Last night, I had the privilege of attending a blind tasting class at New York Vintners in Tribecca. The tasting was hosted by the venerable Bob Millman, whose company, Executive Wine Seminars (doesn’t that just sound so professional and serious?), has been hosting big deal wine tastings since 1981.
New York Vintners is a pretty cool little spot – upon first inspection it just looks like a hipper-than-your-grandma’s wine shop. But take a closer look and you’ll notice that there’s a whole second half to the store – a space devoted entirely to wine education and tastings.
The store employs their own chef who hosts classes revolving around food and wine pairings and also caters the private dinners and tastings offered. Being that the store is relatively close to Wall Street, they get their fair share of banking big wigs and hedge fund guys coming through to nibble on expensive food and gulp big-deal wines.
In fact, New York Vintner’s owner, Shane Benson, was a Wall Street guy himself, once upon a time. But we’ll get to him later.
I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into heading into last night’s tasting. I was a little bit intimidated by Bob Millman and thought I was headed right into a lions’ den of pretentious swirling, sniffing, and declarative statements regarding obscure bouquets and flavors. Happily, I was dead wrong. Instead of being greeted by a bunch of guys wearing monocles with slicked hair and ascots, I was greeted by a glass of Gruet Blanc de Noirs (sparkling wine) from New Mexico.
The tables were occupied by groups of single ladies, couples, and me. In line for the bathroom one half of a couple commended me for being “brave” and coming on my own. That’s a post for another day.
The tasting was what Bob called “double blind” – we had no idea what wines were being served except that there would be three whites and three reds. Before we dove into the white wines, which sat winking before us, Bob gave a quick presentation on how to approach tasting a wine. The quick and dirty of the presentation was this:
Appearance: Clarity & Intensity. For white wines, this meant taking a look at each glass and noting how intense the color was. Bob pointed out that the deepest, most golden of the wines was made from the ripest grapes. Ripe grapes, Bob went on to tell us, usually means more sugar and lower acid. For red wines, however, color can be a decent indicator of age (wines change color as they get very old – almost always to a brick or orangeish color) varietal (some grapes are naturally much darker – like Syrah) and tannin since the color is derived from the juice’s contact with the skins and tannin comes from the skins.
Aroma: Bob talked about swirling wine and why we do it – to bring up the bouquet. He also taught us a little technique that can come in handy if a wine has a “shy” bouquet (ie not easily detected). If a wine just refuses to open up he suggested swirling the wine with a hand over the top, then releasing your hand just as you stick your nose in the glass. This technique, Bob offered, can help whip up and then trap the odiferous vapors. I’m skeptical of how much this would help seeing as I’m not sure I believe that vapors magically appear by swirling – you need heat for vapors!
Palate: To discuss the “taste” of a wine, Bob gave us a few factors to consider:
• Sweetness: A big part of wine is the result of converting sugar into alcohol. Residual sugar will show up in a wine when the wine maker stops this process from completing all the way (leaving some sugar behind) or when the wine maker adds sugar to a wine after the fact. Usually when we’re talking sweetness, we’re talking desert wines.
• Acid: Bob Millman is a self-professed “acid freak” and most serious wine drinkers would agree that acid is super important. When a wine has low acid it can seem sleepy or dull. But a wine with enough acid is awake and alive.
• Tannin: Tannin comes from grape skin – which is why you don’t usually find a lot of it in white wines. Tannin is also, for that same reason, the factor that keeps a lot of wine drinkers away from red wines. Tannin can be rough and unpleasant or it can lend structure and body to a wine. Bob used the anecdote that the French love to drink their wines young and tannic (sometimes I like to think of these as wines that kick your ass), the British like their wines old and soft (tannin breaks down with age), and the American’s just like their wine.
• Alcohol: Up until the 1980’s most wines had a respectable 11-12 1/2 % alcohol. Queue Global Warming and you’ve got wines weighing in with a hefty 13-14%. All that alcohol contributes body and(!) gets you drunker.
• Body: Here’s a tricky one. When you talk about body, what you’re really talking about is how much of your palate the wine hits before it disappears. Some wines only really hit the tip of your tongue before they vanish – these are super light bodied wines. Some wines will linger through, hit the middle of your mouth (mid-palate and usually middle body) before saying Au Revoir! But a big, full bodied wine will fill up your whole mouth, and then linger after you’ve swallowed.
• Flavors: Everyone gets different flavors from different wines. Next….
• Finish: Once you’ve swallowed a wine, how long does it linger? Does it give out and vanish right away? Does it leave a watery after taste? Or does it hang out and stay a while in your mouth?
Once we were all well-versed in the proper tasting technique, we got to actually downing some vino. I, of course, was playing a little game with myself trying to guess the varietals of each wine. I lost. Like, seriously – lost. But! To be fair, the sommelier snuck in a really obscure white wine from Sicily made from a varietal so obscure (Inzolia) that he’d only heard of it for the first time the week before (it was a super light and racy white wine that was so acidic it was almost briny). I don’t even count that one. We also tasted an oaky Cotes du Rhone Blanc (Viognier, Roussane & Marsanne blend) and a gorgeous Verdejo from North-Central Spain.
As for the reds, we tasted a Rosso di Montalcino (made entirely from Sangiovese – the oak should’ve given it away! Damn!) that I thought was either Beaujolais or, perhaps, a Dolcetto. We followed that up with a 2009 Bordeaux (a super ripe vintage that tricked even Bob into thinking we were sipping on a fruit-bomb California Cab) and my personal favorite – a 100% Syrah from the Rhone that was unctuous on the nose (comments from the peanut gallery: “It smells like dank dirty ass!”) and just gorgeous on the palate. I thought it was a Nebbiolo because of the barnyard-and-tar aroma. Wrong. Again. Lastly, we were surprised with a fourth wine when the winemaker showed up near the end of the tasting and threw his wine into the mix. This last wine was a real treat – an elegant, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend from South Africa that we were all happy to have tacked on to the end.
The tasting over, I tucked into a conversation with some of the people sitting around me while the staff poured the leftovers for anyone who wanted them. Usually, I’d be embarrassed to admit that I was one of the last two people to leave, but I was rewarded with a glass of an unbearably delicious Barbera d’Alba (you know how I love me some d’Alba anything!) and a great conversation with the owner, Shane.
Wearing a rediculous tye-dyed shirt (I warned him I’d have to give him shit about the shirt), Shane told me his story – how he went from culinary school to Wall Street (seriously, you’d never think it from the tye-dye) to owning New York Vintners. We talked about how the wine world is exploding, that people should drink what they like (even if its $3 wine from Trader Joes), and how we can’t wait to see wine snobbery fly out the window. Both Bob and Shane told me that the Blind Tasting class was their favorite class because it was a great way to introduce people to the right way to thinking about wine. Freed from expectations, people could approach each wine with the simple question of, “Do I like it and why or why not?” – which is exactly how everyone should find the wine they love.
Shane and his team have built a super friendly, relaxed, and fun space to taste and learn about wine. Especially if you’re interested in the relationship between food and wine, I’d head over to their website and take a look at the classes. Many of the people I talked to at the tasting had already been to three or four classes and had come back for this one. At $50 a pop for at least three glasses of wine and food, it’s a real value and a great way to spend an evening.
Psst….! PS. Keep an eye out for a post coming up about Champagne & Sparkling wines and a fall wines roundup I’m working on! Cheers!