The one-day route to wine snobbery
Course instils the basics of appreciation
At last it’s time to welcome in the New Year, and I can finally pin my most covetable new accessory to my party outfit: an orange enamel badge. I’m aware it looks slightly incongruous on a black lacy dress, but to oenophiles this oval badge is the equivalent of an Hermes Birkin bag, a Patek Philippe watch, or an American Express Centurion credit card, as flashed by Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale.
And while it may not snare me James Bond — it will, I hope, ensure that my hosts crack open a better class of bottle. Say, that Montagny 1er Cru hidden in the pantry?
For this is my Level 1 Award in Wines badge, issued by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), and proof that I am a bona fide wine expert. OK, so maybe “expert” is overselling myself — mine was a foundation course and there are many more stages before a civilian can even dream about attaining the dizzy heights of a head sommelier and be entitled to wear the coveted golden bunch of grapes on their lapel.
But, crucially, wearing a badge and having completed an actual exam makes me generally better qualified than anyone else in the room, as I keep pointing out to my wine-snob spouse, who might know his burgundy from his Bordeaux, but has no inkling of the effect of the umami flavour on the perceived acidity of a Chardonnay, or the correct temperature at which to store Sauternes.
My award shows I have passed an internationally recognized exam, covering everything from grape varieties, styles of wine and methods of production. And, of course, a prodigious amount of tasting.
Given the dire predictions of a global shortage of wine, owing to increased demand and falling production, I decided to take the daylong course to widen my horizons and learn more, so that I might drink less, but better.
“Poor harvests in 2010/2011 in California meant that vineyards normally producing 10,000 cases were down to as few as 2,000,” says James Hocking, director of wine at The Vineyard hotel in Berkshire in the U.K. “English vineyards — there are over 400 of them — were badly affected, too, by poor weather. When shortages like this happen we have to work hard to source wines, but we always manage. Fortunately, 2012 harvests were good, so this should just be a minor blip.”
The British drink an average of 25.9 litres of wine a year per person, far behind the 54.5 litres consumed by the French, but also involving far less classy varieties. Canadians, according to industry analysts, drink an estimated 15 litres per capita per year. Americans drink per capita 12 litres on average annually.
“The biggest-selling wine in the U.K. is Californian white Zinfandel,” says Hocking, with an audible sigh at the notion of a nation glugging down bottle after bottle of pink fruity sweetness, in much the same way our parents gravitated to Blue Nun.
The award-winning Vineyard hotel was the venue for my course. A glamorous, five-star place of pilgrimage for wine lovers, it boasts a cellar of 30,000 bottles, 3,000 bins and 100 wines that can be ordered by the glass. Alongside the big-name burgundies and high-calibre Californians, are esoteric wines from India, Japan and Luxembourg, but my modest goal was to master the basics.
And so, at 10 a.m., my bowl of cornflakes barely digested, I found myself contemplating my first glass of wine of the day. No, I tell a lie, my first six glasses; also known as my syllabus.
Then came the swilling of Chardonnay round my mouth, the inhaling of the aroma of sauvignon blanc, the keen scrutiny of the Cabernet Sauvignon, the mulling over the pinot noir and the serious thought given to the Riesling.
Before the day was out I had sipped my way through light aperitifs and viscous dessert wines and observed the characteristics of Merlot, first as an accompaniment to a mouthful of chili flakes, and after that with a mouthful of chocolate.
Only then did I take my 45-minute exam, alongside a handful of young trade professionals and keen amateurs. It was a daunting prospect — especially when you’re half-cut. For despite being assigned my own personal spittoon, it remained as pristine at the end of the day as it was at the start.
Quite apart from the ignominy of hawking up in company, what sort of freakish superhuman can stop themselves from swallowing wine? Not this one. Call me a philistine, call me a one-woman Bacchanalia, but I was counting on strong coffee and life experience to get me through.
Even my previously scant knowledge of wine put me ahead of the pack. An ongoing blindtasting test of 20,000 people, carried out at the London Wine Academy over a 20-year period, revealed that eight out of 10 preferred a $9-bottle of Australian white to a $35 Premier Cru lovingly made in Burgundy from the same grape variety.
Hocking told me: “It’s only around the $12-mark that you are paying more for the stuff inside the bottle than all the infrastructure that gets it to the shelf.
