Since last spring’s adult education class in charcuterie and champagne was so, uh, enlightening, this fall we committed ourselves to the study of wine. The formal study, I hasten to clarify. We signed up for The Wines of Italy at the Cambridge Center of Adult Education because Mr. Pinault admits a dearth of knowledge about wines from regions east of Alsace; in fact, neither of us could name a single Italian wine outside of chianti and pinot grigio. Still, it felt humbling to sign up for a wine tasting class, as like all French men, my husband considers himself to be an informed wine drinker by birth. It would be like an American signing up for a cheeseburger-tasting class.
I imagined that the wine-tasting class would be overflowing with old bearded men making erudite comments about how a certain wine’s aroma is reminiscent of that Chateau Mouton Rothschild he sampled in London last year. So I was surprised when we entered the classroom (which was very much a classroom, with ramrod-straight back plastic chairs assembled around an old wooden table and a chalkboard full of Spanish conjugations) and found 5 rather dumpy women sitting around the table. The final count (including us) would be 7 women and 2 men. The instructor was in his mid-40s and was American, though he claimed Italian ancestry and had lived there for 7 years. We went around the room to introduce ourselves and name our favorite wine of the moment:
* The first two women appeared to be related, judging by their matching hollow eye sockets and fat Irish faces. They were young and smacked of townieness. One said vaguely she liked Californian wines and the other said “I like red, but I’m starting to get into whites.” I had already pegged them as “most likely to get trashed.”
* The next two women were also together, although they were obviously not related as one woman was from Italy “but I know nothing of wine.” They were older and dressed sorta funky, giving them the appearance of being rich, educated women who did outrageous things together like go to wine-tasting classes. The non-Italian woman claimed to like some Italian wine that I never heard of, giving her instant credence in my eyes.
* The next woman was a young (early 20s) woman of Asian descent who said she liked “champagne.” (Later in the class, the teacher went on a mini-tirade about how American refer to all sparkling wines as “champagne.”) She probably ate more of the tasteless tasting crackers than everyone else combined.
* Next was the only other man in the class, a late-20s ginger who was Brooks Brothers personified. He said that he was buying lots of “zinfidel,” which is respectable.
* Then it was Mr. Pinault’s turn, and he explained that he was from France and hence drank mostly French wines. “I’m his wife, so I drink whatever he buys,” I said, earning a laugh and excusing me from having to name anything in particular.
* Lastly was a woman in her early 40s who appeared very successful and confident, and wanted to learn more about wine “because I know people in the industry,” she said. And I totally believe her.
To warm-up our taste buds, we began by sampling three mystery liquids.The first one looked liked water but had a familiar taste to it… what was it? I rolled it around my mouth, feeling the sides of my tongue tingling from the acidity of the liquid. I was lost, but everyone else knew what it was, replying in unison “Water with lemon!” The second liquid looked liked diluted juice. We stuck our noses in the glasses and instantly I pegged it as cranberry juice. The sugar lit up the taste buds on the tip of our tongues, but I was wrong — it was grape juice. The third liquid was amber-colored and also familiar… beer? Was it flat beer? It was loaded with tannins, but it turned out to be black tea.
Obviously, I’m really bad at tasting things. I’m also highly suggestive; someone could say “this tastes like bananas!” and I would totally taste banana even if it “really” tasted like cherries. The teacher explained that it requires training to blindly pick out tastes and smells. We sniffed and tasted the first white wine, which was a dry sparkling white from Veneto, the region of Venice — “Apples and pears!” was the class’s unanimous pronouncement about its note.
“I think it tastes like white wine,” I whispered to Mr. Pinault.
The second and third whites had less acidity. I enjoyed them both, and was sad to have to pour out my unfinished portion. I stole glances around the room to see how much everyone else was drinking. The two townies were definitely chug-a-lug, and didn’t seem too interested in the teacher’s nuanced explanations of the soil’s effect on grape vines, on pairing wines with salads, and on the bureaucratic governance of wines in Italy (which is similar to France — that is, pretty batshit tight). The woman from Italy and her friend were likewise enjoying every sip, only they were asking a ton of questions that got progressively more relaxed as the night wore on:
“This one tastes very thick and jammy in my mouth,” one said to the teacher as we tried a red from Abruzzo. “Does it taste jammy to you, or am I crazy?”
We learned there are over 200 kinds of grapes in Italy, as compared to 50 kinds of grapes in France. This is due to the numerous microclimates in Italy as well as regulations in France that caused the vineyards to abandon un-regulated grapes. We actually learned a lot about French wine, as the teacher consistently compared Italy to France, perhaps for our benefit, perhaps because the Italians have a complex about French wine?
After we tasted the sixth and final wine, a robust red from Tuscany, I was felt a bit tipsy despite probably having a combined total of one and half glasses over 2 hours. I think all the wine vapors had an effect on me. In any case, don’t think that wine tasting class is all fun and games — this is education! We learned about history, geography, botany, politics, and anthropology, and we were pleasantly buzzed while doing it.
Class #2 is next week… we’re studying hard…