May 4, 2006


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Got milk?

Schooled in the art of wine
A wine drinker gets back to basics
By Tim Protzman

Parents across America are stressing out a little as the school year comes to ahead.

Ahead is the $200-a-day Aquaculture Camp for the little ones and the late night calls from your summering college student who just had to see the last-ever Phish concert and now thinks the car he abandoned on the highway’s been towed.

I always get a little nostalgic in spring. I miss my ivy-covered halls. I get weepy for the days of trigonometry and the cafeteria’s Taco Surprise.

This year I’m doing something about it.

The idea came from a continuing education catalog. For $78, I could attend a wine tasting that would “whisk me body and soul to the sunny shores of Italy, where I’d bathe my wine hungry self in the wonders of the Italian grape.” A great idea, but it seemed a little like the $200-a-day Aquaculture Camp that promised to awaken my child’s inner talent for shellfish farming.

Much to her credit the instructor, who made me call her Signora Professore, returned my phone call in a timely manner. She explained that she made about $10 per student and most of the tuition fee went for materials, in this case wine. Signora Professore would lead us through the intricacies of Barolos, Barbarescos, Chiantis, Amarones, Soaves, Pinot Grigios and the new Sicilian rising star, Nero d’Avola. In my best prosecutor-type voice, I asked her what credentials she had to teach this course.

“I’ve visited Italy 18 times and traveled Tuscany and the Piedmont extensively. I’ve attended several wine courses myself, including one with Kevin Zraly.” (Zraly is the former sommelier at Window on the World and author of The Complete Wine Course.)

OK, so she’s good, I thought, but I wasn’t signing up just yet.

“Tell me a little about your interest in wine,” she asked.

“I consider myself a highly skilled intermediate,” I answered, “and I write a wine column.”

“Of course,” She replied, “now I know where I recognize your name from, I read your column, it’s very droll. ... You could use this course.”

She’d set the hook and I bit. I gave her my MasterCard number over the phone.  Now I was a student again. But the course isn’t until October so I have plenty of time to head off to Staples.

Learning is a lifelong endeavor, and it’s never a waste to go over the basics and recap what you’ve learned. Here’s a little bit of what I call Wine 101 to refresh the experts and teach the novices.

White, Red and Pink
White wine is made from mostly white grapes, but can be made from purple grapes, champagne being the prime example. What makes it white is the shortened amount of time the crushed grape skins or must is in contact with the juice.

In red wine the maceration time or the time the dark skins remain in contact with the juice is longer. Remember all grapes are white on the inside.

Pink or rose wines have more maceration time, but not as much as red.

Varietal is a fancy name for the kind of grape that the wine’s made from. The best-known varietals are chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, riesling, pinot noir, pinot gris (which is also known as pinot grigio), chablis, syrah or shiraz, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel.

Any wine will have its varietal on the label, except for the more expensive wines from Europe. Those wines are governed by wine laws and they have the name of the place where they are grown. There are some excellent wines from France, Italy and Spain that have the varietal name on the label, but by law they are considered common table wines, no matter how good they are.

Wine, like fine Scotch, beer or tequila, is an acquired taste. If you’re going to chug it, drink a Pepsi instead. Tasting wine involves pouring a quarter of a glass and smelling it first. Note the aromas. This is called the nose or bouquet. Your nose is never wrong. If it smells like Grandma Jensen’s old shower curtain, that’s what it smells like.

The first sip should be small. Hold it in your mouth. Do you get a cotton-mouth reaction? This is the tannins. Drier wines have more tannins. Red wines have more tannins. Now do a reverse whistle by sucking air in through your pursed lips, making a slurping sound.

This will release the flavors. What does it taste like? You’re never wrong, even if it tastes like Band-Aids or that time when you licked the just-caught perch.

Your First Wine
Everybody remembers their first time, but was it a Boones Farm moment or was it Silver Oak?

This week’s suggestions are a few approachable wines for the beginner and a couple complex vinos for the more developed palate

Cormons Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie, $9.99, an Italian white from the countryside around Venice. Quince, saffron and lemon flavors. Smells tart.

Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc 2003, $11.99, from Marlborough on the north tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Minerally with endive, lime and a touch of kiwi flavors.

Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Both wines are from an excellent, quality producer in Napa Valley California. The cabernet is jammy with dense fruit, like blackberry, and the merlot has a low tannin flavor with a touch of cinnamon and unsweetened cranberry. Both are $12.99.

Clos du Bois North Coast Chardonnay, $9.99. Not too oaky, which means the woody tongue depressor taste doesn’t overpower the delicate grapefruit and green apple fruit.

Silver Oak 2000 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $58.99. Rich, thick grape flavors with a touch of cilantro and the smell of Band-Aids and pipe tobacco. Less expensive, but just as delicious as its Napa Valley counterpart. From Sonoma’s Alexander Valley.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at

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