Wine School Part 1

Photo Sep 10, 8 19 43

the CIA campus in Napa

Yikes! It’s been a whole week since I started classes and I haven’t blogged about anything yet.  This isn’t because I haven’t been learning anything.  On the contrary, I have been learning too many things!  So many things I haven’t had time to share them.  So without further ado, here are some fun nuggets from Week 1:

Where does wine come from?

The most compelling evidence for the birthplace of wine points to the Caucasus Mountains in modern day Georgia, Armenia and Northern Iran.  The first physical evidence of wine is some reddish residue on pottery that dates from 5400 BC.

The Greeks and the Romans loved wine and brought vines to southern Italy, which they called “Oenotria”, or “land of wine” because the vines did so well there.  Wine was an important status symbol, as well as a unit of exchange in these early economies.

The Ancient Romans liked wine bars too!  You can see the remains of many in Pompeii, where wine was mixed with various additives like honey, flowers, spices or even seawater to make wine “cocktails.”

What are the basic requirements for growing vines?

Minimum average temperatures of 50 degrees F
1300 hours of sunlight per year

As a result, most grapes are grown between 30-50 degrees north or south of the equator.  This area includes most of the continental United States, southern South America, South Africa, southern Australia, New Zealand, southern Europe and northern Africa.

What is terroir?

Terroir is a word that is bandied about but not always well understood.  The idea of terroir (which is translates loosely from the French as a “sense of place”) is that wine that is made from grapes the grow under the same conditions will exhibit certain common characteristics independent of the winemaking techniques used, or even the type of grape grown.

Its exact definition is a topic of intense debate, but for basic purposes, it is an expression of the soil, climate and topography of the vineyard in a wine.  Soil has to do with soil type – is it clay, sand, silt or stone – and as a result, the mineral content of that land.  Climate is pretty self explanatory, but things like average temperatures, rainfall, amount of sun, fog and the predictability and homogeneity of the seasons are all factors.  Topography includes elevation, slope (how steep is the hillside?) and aspect (what direction is it facing?).  In the Northern Hemisphere, south facing vineyards are preferred to maximize sun exposure.


We have also visited a number of wineries in Napa.  We went to Chase Cellars to see their 110 year old Zinfandel vines:

Old Zinfandel Vines at Hayne Vineyard, Chase Cellars

Then we visited Charles Krug, one of Napa’s oldest wineries, and checked out their Sauvignon Blanc.  Here’s a shot of their vines:

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We tasted their 2012 vintage, which is a very light, acidic version, nice for summer drinking.  We also got to try their 2013 vintage, which is currently in barrels fermenting.  The juice was hugely aromatic and smelled like tropical fruit juice – pineapple, mango, overripe bananas – and was cloudy and slightly effervescent because it is still fermenting:Photo Sep 13, 12 35 27 (1)

Finally, we went to Frog’s Leap, a vineyard that is biodynamically farmed.  Here, we learned from proprietor John Williams to “think like a grape”.  The property is stunning.  In addition to grapes, they grow 50 commercial crops including squash, peppers, raspberries, pumpkins, peaches, pears, apples and more.  They also have chickens.  The entire property is designed to be its own self-sustaining ecosystem.Photo Sep 16, 9 29 17

In addition to their current releases, we got to try their 1986 Zinfandel (the year I was born, which makes it extra special).  Whereas the young Zin was bright and acidic with ripe cherry & red fruit aromas, the old Zin was mellow and honeyed and smelled of stewed fruits and baking spices.  Here’s a picture of us tasting the wine (we also got to take home some produce!):

Photo Sep 16, 10 41 42

And now …. in class tastings! 

Photo Sep 17, 10 28 42Today we tasted three whites and three reds.  The first white was made from a native American wine grape called Scuppernong from the Carolinas.  I’ll try to get into this more in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that all Old World wine comes from native European vines.  There is a reason for this.  Unless you are deeply curious, I’d avoid the Scuppernong which smelled and tasted like “lemon Pez” according to one person in our class and also what I imagine a wild boar might smell like.

The second white was a hybrid grape known as Seyval Blanc (hybrid means it is a combination of a native American species with a European species; they are often grown in otherwise inhospitable regions of the US) from Augusta, Missouri.  I found it very light & acidic with a nice nose, but not much body.  Some of the New York state wineries also use Seyval Blanc, and I have had a pretty nice sparkling made with it (I will try to remember the winery it was from!).

Finally, we tasted a fully European grape-based wine: Sauvignon Blanc from Spottswoode here in Napa.  It was pretty closed on the nose at first, but then opened up to aromas of melon, grapefruit and flowers with a good dose of minerality.

For the reds, we tasted a Concord Grape wine.  Again, there is a reason they are used for jelly, not wine.  Next up was a red hybrid – Marechal Foch – from Wisconsin.  It was aged with 1/2 French and 1/2 American oak and the only thing I could smell was toasted coconut from the American Oak, but the rest of the class also got notes of red, underripe fruits.

Finally, the European variety: Cabernet Sauvignon from Beringer vineyards, again here in Napa.  It smelled of bright cherry, earth, dried dark fruits and even some green olive.

Tomorrow we learn about Sensory Analysis and how to correctly taste wine.  Stay tuned!