Monday April 21st 2014

Getting smarter by the glass: Wine Wise events

By: Shannon Bryan

You can drink a lot of wine and still not get any smarter about it.

Trust me, I’ve tried.

Sure, you can get really acquainted with label design (I like the one with the goat) or play grape roulette and defer to the bottles that are marked $8 or less. But simply swigging down a glass (or – ahem – more than a glass) isn’t going to osmotically turn you into a wine expert in the same way eating lots of pork magically won’t turn you into a master chef (which I sort of think it should).

What you need is a wine education.

“You don’t learn about wine until you seek out learning about wine,” said Erica Archer, founder of Wine Wise in Portland. And Erica knows what she’s talking about.

She’s a sommelier and Wine Wise’s chief wine educator (and the bottle washer and the gal responsible for finding creative ways to re-purpose the corks). But she too once lived the life of a wine novice.

“I started out on Sutter Home White Zinfandel from the gas station on the way home from waitressing,” she joked. And now? Now she’s dedicated to helping the rest of us emerge from our own wine blindness.

Erica leads regular Wine Wise events – including Wine Walks through the Old Port, wine dinners, and First Friday session at The Wine Bar during Portland’s monthly Art Walk. There’s even a Wine Wise cruise in Casco Bay during the fall when the weather’s accommodating (something about being surrounded by ocean makes everything taste even better). Each event has specific theme, be it reds and whites of Bordeaux, perfect wines for summer, sparkling wines, Spanish reds, or great value wines for under $15.

So while each event is a learning and drinking experience unto itself, attending more than one further expands your wine enlightenment.

And unlike traditional wine tastings you may have been to in the past, Erica isn’t simply there to pour (not that there’s anything wrong with pouring. We like pouring). You will learn about wine.

You’ll learn to pay attention to that subtle pulsing in your gums – an indicator of a wine’s acidity. You’ll learn to heed the level of heat you feel on the back of your throat to gauge the wine’s alcohol content.

You’ll pay attention to the wine’s coloring (tilt your glass over a white tablecloth or piece of paper. Does the wine fade from ruby to pink or garnet to salmon?) to discern the wine’s age. If it’s a young wine, how can you tell if it’ll age well – or if it’ll go overboard on the botox and skin-stretching and just end up awkward to be around?

You’ll spin the wine (keep the base of the glass on the table to prevent a wine-overboard tragedy) and you’ll sniff the wine. You might smell hints of rich earth from an Old World wine or get a fruit-forward whiff of something younger.

And all the while Erica leads the class along in her lively, funny way, stopping now and then to sip the wine and say, “Wow, that’s really good. Can you smell the blackberry?”

And you’ll drink wine. Several different kinds. And some of those wines, as Erica will later reveal, cost only $13. But one of them might just cost $120. That’s a long way from Sutter Home. And it’s a wine price most of us aren’t used to spending. But now that you’ve learned a few things, expanded your wine horizons, and are actually paying attention, you’ll feel like you actually deserve to drink a $120 bottle of wine.

And you do.

By the end of the class, you’ll feel like wine conqueror prepared to storm any wine shop within a 50-mile radius. Or maybe that’s just the wine talking. Still, your wine confidence will have grown.

And the homework: Drink wine. But you’ll have to pay attention to it this time.

“If you don’t taste it – analyze it – you’re missing 99 percent of what you’re paying for,” said Erica. And that matters, even if you’re only paying $8.

FMI on upcoming Wine Wise events: or on Facebook: