July 10, 2013

Must See: The documentary "SOMM"

I finally watched “Somm,” the wine documentary that is rightfully getting a lot of buzz in wine circles and Hollywood circles alike.    And, boy, am I glad I did.
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I’m no film critic, so I’m not about to critique the directorial choices of the filmmaker.  I would rather chat for a bit on the subject of the film–the challenging road to obtaining the very elusive and exclusive Master Sommelier credential.
As a wine lover and student of wine, the documentary spoke to me most when delving into what it really is that draws people into the sommelier profession, and what it is that challenges them to push themselves in the field.
The movie opens with a quote from Ian Cauble, one of the sommeliers that the movie focuses on throughout:
“We’re all so busy with our lives. How often do you stop and look at something? How often do you stop and smell something? You know what I mean? We go through life with such a day to day routine, and we don’t really stop and experience and breathe and just appreciate what’s there. And I think that’s one thing that wine has enabled me to do — You stop, and you take it, and you look at it, and you smell it, and you live life through your senses; and for that quick 25 minutes it’s like nothing else matters other than this liquid.”
This to me, is one of the great joys of wine.  I find it incredible that it can take you, in a mere matter of moments, to another part of your state, or region of the world, or even to another hemisphere by using mainly your senses of smell and taste.
While some parts of the science of wine are so subjective to one’s own palate or sense of smell, it’s ability to transport is universal.  That’s why I say to friends who think they don’tget wine that they don’t have to agree–sure, sommeliers jockey to all taste the same passionfruit or cat pee or my all-time favorite descriptor from “Somm”–”a freshly opened can of tennis balls”–but if you don’t agree, that’s ok.  What you do need to do is take your time–close your eyes and smell and be transported to a foggy hillside vineyard in the Alsace, or feel the hot Spanish sun beating down your back.
That is the transformative power of wine.  And while the documentary touched on a great many other topics (which I will be happy to address soon), this one just seemed the most relevant to me right now.  As a student of wine, it’s easy for me to get caught up in learning facts and maps and varietals and difficult names–but I can’t lose sight of wine’s ability to put all things in perspective as it encourages you and I to “live life through your senses.”
Stay tuned for more articles inspired by “Somm.”  I am not affiliated with the movie in any way, just a fan who found herself inspired.  To watch Somm (which you should!), you can buy it on iTunes, or rent in through Amazon Instant and a few other providers.  

January 10, 2013

On Liking What You Want

Today, the Academy Award nominations were announced.  Many of my friends, myself included, had strong opinions about the nominations, proclaiming who they were excited for, or who was snubbed.  At the end of the day, however, there is no scientific way to determine which movie is ACTUALLY the best--the Academy Awards are still decided by the opinions and tastes of a small voting body, even if the award is considered influential.  Same with music, or visual arts, or food.  Everyone is entitled to their own tastes.  I like Ben Affleck, and think he should have received a directing nod for Argo, and expressed my surprise, but I would never purport that my opinion is fact or that winning an Oscar makes it fact, either.

That's why wine ratings irritate me.  Yes, many venerable journalists and wine enthusiasts have developed methods to determine which wines THEY prefer over others, but at the end of the day, it is still a matter of opinion.  When the average consumer goes to the store to buy a bottle of wine, they are drawn to those dang rating stickers like moth to flame.  I recently tried a very mediocre wine that a store had proclaimed was a 94.  Likewise, one of my favorites graded on that same scale barely broke an 80.  As someone who was an overachiever in school, I would much rather buy the 94 wine--why would I buy a B- wine when I could get an A?!?  These rankings are misleading, and do a disservice to some wines that people might like, that never even receive a fancy grade placard at the store.

For what it's worth:  Snooth recently posted the article that got me thinking about wine ratings, and it, and the comments, are worth a read. 

I've been reading quite a few general-information wine books lately, and some authors--despite writing a book that is supposed to be impartial, or informational-- can't help throwing in there that "many people"  dislike Zinfandel or Merlot.  Many people meaning....snobs?  Because that's certainly the picture painted in the movie Sideways ("No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving!")

Here are two wines that some think may make me a bad wine snob.  Both are delicious, and are generally under $20.

You know what?  I love Merlot.  Sometimes more than I like Miles Raymond's beloved Pinot Noir.  Why am I so insecure about that? I read articles that tell me why Zinfandel is too alcoholic and therefore un-classy, or articles that tell me a wine that I love for $10 is pedestrian and not worth my time.   Why do I continue to read those articles?

I like to be informed, for one.  I like to read what people find interesting and influential and important.  I like knowing about the vintage of Bordeaux that I may never be able to afford or get to taste in my life. I read about a rare Pinot Noir when I know it's not my favorite.   I soak up information, and use the advice of authors or experts to help guide me.  

