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Jumping headfirst into the world of wine
By Krista Harper
You might call my dad a wine connoisseur. He belongs to a wine-of-the-month club, goes to wine tastings at least a few times a month and likes to joke that his huge wine collection in the basement is going to be my inheritance.
For years, my dad has tried valiantly to impart his wine wisdom to me. He likes to pour me small glasses and ask what I think. Honestly, it’s hard for me to tell the difference between one bottle and the next, but to keep him happy, I’ll drink a glass or two and listen patiently as he critiques or marvels at the wine’s various attributes.
But I’m usually just humoring him. After all, I’m a college student — the vast majority of wines I’ve enjoyed have cost less than 12 dollars, and sometimes less than five. I’ve been known to exclaim, as my father does, “Look at the legs on that wine!” but it’s to poke fun at my dear old dad, not to make an educated point about the bottom-shelf wine I’m drinking.
I have no idea how to judge a wine, except for a general assumption that you get what you pay for. Sure, I like some wines more than others, but ask me the difference between pinot noir and cabernet mignon and I'll be at a complete loss. When it comes down to it, wine is part of the grown-up world that I’m still intimidated by, and I’m not alone. Many people, young and old, are wine-shy. It’s one of those things that can seem to have a steep, hoity-toity learning curve, like playing golf or making French pastry.
For the benefit of would-be wine drinkers everywhere, I got some help from the experts. I sat down with the managers of three of Eugene’s wine bars and boosted my wine IQ, both for my own benefit and to impress my father when he comes down to see me in June.
Angus James, who co-owns The Broadway, pointed to a sign hanging in his shop just minutes after I sat down: “The best wine is the wine you like the best!” He smiled reassuringly.
“Don’t be intimidated — wine is just fermented grapes,” he said.
That seemed to be the general attitude I heard at the other two wine bars I visited as well. Wine newbies might not have so much to be afraid of, after all.
B2, the wine bar at Crescent Village, opened last November, and was the first bar I went to. Manager Andrew Deffenbacher laid out the basics of wine for me.
First, there are many basic things that can happen at a wine bar. You can order a glass or a bottle of wine, you can participate in a wine tasting or you could order a flight. Tastings usually involve a representative of a winery and a special selection of their wines to sample. “Flights,” which I’d never heard of before, consist of three or more smaller glasses of wine, usually with an order and a theme in mind. For example, you might order a flight of Oregon pinot noirs, a lighter red wine that Deffenbacher informed me is Oregon’s most famous kind of wine. The first pinot in the flight would be the lightest, the second would be medium-toned in flavor and color and the last would be the heaviest.
The relatively temperamental grapes that make pinot, Deffenbacher told me, gained fame in French wines from the Burgundy region, but as it turns out, grow equally well in Willamette Valley soil. Much of France and Oregon have similar climates, he said.
Deffenbacher, 25, also explained the idea of a food wine to me. Some wines are good to drink on their own, he said, and others are meant for drinking with food. The flavor in the wine, he said, is enhanced by the taste of certain dishes, especially meat. A robust red might be best with a steak while a white would pair better with fish. He stressed that this doesn’t mean one wine is better than another, just that each is better suited to different purposes.
B2 is owned by Bruce and Beverly Biehl, a brother/sister team that also owns the Eugene Wine Cellars. The color scheme and paintings inside B2 resemble what you might expect if the interior decorator of Starbucks had a significantly higher budget and a bit more time. It has a young feel to it, and from Deffenbacher’s explanation, that may not be a coincidence. “Wine used to be something our parents drank,” he says. But now it’s something people are getting into at a younger age, he says, and it’s not a surprise for him to see college students in the bar.
The Broadway in downtown Eugene has been open for nine years. The décor is more simplistic than that of B2, and there’s plenty of space to peruse wall after wall of the wines that are on sale. Angus James, one of the owners, is the one who so confidently told me that the most important thing about a wine is that I like it.
To impress a fervent wine drinker like my dad, James suggested I offer or at least talk about Oregon’s non-pinot wines. Since Oregon’s pinots are internationally known, it’s likely that my dad, a Washingtonian, would know about them. But it’s less likely that he’s explored more unique Oregon wines, like syrah from the northern Willamette Valley or sangiovese from the Rogue Valley. James let me try a few, and I learned a few key tips in the process.
At a wine tasting, it is okay to spit the wine out into a designated container, because sometimes tasters just want to experience the wine without feeling the effect of the alcohol. James spat his wine out gracefully, if spitting has ever been graceful. Though it seemed like the appropriate thing to do, I just couldn’t bring myself to spit.
I learned to swirl the wine a bit in my glass to aerate it, which can mellow a strong wine and improve its taste. James instructed me to always check out the “nose” of the wine first because taste isn’t the only sense people use to evaluate a wine. Someone who knows wine, James said, can usually tell a good bottle of wine by its smell alone.
Finally, James showed me how to coat my mouth with the wine, which allows all parts of your tongue access to the flavor. Lo and behold, when I was concentrating on the taste of the wine, I could tell the differences among each kind! They were different — not always drastically, but distinctively.
Perhaps most valuably, I learned that wine can be “corked,” which means the wine is bad and has a strong overriding taste of wet cardboard. This only affects individual bottles of wine, thankfully, so other bottles from the same batch of grapes are fine. Corked wine tastes much worse than most cheap wine you could buy, so to avoid embarrassment from now on, I’ll check to see if wines I serve are corked before I let my guests drink them, or buy good wines with screw-tops (obviously, those can’t get “corked”).
Lest I get too cocky with my new knowlege, James reminded me that wine isn’t something you learn in a morning, an idea that Phillip Patti, the manager and sommelier at Uva, also drilled into my mind.
Patti’s wine bar, which is in Oakway Center and opened last fall like B2, felt trendy and comfortable. There are free wine tastings every Wednesday from 5 to 7 pm. The focus on wines being sold was flights, as Patti wants visitors to be able to sample a few wines, and not have to stick to one. Most of the flights offered when I was there included at least one wine from the Northwest, but Patti is really interested in introducing people to wines from all over the world, so rare Austrian Zweigelt is also on the menu. “To be as exciting as possible, you really have to open up to everything,” he says.
Patti says the best thing about Oregon wineries — and something that would impress my dad — is that the majority are still small enough that it’s easy to meet the winemakers and learn their methods.
When I asked how you tell the difference between a cabernet merlot and a sauvignon, he told me that he is still working on that distinction after six years of training. So James was right: Wine is far from something you learn in a morning or in a week. I still would be hard-pressed to explain why tannins are important or what wine would go with a fruit salad or a big dish of pasta, but in my week of wine explorations, it became clear that wine is not such a hard thing to understand as I might have thought. Learning about wine is like learning about music — there is probably a style or two you prefer, and to learn all about every kind would take a lifetime’s dedication — but that doesn’t mean you give up listening to music.
When my dad comes to my graduation in June, I think my new wine knowledge will shock and amaze him. Even if I’m never as interested in wine as he is, I’ll be able to hold my own in the most basic of conversations — and in a week, that’s really the best I could hope for.