Sunday, September 28, 2008

Instructor offers his take on ABCs of wine

Beyond the harvest ongoing at wineries across the region are seminars and workshops that are designed to give people a clue about what’s coming off the vines and into the bottle. Crossing Vineyards & Winery is one of a couple of wineries more proactive about that aspect of the business, and it enhanced its staff recently by hiring wire writer and fellow Temple grad Collin Flatt to teach a few of the courses it offers.

Reached earlier this week en route to his first class, The ABCs of Wine Tasting, Flatt said that he learned his basics at the
Wine School of Philadelphia under the extraordinary tutelage of Keith Wallace and Brian Freedman. "They are two of the best wine minds in the city," he said, noting that his education there in addition to time he spent living in Italy has prepared him well for this teaching gig. A longtime wine collector, there’s one thing he brought along with him that night besides his classroom materials: lots of opinions on how to teach the subject.

“You get two kinds of people who walk into a wine class,” he told me, the sound of traffic in the background, “people that don’t know absolutely anything and are interested, and people who think they already know everything. So basically the thing you have you start off with is dispelling a few myths.”

He went on to say that “the old-school method of teaching wine is read books, read books, read books. Know your name dropping and stuff . . . which is not the way to do it. The way to do it is to start off with sensory teaching, which is how I start all of my people off. I do something called the jellybean test, and what that basically is, you’re teaching them that your nose actually does all your tasting for you. Basically it’s the whole pinch your nose, chew a jellybean, you can’t taste anything. And when you let go of your nose again, well all of a sudden now you realize your nose is teaching you everything. So basically, people grasp that they have to trust their nose and basically trust themselves.

“I hate when people come in and say, Oh, this is supposed to taste like A, B, and C. Like I absolutely hate when wineries, etc., list that ‘Oh, you’re going to taste chocolate and jammy fruit and all this other crap,’ because then people start to try to push themselves to find these things in the wine that sometimes aren’t even there because everyone smells different things, everyone feels different things. You know, people have different levels of what I call a flavor Rolodex. And basically, the reason people can smell different things is . . . you’ll notice that your coffee drinkers will find a lot more chocolate in their wines. You’ll notice that people who eat a lot of fresh fruit are going to find more pear in their wine, that kind of stuff. You train your taste buds to, before you ever step foot in any type of wine teaching, you train your taste buds to find things that you already know you like.

“Basically, the reason I did really well with wines starting out is that I eat absolutely anything. There’s not one thing I will not touch. I eat everything. That’s kind of why I got into food, too, and the more you taste and the more you think about food when you’re eating it, etcetera, etcetera, you add cards to your flavor Rolodex. And those people who really pay attention to what they eat do very well with wine, because you remember things, and your nose is attached to your memory more than anything else. And if you’ve eaten certain things, you’ll be able to pick those things out. I find that the people who eat the most food do the best in my class. So that’s where I like to go first, and I’m also big on Pepsi Challenge. I like to put wine against wines and I don’t mean same kinds. If you have someone just sitting there looking at a glass of white and they’re tasting it, they might have a hard time finding things. But if you put a naked Chard up against an oak Chard, or if you put a chard against a
Viognier or a Riesling, you’ll find that people do much better finding flavors in there, because they’re able to compare A to B.

“No one sits there and drinks two wines at once, except for people like me, and [other] wine drinkers who will pop open 15 wines over the course of a weekend, you know, when you’re just drinking with friends. But when you Pepsi Challenge them, you really are able to dig stuff out.” And it will help them differentiate even the variations of a grape. Take
Chardonnay, for instance. “People are like, ‘Oh, I hate Chardonnay.’ Well, what you think you hate about Chardonnay might be the oaky, butteriness of it,” he said. “Well, that’s because you don’t like New World Chardonnay. So let’s put this New World Chard against an Old World Chard and see if you don’t find something completely different. You look at Old World Chard or naked steel Chard or neutral oak, you’ll find that the expression of chard is very tangy and actually has a lot of acid in it. A lot brighter fruit and not such muted butterscotch vanilla notes. So you really have to train people not to hate what they already think they hate.

“I’m big on Pepsi Challenge, I’m big on promoting a Flavor Rolodex, which is eat food, eat a lot of it, remember what you’re eating, think about what you’re eating. Think about the vegetables you’re eating, the fruit that you’re eating. And don’t force something that’s not there. That’s a big thing. [Someone will say], ‘Oh, I read that this wine is supposed to have a lot black currants in it.’ It’s like, how many black currants do you eat at home? Do you really know what a
black currant tastes like? You probably don’t.”