Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers talks about the top lessons he learned from F&W's Lettie Teague.
How do you teach a very intelligent man—one who considers wines from Bordeaux to be "rotgut" and who lovingly refers to oaky Chardonnays as "fatty"—to select, understand and enjoy a bottle of wine? Food & Wine's Executive Wine Editor, Lettie Teague, does just that in Educating Peter, a book based on her award-winning Wine Matters column, debuting this March. In it, she instructs Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, her friend of nearly a decade, how to swirl, sniff and experience a glass of wine not only through taste, but through a firm knowledge of its origins. By taking Peter to the source (Napa Valley, California) and introducing him to superstar winemakers and top producers—including Hourglass Vineyard's Jeff Smith, Bob Levy of Harlan Estate and Ed Sbragia of Beringer—Lettie is able to show Peter all that goes into a bottle of wine. And by drawing instructive parallels between Peter's love and obsession with films and her own knowledge and respect for varietals and terroir, Lettie helps him develop a vocabulary for the tastes and aromas he comes to admire in wines. Here, Peter talks about the top lessons he learned from Lettie.
After all of your hard work with Lettie, what were the most important lessons you learned?
"To listen to her always! And that what she says is right! I learned that tremendously."
Lesson No. 1: Grapes
"The first thing Lettie taught me was to know the grapes, know the varietals. That seems like the simplest thing, and yet I had wandered through most of my life knowing that wine came as white and red, and not knowing a Cabernet Sauvignon from a Sauvignon Blanc—except for its color. So she would have her charts and give me homework and say, 'This is the grape. This is what a Syrah is. This is what a Merlot is. This is what a Riesling is.' And I would go, 'Oh, God, I can't do this!'"
Lesson No. 2: Geography
"The second thing Lettie taught me was geography—where the wines come from, what terroir is. That's when it started to become fun for me, because it became like movies. If I'm yelling all the time about movies, it's because Lettie will say, 'Oh, that [film] was good,' and I'll say, 'What movie are you talking about? Who directed it?' And she'll say, 'Oh, I don't know. It had that actor in it.' That's what maddens me when people talk about movies. To know that a movie was directed by Martin Scorsese is to know its terroir. It comes from a certain place. And he has a history; his movies go back to Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and everything else. Lettie, in her own subtle but very firm way, taught me that we need to treat wine with the same respect. So I can buy into that."
Lesson No. 3: Sniff, Swirl, Slurp
"Lettie taught me to respect the process. What do I mean by the process? Well, I learned to 'volatilize my esters.' When the wine is poured, you take your two fingers and you swirl that wine in the glass so that it's able to reach the air; it's able to free everything in it. I use that phrase, 'volatilizing my esters,' on everyone now. People walk away from me at once. When I show them how to swirl that wine, it becomes the process where you are basically investigating the nose. Lettie taught me not to just sniff the wine, but to throw as much of my face as I can into that glass, and that is 80 percent of the process. In that aroma, I am going to detect all about the varietal, all about the history, and I'm going to see the wine. The taste is only going to verify what I actually got after I volatilized my esters and had a whiff of that nose. I love that!
"When you have the knowledge of varietals and geography, you can suddenly put it all to work. Learning about a nose, learning about what something tastes like on your palate, learning about its finish—it's like writing a movie review. I go in and a movie looks great, it was directed by so-and-so, it has good actors in it and everything looks fine—and then, boy, in 15 minutes, it just falls apart. It doesn't finish, and yet everything is there. So I can learn, in my idiot-savant way, about wines through movies."
Lesson No. 4: Know What You Like
"By learning about other countries, I also learned about varietals and was able to see how different winemakers can do something different with a certain varietal, and how it comes close to a Bordeaux or a Burgundy. I was able to acquire my own set of tastes and things that I liked. Lettie taught me to go right into a wine shop and know how to navigate it, and to say, 'I like this particular Pinot Noir, and I think I tasted a Spanish wine similar to it, but you don't have that specific one, so can you help me find something like it?' And they do! They help me, whereas before, I would go into a wine shop and be utterly lost and not know what to say. When you have a way to describe what you tasted and liked, and you know the varietal, you can find, relatively inexpensively, something really, really good. That's a lesson that I think everybody needs to learn."
Lesson No. 5: Wine Confidence and Appreciation
"The last thing Lettie taught me, out of respect for the wine, is the genuine love of it, which is the best thing I got. After all that sweat, and after her hitting me with sticks and telling me, 'These varietals are wrong' and 'How could you say that and embarrass me in front of sommeliers'... That was a real process: throwing me to sommeliers, because I've always been intimidated by them. Clearly, they know far more about wine than I'm ever going to know. It's like dealing with a film executive: 'What do you mean!? I'll tell you what is good.' And basically, you can't let them bully you. You have to say, 'This is a wine that I've tried and liked. Let me see if there's something on your list that approaches that.' That's when sommeliers become great! They become fun to talk to. I like that. I find them all fascinating now. I don't find myself intimidated by them anymore."
