Tasting over a dozen wines in three hours -- the type of classes I won't mind attending in college and grad. school.
There's a reason why I coined myself as LA-OC-Foodie and not LA-OC-Vino; my taste in wine is not very well polished, an extra shame considering I actually took wine classes when I was in U.C. Davis -- known for its viticulture/enology program and for its patented wine aroma wheel. My limited expertise extends to just telling good wines from bad (well, at least when one's been corked), basic, overgeneralized pairing rules like "white with whites; reds with reds," and a very broad idea of what I personally like (fragrant white varietals like viognier and gewurztraminer, citrusy sauvignon blancs or spicy/jammy reds such as shiraz; OK, and the occasional fruit bombs of a rosé.)
So it was definitely a treat when Ian Blackburn from LearnAboutWine extended an invite to me (to attend for free) and my friends (at a discount) for his Palate Builder class earlier this month, meant for folks who are already somewhat acquainted with wine and want to further develop and hone their appreciation of the stuff. I've been to a few prior LearnAboutWine events, on my own dime, before--and they have always been fun, tasty and educational, whether learning how to pair wines with cheeses, the TASTE series that highlight particular varietals or wine-growing regions, and the occasional non-wine classes (I attended a "Learn About Rum" one where I learned quite a bit about its production, flavor profiles and the tricks to make a mean 'n yummy mojito.)
Upon our arrival at LearnAboutWine central (a snazzy concrete studio loft in downtown los angeles' art district), we were greeted by a long "sensory table" - with dozens of little vials and corresponding postcards letting us experience and learn about the different aromas present in wines, ranging from the fairly common and familiar smells such as berry and citrus to the more exotic aromas of musk and acacia flowers.) It was fascinating taking a whiff of these odors in their purest forms and being able to differentiate between similarly-grouped scents, though now I still probably would fall back on 'stone fruits' and 'woodsy' as opposed to specifying peach versus apricot and cedar versus pine.
After all the participants arrived and had their turn twirling and sniffing around the table, we were all seated and greeted by Ian and the wondeful snack platters with intriguing cheeses (including a cabernet-washed cheddar) and sweet fresh and dried fruits. After a little noshing and a quick primer on wine tasting (most importantly, that the vast majority of the flavor comes from the aromas,) we were doing our first set of tastings, a white wine flight consisting of . . .
. . . four sauvignon blancs; surprised? I was too, considering it was our only white wines of the day. What about all the other varietals? Turns out Ian decided to do an all-sauvignon flight so that he can show how the same grape, grown in different regions, will develop different flavor profiles, highlighting its terroir -- loosely defined as its geographical origin, and how the climate, soils, elevation, even the neighboring plants, of that area ultimately influence the final product. This definitely shown through as we were tasting the flight, with two Californian SBs possessing a ripe citrus-dominated smell, but the Chilean SB had a distinct dirt note attributed to its flat terrain with lots of dusty winds blowing about, and the New Zealand SB that had a zesty, limey (the fruit and the stone) edge the came from the cooler climate (i.e. higher acidity in the grapes) and minerals in the soil that gets taken up by the vines.
Following the tasting, test time! We got grouped into foursomes for a taste test contest, with the highest scoring group winning a secret prize. We were poured a random white, which turned out to be a curveball since it's a California chardonnay. For fun, Ian also asked us to estimate the price of the secret wine "The Price is Right" style. The guesses went up to as high as $35, and it turned out to be.... Two Buck Chuck! Definitely a shocker to the attendees, but at least the experiment reinforced that tasty wines doesn't necessarily have to be expensive. The 2005 of this cheapy chardonnay is judged the state's best, with a double gold and 98 points, at California State Fair.
Afterwards, we tasted two flights of red, which followed a more traditional arc of different varietals and different regions -- going from the light grenache to a Bordeaux for the International flight and the pinot noir to syrah for the Californian flight. Along the way we picked up some easy-to-remember tips to analyze wines, such as:
1) smelling/tasting for aspects of F.E.W. (fruits, earth and wood) to get a basic idea of the wine's character (and consequently, the varietal, the region, and, for the pros, the vintage).
2) using color as a tool to help identify varietal (with the thinner-skinned pinot noir producing a lighter shade than, say, a cabernet sauvignon)
3) using more appropriate and creative terms to describe wines, such as taking F.E.W. aromas and mouthfeel to put together more complex labels such as masculinity (to describe muscularity, robustness and assertiveness) and femininity (finesse, roundness and elegance).
4) and the obsoleteness of using "dry" as a descriptor -- since almost all non-fortified/non-dessert still wines are dry in the sense that there's very little residual sugar left; more proper terms may be a palate-drying mouthfeel, noting the tannins or acidity on the tongue or highlighting non-sweet smells (e.g. earthy, woodsy, toasty).
Of course, we had a few more testing rounds -- and alas, my more-learned but still amateur wine palate were no match for the pros in the other groups, who ultimately won mini bottles of Alize Bleu with their elite wine analysis skills.
But ultimately, my friends and I had a great time learning how to build our palates and take our wine analysis and enjoyment to the next level. The palate builder class for any budding wine aficionado wanting to further expand upon their appreciation in a non-stuffy, guided but still-structured setting. Or, for those who are really getting their toes wet into wine, LearnAboutWine also does a Intro to Wine Camp class that takes attendees through the basics of wine history, production and tasting with tips on purchasing, pairing and storage (and of course, with samplings of wonderful wine.) And for the more avid winelover or those already in (or heading towards) the wine business, there are a variety of more serious classes too such as the L.A.W. School (with its own B.A.R. exam ;) ) too.
To find out more about upcoming classes and events at LearnAboutWine, click here! Or for regular notes, tips and tidbits, check out the L.A.W. blog.
For more photos of my palate builder tasting, here's the flickr set. And for another take on the L.A.W. classes, check out Gourmet Pigs' German Beer Tasting event here.