Sommelier (n.): An extremely intelligent person about wine. (my unofficial definition)
If you want to learn more about wine, get involved with it! There’s a lot to learn about the wine making process, harvest, vineyards, how to taste wine, how to tell the differences in wines, why we age wine and so much more.
I cannot claim to be a sommelier, or know a lot about wine, but I have learned what I know by immersing myself in the wine industry culture. Attending vineyard tours accompanied by vineyard managers who talk about the grapes, their growing process, how and why they prune vines and why they cut perfectly good clusters of grapes off the vines weeks before harvest, and other such bits of knowledge has allowed me to learn about the wine industry. I have also participated in my fair share of winery tours, and even a few aroma tests (where I actually scored fairly well) and blending seminars. With each new education tool, I am continuously amazed at the art, science and hours upon hours of work that goes into a single bottle or taste of wine.
The major learning experience I have had, and still have, is simply listening to how industry people talk about wine. On Tuesday’s from April to October, I attend the Sonoma farmer’s market, and for those that don’t know, it’s basically the ‘insiders party’ in Sonoma. The weekenders from San Francisco are busy at work in the city, and the out-of-town visitors have just left after a long weekend, so all that’s left are the locals. You’ll find hundreds, if not thousands of people gathered on picnic blankets and in lawn chairs in circles and small groups enjoying the local music, bountiful market stands of fresh produce, foods, products, and lots and lots of wine. The Sonoma Plaza is the only public park in California allowing open alcohol. So, back to learning about wine, most of my friends here in Sonoma County work in the wine industry, and I have been fortunate enough to join their group called TNT (“Tuesday Night Tasting”), a group of people who participate in a blind tasting at the Sonoma farmer’s market.
Everyone who attends brings a bottle of wine in a brown bag to share. You don’t want to let others know what wine they are going to taste. We’ll start with the whites, and each gets a little pour in their glass and we all smell, swirl, smell some more, taste, spit, taste some more and enjoy the goodness. The only rule about the wine you bring is that it cannot be from a winery of anyone from the group – just in case we want to offer criticism about the wine, basically a ‘bash’ session. One, or several people, may offer up their thoughts about the wine, what they taste, what they smell, hints of this and that, does it taste like it’s been oaked?, are the tannins strong?, and ultimately offer a guess to what we may be tasting. Everyone else will then offer up his or her thoughts and guesses to the wine until the final reveal! Sometimes my friends are spot on the nose, guessing exactly the varietal, region and vintage (type of wine, where it came from and what year)! Crazy indeed.
My first visit to TNT, I brought a Sebastiani Winery 2010 Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast. Two of the group members guessed almost immediately, saying “Hmmmm… tastes like a Pinot… probably from the Sonoma Coast region… I’d say… maybe 2010?” I sat their with my jaw on the blanket, having would have guessed “Tastes like a… red wine?” Which is obviously apparent.
However, the great news is, I have gotten much better than simply saying “this tastes like a white wine…” by listening to my friends and learning along the way. They educate me on why wines might taste like they do, and what brings out different flavors, varietals, and variations in vintage. The other great news is oftentimes everyone has a different guess on what the wine might be, and one person might be “100% sure this is a Cabernet from Oregon” when in fact it is a Petite Syrah from Argentina. No one in the tasting group makes fun of those who are less educated about wine than the other—we’re all there to learn, have fun, and drink good (and sometimes not-so-good) wine.
Take a wine education class or watch videos to learn about wine. Attend a blending seminar, an aroma test, a winery tour or schedule yourself a date with a winemaker on your next visit to a winery and learn some more about what goes into a glass of wine.
There’s always more to learn about wine, even for the most educated sommelier, and I am thankful to be around those who are eager to teach about this delicious form of art and science.