2016-05-26 / Cuisine

What the heck am I drinking?


For many people (me included) the most entertaining — and maddening — activity in the wine world is a little thing called the blind tasting.

This is where you have a glass (or two) of wine in front of you with no idea what kind it is, and you have to sniff, sip and identify it. I call it the “guess the smell” contest, and it’s just about impossible to do … for me at least.

There are national blind tasting contests — championships, even — where people can actually taste a wine and identify not only the varietal, but many times the place of origin, the vintage, and most remarkable of all, the producer. Not me. Not ever.

Recently, I was invited to a different kind of event.

Jessica Weeks, a restaurant manager in the area, was preparing to take her Level II sommelier test, which would require her to taste two wines blind and identify them. She wanted to practice, and asked a few of us to taste along.

Jessica Weeks prepares to take her sommelier test, which will require her to know her wines. Jessica Weeks prepares to take her sommelier test, which will require her to know her wines. Jessica Weeks was raised in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, which is one of America’s original and historic winegrowing regions. We held the practice session in the very impressive wine tasting classroom at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 16 years old,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I joined the Guild of Sommeliers that I realized just how much goes into each bottle. It’s given me a great respect for what it takes to grow and harvest grapes at the precise time to make a successful wine. It’s all very fascinating.”

That fascination led Jessica to prepare for her Level II exam, where she would be required to demonstrate a Wikipedic knowledge of wine varietals, regions, soils, producers and a lot more.

“The test consists, among other things, of 40 multiple choice or short answer questions,” she notes. “I also have to blind taste two wines and explain the makeup of the varietal, where it came from, how old it is, the tasting notes, if it was stored in oak or not, the climate and soil in which it was grown, and many other factors based on sight, smell and taste.”

No simple task. The first mystery wine we tasted was a white, which I immediately and confidently identified as a Reisling from Germany. Jessica said it was an Albariño from northern Spain. She was right. I was wrong. Then there was a red, which I absolutely knew was a Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Jessica begged to differ, suggesting a Gamay from Beaujolais, which is kind of like Burgundy’s twin cousin. Once again, her sipping sophistication exceeded mine. Jessica 2, Jerry 0.

Then, she nailed the Nebbiolo from northern Italy, along with the other two blind bottles. If anybody was ready to take the test, it was her. I had no doubt she’d be able to achieve what she described as a “personal goal.”

“It will definitely make a difference in my career,” she notes. “I am pursuing the more advanced certifications to become more knowledgeable and qualified when recommending wine to a restaurant guest. Most of them may know a certain type of wine they enjoy, so it’s a great pleasure to introduce new styles by explaining the selections in detail.”

I hope Jessica will agree with the suggestions and details for this week’s column.

Lawer Estates Rosé of Syrah 2015 — You can make rosé out of any red grape, but the ones from Syrah are generally fuller-bodied. This example from a winery in Calistoga has characteristic strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors, with some nice zippy apple notes. The winemaker suggests pairing it with ceviche. WW 89. About $22.

Scacciadiavoli Montefalco di Sagrantino 2012 — Sagrantino is one of my favorite Italian varietals that isn’t Chianti. This bold, fruity wine needs some time in the bottle or plenty of decanting. It will deliver flavors of plums, spices, sage, thyme and black leather. Great with any rich Italian cuisine. WW 94. About $35.

Ask the Wine Whisperer

Q. Once I open a bottle, how long will the wine keep?

— Jon F., Fort Myers

A. Most everyday wines are at their best right away, and if you don’t finish the whole bottle (never a problem at our house) you want to prolong the life of what’s left. One method is a vacuum stopper, such as the Vac-u-Vin, which is what we generally use. The rubber bottle stoppers have a valve in them, and you remove the air from the stoppered bottle with a little hand pump. This generally allows the wine to stay fairly fresh for one or two days. ¦

— Jerry Greenfield is The Wine Whisperer. He is Creative Director of Greenfield Advertising Group. His book, “Secrets of the Wine Whisperer,” is available through his website or on Amazon.

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