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Educating Peter, Part 1

How quickly can a wine novice become an intelligent taster? Film critic Peter Travers finds out when he gets a crash course from wine editor Lettie Teague. Here, the first installment in a three-part series.

My friend Peter Travers might know more about movies than anyone else in the world. Name any picture produced since the days of D.W. Griffith and Peter, the film critic at Rolling Stone, can cite its director, its stars and the year it was made, not to mention its larger relevance in cinematic history. Peter's knowledge of film never fails to impress me—unlike his taste in wine.

When I first met Peter about seven years ago, he drank only what he called "fatty" Chardonnay. (This was Peter's adjective for a Chardonnay made with lots of wood; "the oakier the better" was his Peter Principle.) And though over the years I've introduced Peter to many other grapes, with Riesling the biggest hit so far, we've never actually talked much about wine.

But one day, while watching My Fair Lady ("elegant and witty," according to Peter), I had an idea. Inspired by the film's Pygmalion premise, I wondered what might happen if I became, for a time, Peter's wine tutor. Could I, as a kind of vinous Henry Higgins, turn a film-critic Eliza Doolittle into a true oenophile?

When I called Peter to propose the idea, he agreed with surprising speed; the language of wine was one he'd always wanted to learn. In fact, Peter described a fantasy scenario wherein he might wield a wine list with the authority of a certain director—"I can say what George Lucas once said to a sommelier: 'Go away.'"

Teaching someone about wine is no simple matter (as the platoons of "wine educators" seem to prove). The subject is enormous, spanning centuries, its study requiring commitment and concentration—and a willingness to taste lots of wine. Did Peter know what he was getting into? Or, for that matter, did I?

While Henry Higgins needed six months to transform Eliza, I decided Peter would need only half as much time. Not just because I had faith in his palate but also because his schedule was tight. Peter is always running off to do television commentary and film festivals—not to mention movie screenings and lunches with famous directors. On the first morning of class, he let drop the fact that he'd be lunching with Martin Scorsese that day. "Maybe you can teach me about Chianti," Peter suggested. "Scorsese likes Chianti."

Unfortunately, I had no Chianti planned for Peter that day. Instead, I'd decided to start him out on the basics: Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and, of course, Chardonnay. These are the "noble" grapes, capable of producing great wines all over the world. (While there are a few other such grapes, like Syrah, and lots of non-noble ones, including Sangiovese, the grape of Chianti, I didn't want to overwhelm Peter with too many wines.)

But Peter didn't seem so much bothered by the wines as by the fact of the spit cup. "That's disgusting," he said. However, he picked up a glass and proclaimed himself ready to start. Not so fast, I replied. First, he'd need to learn proper tasting procedure. Which meant holding his glass the right way: by the stem or the base, not, as Peter did, by a death grip on the bowl.

For starters, holding the glass by its stem means you can get a good look at the wine. A wine's appearance can offer several clues: about its age (with white wines, the paler the color, the younger the wine—the opposite tends to be true with reds); about whether it's been filtered (a cloudy wine may not have been filtered or fined); and about the way it's been fermented (a white that's been fermented in barrel will be darker than one that has not).

Peter, who has spent his professional life looking at things, was particularly intrigued by this notion, though he had trouble at first getting it right. "Don't look down into the glass," I said. "Look at it from an angle." I tilted a glass on its side. "You mean you want me to spill the wine?" Peter replied incredulously.

Next I asked Peter to swirl the wine in his glass. "Swirling releases a wine's aromatic compounds; it's also called volatilizing the esters," I said, knowing Peter was one for a technical term. "Swirling increases the evaporation of the wine and lifts up the aromas." Peter looked troubled. "I can't swirl with my right hand, and I know you're not allowed to swirl with your left." Peter moved his glass on the table in a way that looked more like scraping than swirling. After I assured him either hand would do, Peter moved his glass a little more freely. "I'm going to volatilize my esters for Scorsese," he announced.

While Peter practiced for his Scorsese performance, I explained the importance of aroma to wine. In fact, aroma can tell you almost everything about a wine. Some people have even assigned its significance a number: 80 percent. The famous French oenologist Emile Peynaud said aroma gives a wine its personality. Peter appeared to ponder this idea, then plunged his nose, mouth and most of his face into his glass. "Just your nose is sufficient," I said tactfully, while at the same time marveling at his dexterity.

