The tension was palpable. Everyone was looking at me (everyone being my father and our waiter) and anticipating my next move. After a couple seconds of uncomfortable silence ticked by, it was too obvious. I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
I always laughed at my father when a splash of wine was placed in front of him at dinner and he’d do his little swirl and sniff routine before tasting it. I thought he looked ridiculous, so I laughed and ignored his warnings of “you’re going to need to do this one day.”
The day he referred to finally arrived. I was in my early-20s, out to dinner with my father, and our waiter put the wine taster in front of me for the first time in my life. My dad, always clever, had gone to the bathroom and instructed me on what bottle of wine to order in his absence (I will never believe this wasn’t on purpose). This of course meant I would be the one to taste and approve the wine. A practice I had embarrassingly zero experience with.
The embarrassing experience is why I recently found myself at Stem Wine Bar in Northeast Minneapolis for their monthly Wine Education and Tasting with Mpls. St.Paul Magazine wine writer Bill Coy. The event’s motto according to MSP Magazine is “the coolest way to drink wine is to know what you’re doing when you’re drinking wine,” and I agree.
Bill has set up a welcoming and informative atmosphere perfect for beginners and seasoned wine aficionados alike. I walked into Stem as a clear neophyte, but Bill made me feel at home right away. He seated me at a table with a couple who have been wine tasting with Bill for almost 20 years and another couple who were there for the first time.
His sessions feature five glasses from his monthly selections from the magazine and follow the most recent trends in wine. I drank verdeo for the first time. I learned it’s a silky and smooth Spanish white ideal for aperitif or paired with shellfish. I also learned it’s affordable, around $13 depending on the store. All of the wines we sampled were on the low end of the price spectrum and the high end of taste. Just in time to figure out some quality wines to bring to holiday parties without breaking the budget.
I learned riesling has gotten a bad name for no particular reason. Bill served us a glass by Domaines Schlumberger and didn’t reveal it was riesling until after I said I enjoyed it. This apparently is a common occurrence.
I learned that chardonnay is near the bottom of my wine preferences and malbec is near the top. My favorite of the night was a Chilean malbec by Casillero del Diablo, which was conveniently the most affordable wine of the night. I thought my palate might just be a cheap date, until I learned about a Chilean malbec—one even cheaper than Casillero del Diablo—a private-label wine for the British big box chain Asda, that won a platinum – best in show award at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2016. The demand for it was so extraordinary it crashed Asda’s website shortly after winning the award.
When the evening came to a close, I still felt worlds behind the guys featured in the movie “SOMM” but much further along than the kid who couldn’t even taste a wine correctly a handful of years ago. I’ll have to make it to quite a few more of Bill’s wine happy hours at Stem if I ever want to impress anyone with wine knowledge, but that’s a challenge that sounds more fun than daunting.
Expanding your wine knowledge isn’t much different than learning anything else. It comes down to trying as many different things as you can, listening to the advice of experts, understanding price isn’t necessarily a reflection of quality and most importantly, having fun.
As far as the intimidating wine taster staring back at me from the dinner table, it isn’t so scary as it turns out. All you have to do is check the wine’s legs (swirl), its smell (sniff), and then taste to make sure it’s what you’re looking for.
Now I’m still not quite sure I have any idea of what I’m looking for, but that’s okay. That’s part of what being a 20-something is all about.