It’s day one of my Mastering Wine I course at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, and four glasses filled with deep purple wine sit before me. My task is to taste and identify the contents of each glass. Is it pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon? Merlot or zinfandel? This challenge marks the beginning of my wine exploration during one glorious November week at the CIA Greystone, located in the heart of the Napa Valley wine region. Throughout the valley, the grapes have been harvested and are fermenting away in tanks and barrels in the 400 plus Napa wineries; the vineyards are festooned in gold, burnt orange and crimson foliage; and the wine tourists have vanished. It is a perfect time to fall under the spell of wine.
Karen MacNeil, acclaimed wine expert and author of The Wine Bible, instructs the professional wine studies course in the Rudd Center, adjacent to Greystone, the fabled stone building which once housed Greystone Cellars winery and is now home to thousands of culinary students who learn their trade under the tutelage of the CIA. A wonderful perk of the wine studies program is that we are invited to taste the fruit of the culinary students’ labors at breakfast and dinner, right there amid the clatter and bustle of the cooking stations in the cavernous kitchen.
Each day, we tackle a new varietal, from sauvignon blanc to cabernet sauvignon. As we learn the cultivation, development and classic characteristics of these wines, MacNeil sprinkles her lectures with fabulous tales. Like the time she was stationed as a wine critic beside Robert Parker, stomped grapes with her bare feet in enormous troughs in Spain (note: juice with skins is slippery, it stings your legs and turns them purple for weeks), and volunteered to spend a back-breaking week bringing in the harvest with a Mexican crew at Cakebread Cellars in Napa.
If you’ve ever read MacNeil’s writing on wine, you know how poetic and evocative her descriptions are. And she certainly doesn’t disappoint in the classroom. MacNeil brings her same eloquent language to the classroom, as she weaves a fascinating web surrounding the history and creation of this bewitching fermented beverage that is anything but simple. “The historical, cultural significance of this beverage is a great part of Western philosophy. For reasons we can articulate—and that are hard to articulate—wine appeals to our intellect. Once you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, you will never leave it,” says MacNeil in her introduction.
As the week proceeds, we do our best to articulate the qualities of wine. And slowly, we begin to form a complete picture of what goes into creating a truly great wine, beginning with its history and origins, moving into terroir and cultivation, and culminating in fermentation and aging. Much of the wine education at CIA takes place face to face with a glass of wine. You swirl the wine, and then smell, taste and examine it. You consider everything that makes it unique, including its aromas, flavors, acidity, body, complexity and more. You mull it over in your mind, and then discuss its qualities with the entire class.
The Mastering Wine I course also transports you out of the classroom into Napa Valley wineries to take you’re formal training to the field. You experience a rare education at the feet of some of Napa’s great winemakers, including Rudd’s Patrick Sullivan and Shafer’s Elias Fernandez. Not only do you get an inside look at what it takes to make an impeccable wine, from the cover crops cultivated in the winter to irrigation and pest control techniques, you glimpse the winemaker’s own impressions of his wine. At Shafer, Fernandez pours us a taste of the juice from the brand new 2012 Hillside Select harvest, straight out of the stainless steel fermentation tank. We spot the excitement on his face as he anticipates the coming vintage. And as Fernandez shares a taste of a 2000 Shafer Hillside Select, he recalls the difficult growing season, with torrential rains that caused much concern over the fruit. Yet, he muses that the years which incur the most anxiety and labor over the fruit often result in the most complex, stunning wines. It’s the vine’s struggle to survive which concentrates its fruit into spectacular juice.
On Friday afternoon, during the last hour of our wine studies program, the classroom is hushed as we earnestly bend over wine glasses during a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignon from around the world. MacNeil looks around the room and says, “This is a very different class from Monday. I’m very proud of how much you have learned. You are wine professionals now. You need to continue your wine education.” She’s right—we have come a long way from our first tentative sips of wine. And as for this wine student, I plan on taking her advice. I can’t wait to take Mastering Wine II.
Sharon Palmer received this amazing opportunity to attend the professional wine study program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone thanks to the Peggy Daum Judge Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Sunday, November 25, 2012