Wednesday, February 7, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, February 7, 2001

The ABCs of enjoying wine

By Randal Caparoso

ABC, in wine parlance, means several things these days. There is a famous winery in Santa Barbara, Calif., for one, that is often called ABC, although its real name is Au Bon Climat. ABC makes great stuff; guaranteed.

For modern wine snobs, ABC is also a code name for "Anything But Chardonnay," or "Anything But Cabernet Sauvignon." A cool, hip way of saying "we drink wine that the brain-washed masses don’t."

Which is all very silly, since although there are tons of wonderful, alternative wines out there, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a good chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. In fact, with veal, chicken and other-white-meats, especially in butter or cream sauces, there’s nothing better than a chardonnay. With grilled or pan-fried beef, and especially roasted lamb, cabernet sauvignon is "king." It rules, man.

Then there are the original ABCs, which are the simple building blocks to knowing, and thus increasing your appreciation of, wine. Trust me on this: Knowing and understanding wine is not like knowing and understanding your car engine. It doesn’t take years of experience; and the reason there are about a 10,000 professional car mechanics for every one wine professional is that there isn’t that much call for the job, not because it’s so hard to do.

You can be your own wine expert by simply picking up a glass and taking a few seconds to actually assess it. The idea is to use that few seconds of experience every time you taste a new wine to make a better buy, or choice for your meal, the next time around.

Fifteen or so years ago, the Sonoma Wine Growers Association traveled around the country promoting its wines as a group with the logo "Swirl, Sniff, Sip & Spit." That about summarizes the best way to taste 30, 40, 50 or more wines at a time. You need to spit out the wines you taste in order to find your way to the parking lot. But in most cases, most of us are drinking, not spitting, our hard-earned money’s worth; and face it, only wine snobs refuse to recognize the fact that alcohol is very much a part of what we like about wine. The moderate levels of alcohol, plus all the itty-bitty nuances of flavor which make wine that much better than, say, iced tea or orange juice with our steak.

So where do we begin? Oh, yes, swirling. This is not an affectation. The reason you swirl wine in the glass is to allow it fall down the sides and create the vapors that you smell and perceive as aromas. Start by holding your glass by the stem, and gently twirling.

When you smell your wine, open your mind up to what it reminds you of. Chardonnays, for instance, are usually reminiscent of apples, pears or pineapples, with little suggestions of cream or butter. A good cabernet sauvignon often smells like mint or eucalyptus, mixed up with aromas suggesting dark-skinned fruits (such as berries and plums), smoky wood, vanilla beans, and even Italian-roasted green peppers. Wine experts and back labels often liken the smell of cabernet to black currants. Don’t sweat it if you don’t know what they’re talking about, since most right-thinking wine drinkers have a lot better things to do than going around sniffing black currants. Whatever they are.

The idea is that if you can’t smell wine - or anything you eat or drink, for that matter - then you really can’t taste it, since flavor is pretty much a byproduct of smell.

So go ahead and swirl your wine for two or three seconds, and then stick your nose just into the rim of the glass. Close your eyes, and let go. Is it like cold steel and gooseberry pie? Uma Thurman in full metal jacket? Loosen up, wine is fun! And besides, there are a number of New Zealand-grown sauvignon blancs that remind me exactly of that: gooseberry pie, that is.

Then it’s time to actually taste, which for wine is seeing how the natural elements of alcohol, acidity and (for red wine) tannin come together with the aromas to create a pleasant (hopefully!) flavor on the palate. Your first taste should indeed be a discreet and purposefully curious sip. It’s all about attitude, like a cat. Cooler than a cat.

In respect to what you taste, alcohol gives wine its "body," which is a good word to use to sort out whether a wine tastes light, heavy or in-between for you. German whites tend to be less than 10 percent alcohol, and thus are very light and easy to drink. White wines made from chardonnay tend to be well over 13 percent alcohol, and thus quite heavy or full-bodied.

Red wines such as cabernet sauvignon have full alcohol as well as the taste of tannin, the mildly bitter or astringent sensation derived from the skins of the grapes with which red wines are always fermented (white wines are always fermented with their skins removed), which inevitably results in a very full-bodied taste. But there are also red wines made from grapes with relatively thinner skins, such as those made from gamay (which makes beaujolais from France) and pinot noir.

Thinner-skinned red varietals tend to result in red wines of softer tannin, and thus an easier, lighter body. Joshua Wesson, one of the least snobbiest of our wine experts, describes light-bodied red wines like beaujolais and pinot noir as "cross-dressers" - red wines that "think" they are white wines and, in fact, go with the same types of foods as white wines.

The natural acids of wine grapes inject crisp, lively qualities into the flavor of wine. Think of this as the rhythm section of the band. Sure, the singer is cute and the guitar player is sexy. But without some kind of "purple gang" doling out the beat, the blood doesn’t pump and the mind isn’t rolling. This is especially true for whites wines, which do not have the tannins that give those deep, bass-like qualities to red wine. Without acidity, German rieslings taste insipid, sauvignon blancs are lifeless and chardonnays become dull or, worse yet, hot and more blatantly alcoholic to the taste. Good white wine needs acid. ’Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.

And you know what? That’s it, in a clamshell. Swirl, sniff, sip and think about what you’re tasting rather than your upcoming tax returns. The Europeans have been doing this for years; lo, centuries. Why do you think they close up shop two, three hours a day, and one, two months out of the year? When your life is over, you may very well go on to better things. But who’s to say that life can’t or shouldn’t be more wisely spent by choosing a better, more reasonably priced wine than the one you had before?

Randal Caparoso is corporate wine buyer for Roy’s restaurants. You can e-mail him at

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