“The intelligent consumer stays in $12 to $17 mark. From $12 to $26 you can get some really brilliant wines that taste fabulous, especially if you look to regions like Central Spain or Argentina or southern France. But above $35 it all gets a bit subjective.”
It’s hard not to shudder at the reason why bargain white plonk tastes like a garden bench. In the best French wineries, new oak barrels are used to slowly, gently and subtly infuse wine with notes of vanilla and spice; at the cheap end, the wine is pumped through a giant bag of oak sawdust.
All hope is not lost, though. Making a New Year’s resolution does not mean you are just setting yourself up to fail. We tend to believe that resolution success — be it saving money, quitting smoking, dropping weight or getting healthy — comes down to steely willpower or guilting ourselves shamelessly into sticking with it. The truth of the matter is, though, successfully making major life changes hinges on something much simpler: A solid plan of attack, the ability to let go of guilt, and getting yourself back on track should you get derailed.
“Without a plan, failure is inevitable,” says Andrea Thatcher a Calgary-based holistic nutritionist, personal trainer and reiki practitioner. “Setting a resolution is not setting oneself up for failure. Setting a resolution without giving it enough thought and following through with a plan of action is.”
Change is not easy, and most people have a tough time embracing it, but Thatcher says successfully doing so is ultimately very simple. “Be extremely clear on what exactly your resolution is, write it down along with your motivation for why you want to achieve this goal, what you are willing to sacrifice to get there and the names of all those people in your life who will support you as you work toward it,” she says.
Thatcher also believes it is essential that your plan is personalized to your likes and dislikes and strengths and weaknesses. If you aren’t enjoying the process, you aren’t going to stick with it. “If your resolution is around fitness, don’t join the gym up the street because you think it’s what you need to do. You may hate the gym,” she explains. “Instead write down 10 activities you enjoy or would like to try — walking, dancing, group classes, yoga, cycling, weightlifting, swimming. Every fitness facility offers a free trial, so try their services and see if you like the environment, the staff, the other members.”
While willpower does play a minor role in achieving any goal, it certainly isn’t the deal breaker it was once thought to be. In fact, research has found that people who regularly achieve their goals use it less than those who don’t. Instead, they set up strategies and implement lifestyle changes on a larger scale so they don’t have to come face-to-face with their goalderailing nemesi. Though it was previously regarded more as an ethereal state of mind, social scientists now know that willpower is as real as it gets. Every time we exert self-control (like when the box of doughnuts is circulating at the office even though you have a healthy afternoon snack packed) we’re using up glucose in our bloodstream to say no.
According to Lars Gustafs- son, the founder and CEO of the BodyMind Institute, willpower is pretty much a non-issue for resolution success. “Willpower won’t even enter the picture when you immerse your whole being into the process of achieving your goals,” says Gustafsson. “One major piece of advice I give every year is to not focus on just one or two things, but rather to expand your vision into every area of your life. That way you will have many, many successes that will keep you motivated and moving forwards.”
Gustafsson suggests writing out a list of 100 goals (it really doesn’t matter if New Year’s has come and gone, any calendar date is a good time to get started), some outrageous that may not be accomplished in a single year, and some you can achieve within a single day or weekend with focused effort. He believes (and many health and wellness experts agree) the very act of writing down so many goals all at once creates a wave of energy.
“Reflect on these goals, visualize the outcome in as much detail as you can, feel the emotions of having achieved them, and then ‘release’ them out into the cosmos to begin manifesting.”
Remember The Secret? Well, it’s that whole power of positive thought thing again. Be as skeptical as you like, but there is certainly something to be said for believing in yourself and your ability to achieve whatever it is you want.
Both Thatcher and Gustafsson agree that the key to success is understanding precisely why you made your resolution in the first place. Being honest with yourself about achieving your goal will prove indispensable during later moments of self-doubt.
“When you know your ‘why,’ the process of change is easy,” Thatcher says. “By revisiting it, you will be in a continuous state of focus, and remain motivated as long as you are clear on the very personal reasoning behind your goal.”
A day-long immersion course earns you a badge and the right to call yourself a wine expert, able to taste the difference between cheap plonk and a Premier Cru.
Whether it’s getting into shape, or any other resolution, experts say there are ways to channel your willpower for greater success.