By John Peters
Culinaria Cooking School
Opening in the fall of 2010 in Vienna, VA
Learning about wine takes time and patience. I know from experience because back in 1982, I was just out of college and entering into my family’s wine business, Wide World of Wines. I knew next to nothing about the subject.
It took me about 10 years to master all the ideas and variations, and nearly 30 years later my thirst for learning about wine continues to be insatiable.
Here’s a short primer on how I ramped up on the industry, and four easy steps to help you do the same. Salud!
Step 1. Understand the importance of microclimates.
The first step in my education was to understand the details of the growing season and how microclimates create unique styles of wine from the wineries in them.
These local atmospheric zones cause the climate to differ from the surrounding area and may be as small as a few square feet, such as a garden bed, or the many square miles of a valley.
Microclimates are sometimes near bodies of water, which cool the local atmosphere. Or they may develop in heavily urban areas where brick, concrete, and asphalt absorb the sun’s energy and reradiate that heat. The key for winemakers is to use those microclimates to their benefit.
Step 2. Dive into the eternal debate: Oak vs. Steel
The type of barrel that a wine is stored in during the fermentation process is fundamental to what it ultimately tastes like. Aging in oak typically imparts desirable vanilla, butter, and spice flavors to wine.
Aging wine in wooden containers is a tradition that began in ancient Mesopotamia when the Greeks used barrels made of palm wood to transport wine along the Euphrates. Since palm was a difficult material to bend and fashion into barrels, wine merchants in different regions experimented with different types of wood.
Oak was the choice of the Romans, and winemakers discovered that beyond the convenience of storage, wine kept in oak barrels took on properties that improved the wine by making it softer and, in some cases, better tasting.
Thousands of years later, Robert Mondavi is credited with expanding the knowledge of winemakers in the United States about the different types of oak and barrel styles through his experimentation in the 1960s and ’70s.
The size of the barrel also plays a role in determining the effects of oak on the wine because it dictates the ratio of surface area to volume of wine. Smaller containers make for a more intense flavor.
Many wineries are now using oak wood chips for aging wine more quickly and also adding desired woody aromas along with butter and vanilla flavors. Oak chips can be added during fermentation or during aging, for they are generally placed into fabric sacks and added to the wine. The diversity of chips available gives winemakers more options in terms of the flavor imparted.
Stainless steel barrels, on other hand, have become an alternative to the traditional wooden wine barrels. They are less expensive to maintain, do not erode easily and therefore tend to last longer, which saves the winemaker money.
Of course, the metal container lends a different flavor to the wine. White wines that are fermented in steel and then matured in oak will have a darker coloring due to the heavy phenolic compounds still present.
When it comes to oak vs. steel, it’s a matter of personal preference. I personally prefer oak, but I’ve had my share of delicious wines aged in steel. I encourage you to taste test wines aged both ways and decide for yourself.
Step 3. Start your own wine collection.
There’s nothing like sampling thousands of wines to know what you like. Of course, this can be expensive. But if it’s your passion, there are ways to accomplish the goal without going broke.
In my early days of collecting, for instance, I used the vertical approach and tasted all the vintages made by a single winery — such as the Kenwood Artist series. I sampled its Cabernet from 1975 to 1990.
I also collected three or six bottles of each wine, depending on my love for the winery and what I could afford.
I was well on my way to becoming a wine collector, especially in the 1980s when the top Bordeaux wines were more accessible. I could buy Mouton, Margaux and Lafite for $30 and seconds like Cos d’Estournel for $18.
At one point, I had about 100 cases of wine in my cellar and could tell you the story behind each one. But like so many things in life, time changes your outlook on what is important.
As I write this article, I look behind me at fewer than 20 cases of wine in the rack (a sad day). What is different today? Wine is still a big part of my life; I just have to share it with my wife and two wonderful children. Suffice it to say that my priorities have changed.
Step 4. Experiment with food and wine pairings.
The final piece of my wine education has come from figuring out which wines to pair with different recipes.
Working with professional chefs like those at Culinaria Cooking School has made this process much easier, and the fact that several have become my best friends has helped push the envelope on what we all are willing to try.
As we get closer to the opening of Culinaria Cooking School in September, my next challenge is to pass along my experience and knowledge of wine to you, our students. I’ll look forward to meeting you soon.
For a list of our fall schedule of classes, click here: www.culinariacookingschool.com/ClassSession.aspx
About John Peters
Director of Wine, Culinaria Cooking School
A three-decade veteran of the wine business, he first worked with his father and brother to found Wide World of Wines in 1982. John ran the retail business through 1989, hand-selecting wines from vineyards all over the world.
John then went to work for Continental Liquors until 1994, and from 1997 to 2003 he was the Mid-Atlantic Marketing Manager for DeLoach Vineyards. John is frequently invited to speak about wine at the National Press Club, the Decanter Club, the Greenbriar, the Homestead, and the French and Australian embassies in Washington, DC.