled swill — these days.

Winter Citrus Negroni

Travis was itching to make a good mix last summer, but citrus either wasn’t available or wasn’t of good quality, so his potion-making was put on hold until winter. Now he’s got bushels of in-season citrus to play with — lemons, Meyer lemons, pink lemons, limes, Key limes, navel oranges, Valencias, Sevilles, Clementines, blood oranges, tangelos, white grapefruit, pink grapefruit, red grapefruit — and he’s using them all, creating layers of sweet, tart complexity by combining varieties.

He tastes every fruit before he juices it, explaining that sometimes a particular citrus might be too watery, thereby diluting his concoction, which is boosted with a little simple syrup.

Because he believes an electric juicer adds a slightly bitter taste, Travis juices by hand, making a fresh batch every single day. I was in Rancho last night, and he gave me a taste of the sweet and sour mix he’d made the day before for the sake of comparison. It tasted good, I thought. Then he gave me a taste of the batch he’d made that day. The difference was unbelievable! The fresh juice was much more vibrant.

Now it was time to try the sweet and sour in some cocktails. We started with a margarita, pictured here: Oops! Forgot. Drank this one right down! It was made with Patron tequila, Cointreau, Clement Creole Shrubb (an orange brandy), the sweet and sour and orange bitters.

Pisco Sour

Then we tried  a Winter Citrus Negroni. Travis made it with Hendricks gin, Aperol (an orange-flavored Italian aperitif),  Carpano Antica (a premium sweet vermouth) and sweet and sour.

And then to my favorite — the Pisco Sour, a Peruvian-born cocktail made with pisco (a brandy distilled from the muscat grape), sweet and sour (usually lime juice) and  a top layer of creamy egg white dashed with Angostura bitters. Yum!

But now I’m worried. Once we’re hooked on this stuff, how will we get through a summer without it?