"Now, with your nose in the glass, take a good long whiff," I said, demonstrating. "Exactly how long?" replied Peter, who appreciates precision. "Say, three or four seconds." Peter swirled the wine in his glass and gave it an exact four-second sniff. "Now that I've shaken it, can I taste it?" he asked.

Peter, like most would-be oenophiles, thought the real test of a wine came with tasting. The taste buds can perceive only sweet, salty, bitter and sour, but the act of tasting a wine also means assessing its tannins, acidity, oak and alcohol—not to mention its weight, balance and length in the mouth. For this Peter would have to learn some wine-tasting words.

The first words to know have to do with the three stages of tasting: the wine's beginning, or attack ("I like that word," interjected Peter, "I'll be using that a lot"), the middle and the finish. Furthermore, the tasting process itself has to be done right. "Take a generous amount of wine in your mouth and move it around so it touches the maximum number of palate surfaces," I said while Peter stared at me. "Meanwhile, keep your mouth partly open and draw air over your tongue. This is retronasal breathing. It allows you to taste and smell the wine at the same time." Peter now looked appalled. "That sounds horrible," he said.

But he gamely gave it a try, starting with the 2003 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. "The color is very light," he said, "but the flavors are really aggressive." Light color doesn't always signal subtle aroma. In fact, it's often the opposite. Two of the most fragrant wines in the world are also the lightest: Riesling and Pinot Noir—wines we'd be tasting.

"I love the attack of this Riesling," said Peter about our 2003 Leasingham, from Australia, then admitted, "I also just like to say 'attack.'" The 2001 Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Chardonnay, meanwhile, made him nostalgic for "that Margo Channing play Aged in Wood."

We talked about the aromas Peter found in each wine (herbal in the Sauvignon, apricot in the Riesling, oak in the Chardonnay) as he retasted each one because "I would never base my review of a movie on my first impression." I suspected he was just putting off tasting the reds. Peter hates red wine. To him, it's either tannic, bitter or (usually) both. It gives him "nightmares." So the softness of the 2002 Saintsbury Pinot Noir from Napa and the sweetness of the 2001 L'Ecole No. 41 Walla Walla Merlot from Washington were a surprise: "There's no bitterness in the Pinot, and there's a nice fruitiness to the Merlot," he said. The 2001 CE2V Napa Cabernet from Cosentino, however, fulfilled his worst expectations. "It was attacking me before I could figure out its attack," he complained. "It reminded me of a Vin Diesel movie." Then he added that its aroma was "like someone put out a cigar in the bottle." Although I congratulated Peter on his assessment (cigar is a classic Cabernet aroma), he found it of little comfort. "This is my ultimate nightmare wine," he said. It seemed like a good time to end the lesson.

When Peter arrived for his next tutorial, a week later, he seemed frustrated. He hadn't been able to volatilize his esters for Scorsese, who didn't want to drink wine at lunch. And when he'd told the director about his lessons, Scorsese had wanted to know why Peter wasn't drinking Chianti. Furthermore, the night before, a waiter had accused Peter of "trying to spill the wine" when he turned his glass on its side to look at it.

And Peter was having trouble identifying aromas. The aroma list I gave him wasn't enough. "I need a Nez du Vin," he said, naming a kit he'd seen pictured in a book, with little glass vials of aromas. Wasn't he learning enough in our tutorial? I asked, feeling a stab of betrayal. "If I had a Nez du Vin, I could identify aromas properly," Peter replied. "You don't need a Nez du Vin," I said firmly, trying to keep the hurt from my voice (are real wine educators so vulnerable?). "You just need to spend more time tasting wine. A Nez du Vin costs hundreds of dollars. Think how much wine that would buy." Peter looked unconvinced.

I tried to divert Peter with what I thought was good news. Part of this session would be devoted to his favorite topic: oak. In addition to temperature and age, oak can greatly affect a wine's taste. "I don't like oak, just oaky Chardonnay," Peter replied, a bit peevishly.

I talked about temperature first, giving Peter two glasses of an Argentinean Viognier from Don Miguel Gascón—one ice cold, the other warm. When a wine is too cold, its flavors and aromas are compressed; when a wine is too warm, its acidity, tannins and alcohol rise to the fore. Peter grasped the problem of the cold wine right away ("I'm volatilizing my esters but I'm not getting anything"), but he was less troubled by the warm wine. Perhaps it reminded him of home. (He keeps his wines on a high shelf not far from the stove.)

