While it is past Bastille Day, I wanted to offer some yummy French wines and French foods for Mandy and I to try for our July Thirsty Thursday segment. Head down to the bottom of this post for info on the three wines we are trying and the food I paired them with and why.
But first, Mandy asked me to carve out some time during this segment to chat about how one can become a sommelier and answer some of the more frequently asked questions we have received since I started joining Mandy to chat all things wine, beer, spirits, and food. So let’s dive in to that subject!
So, a little background first, if you have never heard it. I began my wine journey the usual way…20 something swilling Boonesfarm and various White Zinfandels (I could still smack my younger self, for a multitude of reasons, including wine and boy choices…) It is a wonder I didn’t discover and start drinking Lodi wines at that point…bad wines and bad boyfriends were my nom de guerre during that decade.
Thankfully, I met my future husband and wine drinking buddy at the end of that decade of bad choices and once we got hitched, I had to adjust my wine choices. Hubs didn’t drink white or the atrocious white “Zin” (let’s establish that this Frankenstein is neither Zinfandel or white wine…), thank the good Lord. I didn’t know it at the time, but his wine choices would mean much better choices for me.
We had only been married a few months when the tragic events of September 11th happened which resulted in my husband deploying to support the war in Afghanistan. I was in training to become an aircraft commander in the KC-135 at the time (this is comparable to the “Captain” you may hear coming across your airline’s PA system…they always sound like an adult in a Charlie Brown episode to me, so I can’t really say I have heard them clearly.) Once I arrived at our assignment in Spokane, Washington, I had no idea when I would see my husband and all of my friends were currently deployed to “You-Pick-A-Stan.” I hardly knew anyone, save the pilots from my recent training class, and one happened to suggest we go run a local “Turkey Trot” on Thanksgiving day.
That day happened to be one cold and rainy ass day in Spokane, but I went nonetheless, and once she and I were done, we stopped at a local former full service gas stationed turned boutique Washington foofoo coffee place complete with gourmet food and wine/beer shop. They had a wine class the very next day with Carl the Wine Guy, so the two of us signed up (it was a class about red wines…I was determined to learn to appreciate them so my new husband and I could enjoy a bottle together!) I went to this class with an open mind, open heart, and missing my husband (who I had only seen one four day weekend since our wedding when 9/11 happened…we didn’t have the cell phones and email capability we have now, so I will be honest and say our first year of marriage SUCKED! But, made us stronger in the long run.)
I didn’t hate the wines but I sure didn’t finish every pour (probably one of the few times I spit and dumped my wine.) But Carl was awesome, patient, and non-judgmental towards my, at the time, pitiful pallet, and there were some other classes he offered that didn’t just focus on red wines, so I signed up for the next class. Which then led to the next. And then the next. (It is still there, by the way, on the South Hill for those familiar with it…and they still offer wine classes! Check it out if you are ever in town…Rocket Market.)
It certainly kept a girl, who was alone in a new city, closing for two people on a new house (ugh, signing those closing documents sucked as bad as white zin), combining two households while an early blizzard hit Spokane (joy), had NO idea where her husband was and had barely had any communication with him in those three months, and trying to get mission qualified at a time when most aircraft assigned to our unit were deployed for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (my heart aches for some of the people I met from Afghanistan, one of whom I got to know very well while we served in a professional military education school together. I pray Rahim and his family are safe…he barely survived the Taliban the first time since he was a trained pilot…by the Soviets…and had to hide his assignment to our school even in 2007.)
To say it was a life defining moment for me is an understatement. (I often look at my son and what he has endured during the past 18 months, curious if his life defining moment has come sooo much earlier. I had the comfort of exploring the world of wine…he has the terror of exploring driving on the roads with stoners and idiots with his mother trying to teach him, lol.)
At some point, maybe once my husband came home briefly and we had one or two date nights with Carl the Wine Guy, a lightbulb went off. It was literally like a cartoon with a dialogue bubble above my head. “Why, yes, Carl…I do see the difference in magenta in my glass. I do smell black cherry and dried figs. I do taste sweet vanilla pipe tobacco. I DO SMELL CAT PEE!!!!” Okay, those declarations were not all at once nor about the same wine, but you get my point. Carl was able to help me find those memories of both sight, smell, and taste that resulted in an obsession about wine.