That's why it's worrisome to me that some wine writers take their opportunity to access readers of all stripes, and malign a particular winery, varietal, or region that a potential new reader might enjoy.

When I first starting drinking wine, I loved Merlot.  Loved it's softness and thought it was a great sipping wine.  Now, every time I open a Merlot, I feel like I'm sneaking a guilty pleasure.  The French have been making Merlot-laden Bordeaux blends for a long time--need they feel guilty about that?  Merlot is popular. Why alienate people who like Merlot?  

In this economy, I think it would behoove the wine industry and wine writers to broaden their horizons a bit.  Sometimes, the best bottle of wine is the one that you like enough to drink every time you have pizza--which may be every Friday.  I gladly scoop up articles where people list their favorite wines under $20 because that's currently what I can afford.  I'm glad when I can even find half the wines on those "budget" lists.  Most of my local wine stores don't even carry them.

I'm not saying all wine writers should start waxing poetic about Franzia (sorry, Franzia), but there's more out there than bottles that might cost me my entire paycheck, or force me to fly halfway around the world, or call five wine stores to locate it from an obscure distributor.

Let's all agree that snobbery is out.  Elitism and pretense is out.  Disliking something solely because it is widely available is out.  Have your opinions.  Write about them.  Free speech is a beautiful thing.  But the wine world is greater than the opinions of a few.  Wouldn't it be great to move away from an industry that is riddled with rankings, into one where we can all appreciate good wine without worrying if it's cool or popular or 94 points? 

I sure hope so.

January 8, 2013

Take time to smell...the wine

You probably already know that smell is important in taste. When you are stuffed up and have a cold, food tastes differently. Food that smells delicious often is, in fact, delicious. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that smell is also important in wine tasting.

In my recent reading, I was reminded of some interesting facts that may change the way you smell (and taste) wine. Just the other night, I sat with my feet up and was ready for a glass of wine.  I wanted to put the analytical part of my brain away--I didn't want to review the wine, or write about it. I just wanted to enjoy. But still, I couldn't pass up smelling the wine, and here's why:

  • I was reminded that wine is drunk in tulip-shaped glasses because it is an awesome way to trap odors. If wine was served in your regular water tumblers (usually a tall, straight glass), all the delightful scent molecules would waft away into the ether, perhaps making the air immediately surrounding your glass smell lovely, but it won't change your perception of wine.
  • When you see people swirling the wine around in their glasses, it's really not just some obnoxious party trick. The wine swirling really does help increase the wine's surface area, making the concentration of wine-scented molecules in the air above the wine higher--that way, when you stick your nose into the barrel of the glass (and I mean, stick it right in there), the wine will be giving off its pleasant (or sometimes, not pleasant) odors.

Yes, this is how close you need to be to smell the wine.

  • True story:  you can smell with your mouth. It's indirect, but as you hold wine in your mouth, and draw air through it, the warmed wine can actually reach your nose through the back of your mouth and to the nasal cavities. Smelling should not be thought of as something that happens prior to tasting, but as a part of it. 
These facts on their own may be mildly interesting, but they are even more so in practice. Like me, at the end of a long day, you just may want to plonk yourself down on the couch with a big glass of your favorite wine, and just drink it for the mere sake of relaxation.  

But do yourself a favor: take a few seconds to really smell the wine. I don't care if you go through all the fancy tasting ritual and swirl and smell and stare and slurp: just take that extra second to inhale the wine and let your brain do the rest. Your brain will thank you when taking that first sensory-laden sip of wine...because the result? Pleasure.

Taking time to smell the roses may be a cliché--but smelling the wine should not be.

January 7, 2013

And We're Back!

First of all, a Happy New Year to all of you who have continued to read thus far.  I hope you had the most peaceful and relaxing of holidays!  I took a (somewhat unplanned) blogging vacation, to spend time with my loved ones AND get ready for some exciting things to come in 2013!

Last toast to Christmas!

Plans for the New Year on this blog:

  • As I am gaining more technical wine knowledge through some wine classes of my own, I hope to offer some of my own takeaways here.  The wine world can be daunting, but not if you have a little help. I'll sort out what you need to look for on a label of German wine so you know EXACTLY what you are getting. 
  • More food and wine pairings.  Yes, there are the traditional pairings of whites with seafood and reds with beef...but these don't always hold up.  Some rules were made to be bent, and I'm going to find out what they are.  
  • I have some fun and informative tastings and wine flights lined up.  I know I don't have a bottomless bank account, and I'm sure most of my readers don't either, so while these may not be a once-a-week blog activity, they will be affordable.

There will be more to come, I'm sure!  Sound off in the comments if there is anything you'd like to see in the New Year. Cheers!