However, Peter was greatly offended by the next wine, an eight-year-old Lucien Crochet Sancerre I'd brought to illustrate what happens when a wine gets too old. "This smells like a basement," he declared, disgusted. But a 2003 Sancerre from Château de Sancerre had a "bright" aroma and "a lemon feeling." (Peter often substituted "feeling" for "flavor," which made him sound a bit like Barry Manilow.) "I thought an aged wine was a good thing," said Peter, astonished. Not necessarily. Almost all whites, including Sancerre (a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire), are made to drink within a year or two of the vintage. So are most reds. Only an elite group improve with age. And almost all of those are aged in oak.

To illustrate the effects of oak, I'd chosen three Chardonnays: a cheap one from Australia that had been made with oak chips; a 2002 Chablis Vaillons Premier Cru from Fèvre, which had been aged briefly in oak; and finally, a big, rich Napa Chardonnay, the 2001 Beringer Limited Release Sbragia, which had been both fermented and aged in new, small, French oak barrels. ("Are they allowed to use French oak in California?" Peter asked, shocked.)

"I don't get that good feeling I get from an oaky Chardonnay," Peter said of the oak-chip wine, indicating the back of his throat. "This hurts." The Chablis he thought was "too sharp." In fact, its high acidity and lack of oak made Peter question whether it was Chardonnay at all. I explained that Chardonnay is made in many different styles in many different places, with oak and without, and that certain climates (especially northerly ones, like that of Chablis) produce wines with more acidity.

The third wine Peter proclaimed to be "heaven." Was it the oak? Peter said no, it was the "balance"—his new favorite word. "It's like a movie with a great ensemble cast." Warming to the subject, Peter riffed a bit on what makes a good Chardonnay. "Chardonnays are like chick flicks. They don't have a heavy plot, but when all the elements are there, they work. A good Chardonnay is like the movie Lost in Translation." Peter, I noticed, had stopped spitting. But at least he was finally having a good time.

By the time we had our third meeting that month, Peter seemed happy with his progress. "I'm getting a lot more aromas," he reported with delight. "I bought a Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio over the weekend, and I got grassy and herbaceous." Had he bought a Nez du Vin? Peter shook his head. "I've just been tasting more wine."

I'd decided to give Peter a small test. I'd lined up some of the noble grapes we'd had at our first meeting and paired each to a similar grape. A blind, side-by-side comparison would help Peter focus on the originals and at the same time remind him there are plenty of other grapes in the world. Taking in the lineup of bottles covered in foil, Peter remarked, "This looks like a game of three-card monte to me."

For the first comparison, I'd pitted a 2002 Huet Le Mont Sec Vouvray (made from the Chenin Blanc grape) against a 2001 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett from Germany. Although Chenin Blanc is thought to produce a soft, sweetish wine, when it's grown in certain parts of the Loire Valley, it can bear a great resemblance to Riesling. A top Chenin can be just as minerally and complex as Riesling and, like Riesling, can range from bone-dry to quite sweet. Peter, now a deft southpaw swirler, found the peach-apricot aromas of the two wines to be similar but was put off by the Riesling's acidity. "Ouch," he said. Rieslings, Peter announced, didn't have acidity. I corrected him—a young Riesling can be one of the most acidic wines in the world.

The red wines, I figured, would be more of a challenge, given Peter's limited experience. But, just by looking at the glasses, Peter guessed correctly between the 2001 Brick House Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and the 2002 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages, a Gamay. "The first one [Pinot Noir] looks like wine—the other looks like Welch's grape juice," he said.

The next wines, the 2001 Vine Cliff Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2001 Andrew Murray Estate Syrah, both from California, were "much harder," Peter said. Both were tannic, "nightmare" reds, but Peter mistook the "intense smokiness and incredible aggressiveness" of the Syrah for a Cab's. "This is another Vin Diesel movie," he said. Even though he was wrong, I was impressed that he'd detected smokiness, a Syrah trademark, especially in a wine he'd never had before.

In only three weeks, Peter made the transition from a timid swirler to a man who volatilized esters at will. He'd identified wines by color alone and noted aromas of grapes he'd never had before. He'd even found a favorite new wine—and it was a red. But, as Peter pointed out, he hadn't tasted any Chianti. "Come back next month for more lessons and we'll talk about Tuscany," I told him. He said that he would.

The next installment of "Educating Peter" will appear in the October issue.

Published September 2004
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