The one-day route to wine snob­bery

Course in­stils the ba­sics of ap­pre­ci­a­tion

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - JU­DITH WOODS

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.”

Pierre An­drieu/AFP/Getty Im­ages

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.

Getty Im­ages/Files

Whether it’s get­ting into shape, or any other res­o­lu­tion, ex­perts say there are ways to chan­nel your willpower for greater suc­cess.

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