In advance of attending the Wine Basics class at Amavi, I developed a mantra: "Don't chug the wine, don't gulp the wine, don't spill it on your face…again."
But it didn't work.
I mean, I like wine and I believe it's a finely crafted beverage with infinite and subtle characteristics, but I also think it's for drinking. What's with all the ogling, snorting, gargling, facial contortions and pointless verbiage?
Amavi's Wine 101 series, an aggressive list of classes (almost weekly through the end of March) of which Wine Basics was the first, definitively answers those questions and quite a few more.
At the first class, I did not learn how to balance the delicate line between keen, exploratory sniffing and staring at the ceiling while trying to catch the last drops on my tongue, but I learned some things that reasonable wine drinkers have suspected all along.
If you sniff the cork, you are a tool and the restaurant staff will laugh at you behind your back.
If you try to check the "legs" on a glass of wine, you are either trying to pinpoint the geography of production by gauging alcohol content, gauging the Gibbs-Marangoni effect on surface tension or talking out of your ass.
You probably can't tell if a bottle of wine is corked or otherwise screwed. You definitely can't tell by sipping it. The sample poured into your glass when a bottle is delivered at a restaurant is for you to smell and inspect visually.
Sommelier Mark Johnson had no trouble wrangling the aspirants in his Wine for Dummies class. He used a PowerPoint presentation to complement his hyper-animated—if shy of garrulous—rundown of what the hell wine is, why you should be drinking it and how people end up making funny faces and slurping sounds when they do. Johnson's mile-a-minute chatter was peppered with jokes, exaggerated French, German and Tennessean accents, and cheerleaderish invocations to get his audience to say words like "terroir" out loud and in unison.
Given the narrow space we were in and the tight seating, it was a lot like flying on Southwest Airlines. But with better wine.
And in the same way Southwest Airlines attendants pepper their mandatory comedy routines with key information like emergency exit locations and how to steal oxygen masks from small children, Johnson dropped compelling facts like loose grapes throughout his class.
Of particular interest was a segue into how esters develop in wines and create specific chemical compounds. It turns out when some creepy wine dude says he's smelling peach and vanilla, it may actually be technically—chemically—true. Winemakers have become adept at controlling the development of esters, using different types and amounts of yeast, for example, to encourage the creation of diacetyl. Diacetyl gives butter its flavor and now can be blamed for cursing the earth with "oaky, buttery chardonnay."
There's still room for independent opinion, though. Johnson said one wine we tried looked golden, smelled of apple and tasted chalky. I thought it looked like kerosene, smelled of diaper powder and tasted like gauze. But it would take a laboratory to prove me wrong and, even then, maybe I just have some weird associations with apples.
Future classes will progress through a span of iconic regions and varietals, with dips into alternative wines, dessert wines, champagne and other territories. Each class rolls through six examples on the topic. Anyone who stays for dinner gets 15 percent off the bill.
If, like me, you're wondering how to find a wine with just the perfect amount of brettanomyces contamination so that it tastes like there's a severed wolf paw floating in the bottle, Johnson's classes can help you out. But he also can help you out if you're looking for something more subtle than liquid roadkill.
Just don't sniff the cork.
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Six Perspectives on Chardonnay
5:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 2
New Grapes from the Old World
5:45 pm, Tuesday, Feb. 9
221 Shelby St.