Is Lettie a good teacher?
"Sure she's a good teacher! Because she's patient and strict. Patience without the strictness would not be good for a person like me. I would get enthusiastic about a particular wine and want to fixate on it forever and ever, and she would move me right away from all those things. The strict part becomes important, finally, to understanding enough so that I can become a real jerk and pretend that I know more than anyone else, which is helpful! But you need to have that information first."
Did you discover a favorite wine?
"Well, each time I learned about a country, I became kind of fascinated with a specific wine. When I was in Napa—this was Lettie's joke about me—it was my love for 'fatty' Chardonnay. When we went to meet Ed Sbragia [winemaker at Beringer], he confessed that he had the same idiotic passion for them and gave me his fatty Chardonnay. Then my sophistication grew leaps and bounds. I learned to appreciate non-fatty Chardonnays, too, but I still love the fatty ones. I can still be in that mood where I'm going to like what got me into wine in the first place. I am not going to drink Bordeaux or Burgundy all of the time.
"We had lunch with Susana Balbo [of the eponymous winery in Argentina], and she told me about her history and about being a woman winemaker. She talked about how difficult it was and told me that she named a series of wines Crios for her children. I just fell madly in love with her and madly in love with her wines. I recommend Crios wines to everybody. You can buy them for around twenty bucks. It's very much like the movie process: I would put the wine together with the person who made it. This is something most people don't get a chance to really do—to meet them the winemaker or go to their vineyard or watch what kind of life they have. But the more I've done that, the more I've seen that the great ones are all like the great filmmakers: They live, eat, drink, breathe and sleep what they're doing. But winemakers, much more than people in the film business, appreciate what it is that they've made. I find that most winemakers like nothing more than to sit at a very long dinner and taste these wines and have wonderful kinds of food. I'm not talking about fancy 'chichi fafa' food, but just food, wine and conversation. It's so civilized. It's like a whole new definition of civilization for me. They share what they make, and they share their lives and how they live their lives and what's happening in the whole world around them. You see that in Napa so strongly. It's a lifestyle, but it's one that stops to take that moment, and I think that's just great."
What sort of wine did you find that you don't like?
"One of the great things that I was taught is that there is no wine that I really don't like. Although I don't like corked wine, and I don't like many Beaujolais Nouveau. It tastes like Kool-Aid to me. But it depends on what a wine is paired with. Lettie taught me about pairing wine, not just tasting it. I would say, 'This wine is really good with this piece of steak, or with this particular fish, but I wouldn't want to drink it alone.' I find a lot of Shiraz is really too strong for me, but it becomes a whole other experience when I'm having it with the right kind of food. I'm really all for the idea of sitting down and making wine a part of the bigger picture of a great meal and people and conversation. In movies they call that mis-en-scène: It's everything put together [in the scene]. Some wines, to just drink alone, no no no. But I would guess if I'm prejudicial about some, it's Sauvignon Blancs. Sometimes, with the best of them, I can detect their subtleties, but usually I don't find much there. I'm going, 'Why would I bother?' I just don't get it. And I get slapped around a lot by Lettie when she tells me about the great ones that exist. And she has shown me a few. The world has been opened up to me, and I'm willing to be an absolute, total know-it-all about all kinds of wine now."
What do you think you taught Lettie in doing all of this?
"I think I've driven her close to the brink of insanity. I think it's probably made her say, 'I could never do this again.' That it's so much better to write alone at my computer, where I can put all this together. I think there are times—when she gives you this test at the end of the book and oh my God! She's talking about the oak barrels, and you have 10 minutes to put it together, and that made me insane. It made her even more insane. What I don't like is to make wine a test. The part I did like is when she made me go to dinner with four people, and they all ordered appetizers, and I had to choose one wine that would somehow function with four completely bizarre things that wouldn't go together otherwise. I found that to be a challenge, because it makes you say specifically what it is that you think will complement the food, and why.
"The good thing about this book is that for people who are afraid to approach this, you couldn't have found anybody more basically dumb about the idea of wine than me in the beginning. They will feel far superior to me in terms of how long it took me to learn. This has been more than two years now. Now, when I see people on buses going to Napa or France or Spain or Italy to take wine-tasting courses, I understand. I used to say, 'What are they doing that for? How do they even know what they're having?' Well, if you can approach it with the structure that Lettie provides, you can have just the best fun! It's terrific fun—even if the wine costs less than $30,000."