- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
Wine Tasting: Do Try This at Home
Recently, members of a “professional” wine tasting panel for a major wine magazine were unanimous in their opinion: they all preferred one Chardonnay over another. The wine they rejected as inferior retails for $65. The wine they embraced sells for $1.99-$2.99 at selected Trader Joe’s. This kind of thing happens more than you might imagine, and far more often than “professional tasters” want to admit to, talk about, acknowledge, and last, but surely not least, make public.
When I told a friend about the results of this tasting, she: 1) gave me a withering glance, as if to lump me with this group of “frauds and phonies”; 2) got close up to my face and laughed really loud; 3) she said, “I can do that,” referring to the total lack of acumen on part of the poseur tasters. She was in heaven. I had to turn away, and reflexively started doing the “perp walk” made famous on the evening news by dope dealers, crooked politicians, and disgraced corporate executives.
As if the majority of the American public did not already think that “wine professional” was another term for “can’t get a real job,” I have a dirty little secret about professional tasting that I want to share. When we taste, it is not for pleasure. The job of the professional wine taster is to find the faults with the wine. Professional wine tasting is a bit like finding all the reasons not to award your son, a cub scout, his Webelos badge (he forgot to kiss grandma), or not to let your daughter play outside with the other kids (she didn’t clean her room). In case of a tie between wines, taste again, and look for the one that metaphorically didn’t practice her clarinet for an hour each day, or didn’t do his homework right after supper.
It doesn’t have to be like this, People!
The real fun of tasting wine is tasting for pleasure, not for punishment. And the best place to do this is at home, with friends, in a relaxed atmosphere of conviviality and generosity. Tasting wine at home is fun, coupled with a bit of self-guided “education.” Ouch. Don’t worry, in this case “education” mimics the learning curve that began with the awkward pleasures of your first kiss and grew exponentially into sensual subtlety: the confident strut, the irresistible smile.
How to begin? What wines? How many wines? How expensive are the wines? What glassware? What room? Outside or inside?
Wait! The most important question is “What people?” You can taste some of the most glorious wines in the world, but if you taste them with miserable people, guess what? The wines will taste miserable, too. You want to invite friends who enjoy the company of other people, have a sense of humor, don’t judge others harshly, don’t want to be the “expert” but have something to say. Finally, invite friends who are moderate drinkers. Wine tastings are not for lushes, who can diminish or even ruin the experience for everyone else. “Tasting” is the operative word.
Once you’ve put together your guest list, then start to think about the wine. Some basics:
• use wine glasses, not clear plastic cups that make the wine taste like clear plastic cups. Most people don’t have enough glasses, so here’s a hint: Rather than burdening your guests with bringing glasses from home, check out the local party rental folks. You’ll be surprised how inexpensive it is to rent two or three racks of glasses – not necessarily great glasses – but all of them the same size and shape, and racked together for convenience and to avoid breakage.
• provide spit cups and napkins: tasting involves four steps. In order: looking - judging the color of the wine; smelling - the “nose” of the wine; tasting – sampling a small amount of wine and swishing it around in the mouth; spitting – that’s right, part of tasting is spitting the wine into a spittoon or spit cup. While you’re at the party place renting glasses, pick up a sleeve of 16 oz. paper cups, and place one at every setting. You may not be able to enforce spitting at a home wine tasting, but especially if your friends are driving away from the tasting, you can certainly encourage it. A couple of good-quality paper napkins should be placed at each setting, too.
• bread and water: bottled water – with and without bubbles, or pitchers of cold tap water, should be plentiful and available. A few bread baskets filled with crisp sliced baguettes, or individual plates with water crackers, should be available for cleansing the palate between wines. Make sure the bread or crackers are as neutral tasting as possible; no brioche, croissants, or flavored crackers because these will have a dramatic impact on the wine’s taste.
• tasting mats/tasting sheets: On your home computer you can make a simple or an elaborate and creative tasting mat. If you are tasting the wines “blind,” obviously the wines will be identified by number only. If you know what wines you are tasting, list them by name. It helps your guests to be consistent in how you list the wine. I recommend listing this way:
Product, Special Attribute*, Producer, Sub-Region*, Region*, State or Country, Vintage*.
(*if any: if non-vintage (like most sparkling wines), write “NV”)
Pinot Noir, Reserve, Robert Sinskey, Carneros, Napa, California 1999
Chianti Classico, Reserva, Banfi, Tuscany, Italy, 1997
Shiraz, Peter Lehmann, Barossa Valley, South Australia, 1995
On the tasting mat, or if you are tasting more than five or six wines, probably on a separate sheet, allow each taster to make notes on each wine based on these criteria: color, nose, flavor, body, length of finish on the palate. You might ask “Did you like it?” and/or “What would be a good dish to pair with this wine?”
The tasting can be done indoors or outdoors – the more light the better to see the true color of the wine – in the afternoon or evening, as a prelude to dinner, or as its own little party. You should pour between one and two ounces per person per wine. Very important: make sure your guests stay for at least an hour or so after the tasting, and never let a friend drive drunk. If everybody is on the same page with the concept of the tasting, this should not be an issue.
As to what wines to serve, think thematically: New World Reds under $10; White Wines from the Loire Valley; Sparkling Wines of the World; American Wines Not from California; Zigging and Zagging with Zinfandel. Of course, if money is no object, then feel free to host a tasting of: Opus One: 1989-1999; the Premier Grand Crus of the Médoc: ’95,’96,’97; Barolo vs. Barbaresco; the ’97 Vintage, and so on.
At home, I prefer a tasting of accessible, affordable wines that my friends can appreciate and enjoy, and we can have some fun with, followed by a simple dinner or barbecue at home with the “partials,” the leftover wines. For an exotic and unexpected twist, have a tasting followed by a dinner at home of good Chinese takeout, the best Pizza in town, or takeout from the new Lebanese restaurant in town. You get the picture.
As for me, I’m busy planning my next blind tasting:
$1.99 Chardonnays: World Class, Kick Ass, or I’ll Pass. See you there.