It represented the ultimate pratyahara, or fifth limb in the eight limbs of yoga: a withdrawal of the senses or, in other words, turning the eye inward. When we turn and look inward, we are faced with what creates us as individuals…the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, etc. that make us who we are. My olfactory experience and memory, for example, is heavily influenced by the smells of my childhood growing up surrounded by tobacco farms, curing barns, and cigarette factory production facilities and cigarette smoking family and friends (and yes, I have dabbled in all forms of tobacco…I am from North Carolina, after all.) Every day when I was first grader heading to school near Duke University, I smelled the curing tobacco nearby. I joke today that if someone smoked, snuffed, chewed, or dipped near a wine during its production cycle, I would pick it up, regardless if it was a white, rosé, or red. Throw in the smell of brewed coffee or barnyard smells…well heck, I am right back in my childhood.
That brings me back to those first steps into truly understanding wine beyond the “let’s get drunk” mentality of my Boones Farm/Berringer/Sutter Home days. I had always had a heightened sense of taste and smell (although I did not realize just how heightened it actually was at that time), but I assumed everyone could smell the things I was starting to pick up, or taste the things I seemingly could taste. Carl was an awesome teacher…he never gave his thoughts on the wines we tasted. He allowed each person to decide what they were experiencing because everyone’s pallet and experience basis was unique to them. What was pleasant to one person was unpalatable to another (it took me awhile to get past “barnyard”, “kerosene”, “manure”, “stinky feet”, and “cat pee” smells) and to this day, my husband usually just smells grapes. But, he knows what he likes in terms of tastes and now let’s our waiters/somms know that I will be the one picking his wine for him. He still loves me, so I guess I am doing okay at that for him.
Flash forward to my final assignment in the Air Force…we were back in Colorado, I was turning 40, and my parents decided to gift me with a lovely (and sizeable) gift card to Cook Street Culinary School in Denver, Colorado, for my birthday. My first class was a pasta class and then I dove head first in to their wine tasting classes. I was mesmerized. Thomas was our sommelier instructor and Chef John Parks taught the first class my husband took with me…a date night class for Valentine’s Day. We became regulars at Cook Street and I worked my way through their recreational cooking and wine classes. As I prepared to retire from the Air Force, I decided to attend their professional culinary program, which focused on traditional French and Italian culinary techniques, as a gift to myself. From the very first day, where we tasted 12 different wines (these are not full pours of wine…rather, we are getting enough to smell and taste. I wasn’t even snookered on that day!) and then made our way to Creekside Cellars for more wine discussions with winemaker Michelle Cleveland and some amazing food pairings…I knew I was in my happy place. We talked spices, herbs, super tasters, and why some folks simply cannot go much beyond the pallet they are born with…Mandy and I will discuss the notion of “super tasters,” and maybe I can convince her to take a simple test to see if she qualifies. Our first three weeks were spent in a program created by an instructor certified by the International Sommelier Guild. Once we completed that, passing a written test and blind tasting, we earned our Level 1 Sommelier Certification.
We then spent each day in the kitchen with Chef John discussing culinary techniques, the various regional histories and how those histories influenced their foods, and why certain wines paired with certain foods, etc. We then applied those skills to those recipes and then tried to pair those wines with our culinary creations (often to tragic failures…but that is a story for another blog. But honestly, how does one expect to cook well if they REFUSE to use salt??? Or even show up to class???) Every single day in this 15 week program was spent focusing on wine and food, food and wine (sometimes beer or spirits) and why their connection is so important. IT. WAS. AMAZING. After a day spent applying knife skills and techniques Chef John taught us, we would sit down as a class to enjoy (okay, maybe not always enjoy) our efforts and paired them with various wines. We learned formal dining and wine service (and damn, my classmates were always slow to bus our tables. My Southern upbringing and motherhood didn’t abide by that.)
I often wonder what I could do if I went through the program now knowing what I have learned since that initial experience. I am taking my first butchery focused class there again soon (it has been eight years since I first completed the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat butchery program there) and plan to take some of their other classes, so I will let you know how things have changed some time in the future. Their new space is lovely and I cannot wait to get back into the kitchen with Chef John.
