I recently passed the Introductory Course Sommelier Exam, which was a pretty exciting feat, and one which I was shocked to have accomplished.
The test and the two-day wine class leading up to it were grueling, intense, and slightly painful—somewhere between the SAT’s, the bar exam, and a bikini wax. For instance, there are over 3500 different species of grapes, accounting for 1100 different flavors. France has more than 300 grape-growing regions, and there are over 10,000 wineries in the U.S. alone. So while we certainly weren’t expected to know everything about wine, we couldn’t be sure if the sommelier’s exam would ask us to recall the primary grapes of Piedmont, Italy, or the main wine produced in Hungary.
So we pretty much had to know everything about wine.
And that is one heck of a task. Studying wine is extremely overwhelming. It is an excessive amount of information, a ton of fancy terms, many unusual abbreviations, and multiple foreign languages (with hard-to-decipher names and locations such as Crozes-Hermitage and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garanita).
And so many laws. Like when champagne can be called champagne, and grape politics, wine hierarchy, and vineyard bureaucracy. They told us how to taste wine, how to serve wine, and what you are supposed to drink it with-- like Gewürztraminer with crawfish, or sherry with sardines (moscato and Cheetos, anyone?)
Ever since I began studying to become a sommelier, I have had to shift my way of thinking about wine. I have learned to think outside the box. And yes, I do mean outside the Franzia, cardboard-variety, White Zin box with the handy dandy spill-proof pour spout.
I now know that Super Tuscans are wines from Central Italy, and not Italian superheroes. I have learned that sediment in wine is NOT caused by the backwash from your half-chewed foie gras, nor a rogue, kamikaze fruit fly that flew headfirst into your glass.
It’s a black fly in your chardonnay. And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think?
What I find ironic is the fact that as a sommelier, that’s supposed to make me a bit of a wine snob. Except that I’m really not. Not in the least, in fact.
I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than about 16 bucks on a bottle of wine, and that was for a bottle of Asti Spumante. I’m more of a White Zinfandel kind of girl. I’m not even above drinking Boone’s Farm, especially if it’s the Blue Hawaiian variety (I’ll drink just about anything if it’s blue). I am certainly happy to have a nice glass of vino in a fancy wine bar every so often. But I am just as content to guzzle a cup in the type of joint where their wine selection consists of, “White, red, or pink”. And where the “pink” might very well come from mixing the other two together.
My favorite after-work beverage is a split of dive-bar sparkling, in a pint glass over ice, spiked with grape liqueur and Apple Pucker. I won’t touch red wine (except in the case of being forced to do so in preparation for my sommelier test). And if a wine tastes too dry to me (as most of them do), I’ve been known, on more than one occasion, to dump a packet of Splenda in it. Even when out in a fancy restaurant.
Despite all that, I’ve now been trained to talk about appellations and vintages. About malolactic fermentation, carbonic maceration, and minerality.
To prepare for our test, we had to taste a lot of wine. And smell wine. Look at wine. Eat, sleep, and breathe wine. For months. And it was all a very complicated process.
We did tastings. Blind tastings. That means we had to figure out what the wine was, based simply on how it looked, smelled, and finally tasted. A total guessing game. We needed to distinguish between “Old World vs. New World,” and know how old the wine was, where specifically it was produced, and from what varietal. It was a fun little drinking game of “Name that Grape”.
To begin with, we had to look at the wine--very closely—first describing the wine’s color (Garnet? Ruby? Straw?) Then, we discussed how bright and shiny it was—with words that seemed more applicable to Christmas trees, constellations, and Madonna songs than wine, such as “star bright” and “day bright.”
Next, we had to decide whether the wine was “hazy” or “cloudy”. (Isn’t that exactly the same thing?) We talked about things like color loss, because apparently just like photos and cheap sweaters, wine fades with age. And finally, swirling the wine around and watching how it ran down the sides of the glass, we were required to come to earth-shattering conclusions about it based on merely how quickly the tiny droplets trickled. This part included a description of the tears (not referring to the ones that I was choking back at this point), and the legs.
I always found it interesting that wine had legs. Run little wine, run. Run free. And bring me with you.
The next part of the tasting process is the smell test. The nose of the wine. We had to stick our own schnozes as far into the wine glass as we could get them, and then talk about what we smelled. In proper wine-speak.
Did the wine smell youthful? Or vinous? (That means old.) Did we smell potpourri? Baking spice? Culinary herbs? It was never enough to say the wine smelled fruity, if it did… you had to tell them which fruit specifically (Stone fruit? Tree fruit? Berries? Tropical fruit?) And then, you had to go beyond that and talk about what “condition” the fruit was in—Ripe fruit? Dried fruit? Cooked fruit? Jammy? In the world of wine, the descriptions can get ultra-specific sometimes. As in, “I smell culinary herbs, purchased from an outdoor farmer’s market on a Wednesday in the South of France, and dried in the afternoon sun in a hilltop garden, near a river, in a bamboo basket which was handmade in Indonesia….”
Finally, it was time to actually taste the wine. This is an exact science. They tell you precisely how to do it: Take a sip, gargle, swish, expectorate. (Not spit, mind you. Spitting is not nearly sophisticated enough). Have you ever heard a wine snob taste wine? They suck it through their teeth and gurgle it around in their mouths, before they gracefully expel it into a cup or other vessel dedicated to the collection of wine swill. The accompanying noise is a cross between a small kid blowing bubbles in his chocolate milk through a straw, and an old man gargling Listerine.
Now we were supposed to describe what we tasted.
“Hmmm…. Why, I’m getting mild earthiness on the palate. Hints of grass…No, forest floor. Floral in the back. With silky tannins and ‘medium plus’ complexity. It tastes like a fine blend of limestone, jalapeño, and compost. With a short finish and low acidity …It must be a 2007 Pinot Noir from Burgundy. Clearly a Meursault, to be specific.”
The wine descriptors run the gamut of food-related, but-what-is-that-doing-in-my-wine?, to the just plain inedible. Everything from bacon fat, mushrooms, and bread dough, to tobacco, leather, and wet soil.
My wine tastes like dirt.
Or, sometimes the wine masters would go one further, and ask us if we could taste manure in the wine. Otherwise referred to as “barnyard”. Meaning that the wine might, quite literally, taste like shit. And of course, we mustn’t forget that Sauvignon Blanc is classically well-known for having the distinct flavor of cat pee.
It was funny to me that if the wine tasted like nail polish, or cork, that was considered bad. Known as a wine fault. But small doses of animal poo flavor (or the litterbox) is apparently just peachy.
Wine fault? If someone wants to drink stuff that is meant to taste like crap, whose fault is it, really?
I have a friend who always says her wine tastes like desperation and despair.
Wine is important. There is a lot to be said about it. For it. Nearly 28 billion liters of wine are produced worldwide annually. Americans drink about 893 million gallons of the grapey intoxicant a year.
But then again, we mustn’t take it too seriously either. It’s still just spoiled grape juice, after all. Wine is a four-letter word. Like so many other four-letter words that came to mind throughout the duration of my sommelier test.
When it was all over, after I got my certificate and my coveted sommelier pin, I went out to the hole-in-the-wall bar around the corner and celebrated with a glass of Chardonnay. With a whole bunch of Midori melon liqueur poured in it. The color was definitely green. Green like an un-mown golf course on the 5th tee in March. I got strong melon aroma on the nose. And on the palate? It tasted like the hangover I was going to have the next day.
And I was just fine with that.