Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crazy for Spanish Wines: Tempranillo Meets Toro

We have both been busy lately – a little too busy actually and, regretfully, not much of it to do with wine. The wine shelves are almost bare, dirty laundry piling up, and unanswered emails clogging our inboxes.

However, somewhere in the blur that has been this summer, I did manage to attend – survive might be a more accurate description – an intensive weekend seminar with Pancho Campo (left) and Javier Arana (right) from the Wine Academy of Spain. This was one jam-packed weekend of learning more about Spanish wines. Trust me, there is nothing quite like tasting a big, bold Rioja red at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. Susan would have been in heaven.

The classes ran an exhausting eight hours a day over Saturday and Sunday. During the two days we learned about the climate, topography, history, food, and culture of Spanish wine regions – all 20-plus of them. We tasted more than 45 wines including a couple of big, fat reds from Toro, one of Spain’s lesser-known regions. Made from Tempranillo (that here the Spaniards call Tinta de Toro), these wines are huge and tannic and cry out for roast pig on a spit.

On Monday, we subjected ourselves to a multiple-choice exam and a blind tasting exam – six wines, five questions on each wine. The multiple-choice questions were difficult, but the blind tasting… well excruciating is probably a slight understatement. Several of the 23 participants are working sommeliers already, one woman teaches the entry level WSET training, others have years of experience in the wine industry – all agreed this was the toughest course they’d ever taken.

I passed and am now an official Spanish Wine Educator. But one thing I learned, I’m definitely going to have to drink more Spanish reds.


Shell-shocked is how I’d best describe Frank on Saturday evening after the first eight hours. He was up at 5:00 am the next two mornings to follow the time honoured tradition of cramming – every book on Spanish wines off the shelves and open.

I still haven’t quite found an accurate descriptor for how he appeared after emerging from the exam, but he was positively vibrating. For several days, he’d just shake his head and look a bit – well, stunned is what comes to mind – every time he poured a glass of red wine and stared into its depths. He was convinced he’d failed the blind tastings miserably.

About a week later, we were at a wine event where we ran into four of five of the participants from the class. Now you have to appreciate, Frank is extremely diplomatic, so it took a few minutes of conversation before he actually asked the first woman how she thought she’d done on the blind tasting – this was, after all, a well respected local sommelier and wine rep with many years of experience. She flashed a devil-may-care smile, threw her hands up in the air, and announced “I blew it – totally, absolutely, completely blew it.” She proceeded to list off the mistakes she’d made. As we walked toward the next table, Frank raised his eyebrows ever-so-slightly and mutter “humph” – that was it, just “humph.”

By the time we’d talked to two more people who had apparently also made significant numbers of wrong calls, Frank was looking much more chuff. The “humph” was replaced with “well, I’ll be damned.” In the end, though we’re still waiting for the actual certificate, the Academy sent an email to say he’d passed with a significantly above average mark on the theory and a solidly above average one on the tasting. Okay, so if he doesn’t boast, I’ll just have to do it for him. But you can be sure I’ll be reminding him frequently that to fill the lack in his education, we need to raise a few more glasses filled with Spanish reds – especially those big, fat, tannic Toros that we’re still trying to track down.

FYI: The seminar was a joint effort between the Society Of Wine Educators and the Wine Academy of Spain and was offered in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver. If you missed it, we’ve heard it will soon be offered on the East Coast.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Voga Italia: Hooked on the Italian Wine Marketing Machine

Most of my friends can tell when I’m really bored. I pace, I punctuate my conversation with gestures that are even more flamboyant and sweeping than usual, and I go window-shopping. Okay, okay, frequently I go a bit beyond just window-shopping – I don’t mind admitting it’s probably a “girl thing.”

But still, a product has to capture my attention before I’ll actually part with cold, hard cash. So with Frank away on a particularly intense business trip to St Louis, the wine display of Voga at Mark Anthony’s, one of our local private liquor stores, unexpectedly came up with just the ticket.

At first I thought it was a case of mistaken identity. In my mind, the neatly stacked bottles of Pinot Grigio resembled nothing as much as bottles of aftershave on steroids. Was I simply even more bored than I suspected? No, they really did remind me of some sort of mega flask of perfumed liquid for splashing on sundry body parts.

I’d already found the two Pinot Noirs and the Tyrrell’s Verdelho I’d come in to buy, so what was another bottle in the grand scheme of things – especially at a price point of under $15. If it was all simply marketing drama, I’d chuck it with no regrets.

At home, I was surprised to discover more fragrance in my glass than I’d expected – even in its current significantly over-chilled state. Floral with some interesting background notes of grapefruit, there was also an elusive quality that made me think of sitting on a Mediterranean stone wall in the cool of evening. Frank would have been able to say whether it was flint or mineral or something totally different, but at that point in a long day, the image simply brought me a ridiculous amount of enjoyment from what I’d expected to be, at best, a cheap-and-cheerful patio sipper.

Now curiosity took over. I checked out the website. Sex and the City move over – this marketing machine is cranked up into high gear. Flashing images of slinky women interspersed with a few muscular male torsos, it’s clear someone is engaging in a superb advertising strategy, and one that persuaded me to opt in.

Would I buy this wine again? You bet. Would I buy it often? Probably not. But then again, it was a fun experiment, and for scientific accuracy an experiment should always be repeated – at least once.