Wow. This is already a long blog and I haven’t even gotten into the wines or France discussion yet. I haven’t even delved into how to become a somm. Obviously, I went through a culinary program and it was much more in depth and detailed then most Level 1 programs. My path doesn’t represent the normal path. In fact, Cook Street no longer offers the somm cert. ISG remains an option if you are interested in wine education, but The Court of Masters remains the most famous path for wine enthusiasts and those entering into the world of sommeliers. You may also run into WSET certified somms and those folks often are more involved in distribution and procurement. My level 2 came through the International Wine Guild and once I complete my 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training, I plan to pursue my next somm level through IWG. But I am often asked these even more base line questions…how do you develop your pallet? How do you smell these things? How do you know what pairs with what? How does one figure out how to buy wine, taste wine, enjoy wine, pair wine?
If only the simple answer were to sign up for a class. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple for some and, if I am being honest, may not be something certain folks can ever realize simply due to genetics. In my case, I am hyper sensitive. My mom had a very difficult pregnancy with me (and I had one with my own son) and that seems to set certain folks up for being a little more in tune with touch, texture, smell, taste…I can’t wear certain types of materials in my clothing and tags are verboten in my wardrobe. I can’t stand the smell of pot (ask any of my friends who smoke) as it makes me nauseous and my poor husband and son must endure my sensitive nose when it comes to their post work outs, yard work, camping, or simply waking up in the morning (coffee breath? Bleh…I always carry peppermint drops because I can’t even handle my own post morning ritual drink remnants.) I can’t use certain soaps, laundry is also a challenge (Snuggle bear mascot I miss you), I am salt and sugar sensitive, and I cannot eat cilantro or lavender without it turning to soap in my mouth (which is why I hate Lodi wine.) So while my husband has cornered the market on reactions to certain foods, I have cornered the market on all other reactions to an even larger variety of things. I can no longer wear perfume, can’t wear anti-perspirants (crystal salt sticks for the win), most cleaning products trigger an allergic reaction for me, and my skin often rejects common skin care products. If I couldn’t channel all this sensitivity into a hobby, I would be a pretty pissy person. As it is, I discovered that I can use my “Spidey” senses to help others discover their own pallets and find wines that they can enjoy.
As with all muscle and intellectual development, strengthening one’s pallet and sense of smell takes practice. Smelling and tasting different foods, taking a few moments to notice the smells and colors around you, and, of course, tasting various wines, will all help develop your pallet and wine appreciation. Understanding the expectations of what grape varietals produce and the influence of where they are grown takes book study. It is one of the reasons I chose to go earn my level 2 sommelier certification so that I could deepen my own understanding of vini and viticulture. Part of that process was tasting and assessing more wines. It is certainly a life long effort if wine is your passion.
If you aren’t wanting to attend classes but would like to improve your appreciation and understanding of wines, I encourage you to seek out recreational classes, such as the ones offered by Cook Street or The Wine Gallery. You can also look to guides, such as Wine Folly, or keep tuning in to The Mandy Connell Show for our monthly #ThirstyThursday segments! Feel free to send in your questions or shoot me an email anytime.
Now, let’s discuss the wines we are tasting today! I chose three lovely wines that range from $11 to $20 and represent typical French approaches to whites, rosés, and red wines.
Up first is our white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Vermintino from Capitelles des Fermes in the Aude department of southern France, along the Pyrenees in Occitanie. Occitanie is a relatively a new region, created in 2015. This light and fresh acidic wine ferments in steel tanks and undergoes malolactic fermentation which converts the malic acid (think tart sour patch kids) to the softer, creamier lactic acid which then enables the fruit to shine through and not drown in a sea of acidity. This wine has bright lemon zest notes with crisp apples and subtle suggestions of mango and pineapple.
Our rosé hails from the Rhône River Valley and is a blend of Grenache, Mouvedre, and Syrah…the three most common varietals found in red Rhône blends. The wine is from the Chateau Mourgues du Grès from the Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP) of Costières de Nîmes, formerly of the Languedoc region. This rosé has a soft floral bouquet with hints of strawberries and sea spray on the pallet. A great summer wine, this wine has enough structure that will stand up to grilled foods, especially seafood, pork, and duck.
Our red wine is an unusual varietal native to the Nice region of France that drinks similarly to Pinot Noir…this varietal is called Folle Noire and this particular one is made by Anne Arbeau of Vignobles Arbeau. This Folle Noire is 100% old vine Negrette (another name for this varietal) and is completely unoaked. This allow the delicate dark fruit notes to shine, supported by balanced acidity and moderate tanins. A great wine for warm summer nights around camp fires or while you star gaze.
You can get any of these wines for under $20, so I encourage you to seek them out and give them a try. They are all perfect for studying the way of the wine and for toasting French independence.