Wine School: Five Things Learned

Of all the people to study wine, I’m probably one of the least likely. As a small, already over-imaginative artist, I’ve always considered alcohol a fairly hazardous substance, and unless it’s red, with something delicious, and paid for by someone else, it’s usually avoided. Then again, if you’ve read Confessions, you’ll know I was otherwise engaged during the years most people learn about these things, so perhaps I never had the proper experience.

Despite my quandaries, wine is still something I can appreciate. It’s my understanding that it saved many an ancient person when water was dirty and disease-ridden, and the mechanics of how taste and smell actually work are nothing short of fascinating.

The subtle art of growing and fermenting grapes also has much to consider. I’ve always been been grateful for the fermentation process and its gifts of so many delicious foods (not least of which is grandma’s sauerkraut pierogi). Still, things like bread-baking inspire a modicum of guilt. You spend days diligently looking after a budding colony of yeast cells knowing full well they’re all going to die in the oven’s fiery cataclysm, after which you eat the remains. It’s kind of sad if you think about it, but then all forms of eating have some sense of cruelty about it, which I guess is why we get things like “only humans are special souls” and “everything exists for our pleasure” coming up from religions and elsewhere.  Perhaps seeing bread dough as the charred remnants of a tiny civilization is overly dramatic, but then again I was raised Catholic and “death for life through bread” was a pretty big theme.

When a preserved loaf of bread was found at Pompeii, the British Museum had the recipe deconstructed and reproduced. I’ve been meaning to try it since it seems quite thematic and interesting. They’ll be a post about it when I actually do.

Wine on the other hand is a lot less dramatic. There the yeast dies from alcohol poisoning, a result of over population, over consumption, poor sanitation. So it’s their own fault.

And studying wine was great. One of my instructors looked exactly like the father from Disney’s Tarzan and carried on very much like my already-written Norbert Bransby, so he was a joy to listen to (Norbert is my favorite character). Though he did ensure us that there are no wrong answers when determining the nose of a wine, smelling wine, it seems is not completely a subjective affair. Aromas are due to the presence of volatile compounds…molecules that quickly turn to gas and stick to receptors in the nose, which are often perceived by the brain as scents. The concentrations and interactions of these volatile compounds do create fairly specific aromas. Maturation in oak barrels is known to impart vanilla flavors, for example, because vanillin is present in oak. Wine, therefore, can literally smell of vanilla.

This is fascinating to me because the changes on the periodic table never made much sense, in my opinion… how simply adding or subtracting one ball-looking proton could so drastically change the properties of matter. If you drop an egg into a basket, it only makes a basket heavier, it doesn’t make a basket have fuzzy polka dots. If, however, things like quarks had specific geometries that affect the properties of matter, that would be interesting.  Though I’m not very knowledgeable in such things, so I wouldn’t know for sure.

Even in wine, though, things can get pretty weird pretty quickly. Scents like cat pee, petroleum, diesel, tar and plastic are among some of the more unusual, yet somewhat common descriptors. The fact that there are actually debates about whether or not these are desirable flavors (but a sherry taste is always a fault) is kind of weird to me. If I had to decide between sherry and diesel, I’d take the sherry.

But then, maybe it depends what you have good memories of and what you’re into. I grew up in a brown world with copious amounts of cranberry juice so the dark berry flavors of a good Cabernet Sauvignon is usually my go-to.  Whites are mostly too fresh and flirty for my taste, like someone’s given me a gluten-free cucumber sandwich with the crusts removed, but that’s more a result of my upbringing than the actual quality of wine.

Which brings me to another interesting thing. Wine has personality, and it has story. A white would be very enjoyable if you’re with a fresh and flirty sort of person. A Sémillon, perhaps, if you want to be interesting, or a Chardonnay if you’re going for elegance. Chenin blanc if you want to come across very standard and open for interpretation. In the reds, I’d say maybe a Merlot if you’re an old traditionalist or Pinotage if you’re not quite sure who you are or what you want. Shiraz if you want to be private in a smoke-filled, grouchy sort of way.  Some sort of dessert wine if you hate the stuff but still want to be social.

These opinions are completely arbitrary, though. I can’t really begin to say how bad I actually am with tasting or how rarely I drink; they’re just the stories I imagined during one drink or another. Still, there are a few things I learned during the course that might be worth knowing, if you plan on studying yourself or need a fact for a game of trivia. They are as follows:

1. Carrying a fancy case of multiple wine glasses will be required.

Oh, so fancy.

2. When using a spittoon, always spit with gusto.

Unassertive spitting will leave you slobbering like a spaniel. Don’t do it.

3. Statements such as “It has a nose reminiscent of my grandfather’s gym socks” are acceptable.

Because there are no wrong answers when describing the sumptuous bouquet that is wine. Really. Gym socks are okay.

4. The sugar content of wine grapes can be measured in degrees Balling.

Not to be confused with bawling.

A wine grape is a happy grape.

5. In the 1800’s an American terrorist almost destroyed the entire wine industry.

It was called phylloxera, an aphid-like root louse that decimated nearly all of the world’s vines.

Except Chile’s.

But America also produced a disgusting, phylloxera-resistant grape vine onto which we can graft better grape varieties.

So we’re okay now.

And that’s something to drink to.