Dreaming of Dionysus

Becoming a wine expert may be easier than you think

Appearance is an important part of the wine experience. Colour and clarity can make or break even the best tasting wines.
Appearance is an important part of the wine experience. Colour and clarity can make or break even the best tasting wines.

Swish and spit. It’s the first rule of wine-tasting, that I learned last week when I attended a workshop
on wine-tasting’s fine art.

The workshop, part of the Student Team for Alumni Relations’ Backpack to Briefcase series, promised to teach me how to assess wines from around the world, as well as the dos and don’ts of business wine-tasting etiquette.

Eager to expand my horizons beyond the student classics of Baby Duck and Wild Vines, I decided to
give it a try.

And that’s how I found myself seated at a round table in the University Club, being instructed to
swish and spit. According to Alfred Fisher—a music professor, wine connoisseur and the instructor of
the seminar—it helps the taste buds better recognize the flavours and gives you a better sense for the
texture of the wine.

The wine-tasting experience, however, starts long before you begin to swish.

Fisher pointed out the setup of every table: a white tablecloth—to provide a clean background against
which to judge the colour and clarity of the wine—and identical glasses, for similar reasons. Each
table had a basket of bread and a cheese plate, to help cleanse the palette between wines. In addition
to the seven identical wine glasses at each seat was a styrofoam coffee cup—for the “spit” half of the
aforementioned directions.

Each place setting also had evaluation sheets, so we could make notes about the different wines. Each wine was to be evaluated on a scale of 20 points, from three carefully described categories:
appearance—a wine’s hue, depth and clarity—was judged out of three points; aroma—a wine’s intensity, concentration, varietal expression, complexity and lack of faults—was worth seven points; lastly, the taste and overall impression of the wine was marked out of 10 points. The sheet told us to
analyze the body, balance, acidity, complexity, structure, cleanliness, persistance and flavour intensity
and concentration.

We began with an Australian sparkling wine, Yellowglen Pink, which Fisher informed us was
available at the LCBO for a very affordable $13.95. With my glass half-full, I raised it in the air to evaluate the appearance. “Pale pink,” I scribbled on my evaluation sheet.

I decided to give it only two out of three possible points for appearance; it was too pink to be
taken seriously.

Taking a deep whiff of the wine, I decided it smelled distinctly fruity, without being overwhelming so
I arbitrarily gave it five points for aroma. Raising the glass to my lips, I took in a deep breath, sipped
and swished.

Fisher said young people tend to love Australian wines, because of the full, vivid tastes—and that
definitely rang true for the bubbly pink wine. “Slightly sweet, not too assertive,” I jotted down, giving
it eight points of ten for taste, bringing the wine’s total score to 15. Not too bad.

As we went through the different wines—one white and five red—I quickly learned that I don’t have a
discerning sense of taste. Or smell. Or sight, for that matter.

Although I noted a difference in the smell and taste of each wine, I struggled to describe what I was
experiencing. As I was trying to discern something other than a distinct “wine” smell, others at my
table were correctly identifying scents of dill and mint.

As I tasted, swirling intently in an attempt to taste something unique, I was being told I tasted
rhubarb or soft vanilla. When I walked out of the wine-tasting at the end of the evening, I could tell you which wines I enjoyed most—Lakeview Riesling, a white wine from Niagara, and Saturna Pinot Noir, a red wine from British Columbia—but I’m at a loss to explain exactly what it is that made either one so appealing. But hey—practice makes perfect, right? After a few more wine tasting experiences, I’m sure I’ll be able to pick out hints of olive or tar in my next glass of Shiraz (as I’m told I might).

Several days after the seminar, I met with Fisher to talk a bit more about wine tasting.

He told me that after tasting a ’29 Chateau d’Yquem when he was in grad school, he realized the
appeal of wine tasting. “I began to understand that strictly on a sensual basis, this is extraordinary … This was yet another good way of being human, like reading, like communicating, like taking a walk in the woods: having a nice glass of wine.”

Fisher said he learned about wine through experience and travel.

“I have not read a wine book in many years, and I never will again. I’ve got two or three things which
suffice as a guide when I have questions and that’s all I need.
“I educated myself mostly by having friends who held this interest and we would get together and have a nice bottle of wine.”

Fisher said that through teaching wine-tasting seminars, he wants to help people better understand wine.

“Given that wine has increased so much in expense, I’d like to be able to help consumers walk into
an LCBO and not be confused by the 10,000 labels . . . I want to help people eliminate the confusion, the double talk, the power of marketing imagery, [and] get some value for their dollar,” he said.

He said he also wants to prevent students from being fooled by wine marketing, which he said targets
young people who don’t know any better. “I resent that on behalf of young people, and as an old young person, I resent it personally as well,” he said.

Tips for ordering wine at a restaurant

  • Never buy a house wine.
  • “It’s a compromised wine because most of the people who order it, order it because they don’t feel particularly secure in making choices,” Fisher said. Plus, it’s probably been sitting out in the open on a counter for a long time, which doesn’t make for very good wine-keeping conditions.

  • Never completely fill a wine glass.
  • Fisher said you can always tell an inexperienced waiter by how he or she pours the wine. The glass shouldn’t be filled up to the brim, he warned.

  • Eat Italian, drink Italian.
  • “If you go to a restaurant of a particular heritage, then buy a heritage wine,” Fisher said.

  • Try a New World wine.
  • Wines from the Americas, South Africa and Australia are termed “New World” wines because they come from beyond the traditional growing areas of Europe and North Africa.

    “They’re much less expensive than the European things on the menu,” Fisher said. And they tend to be big and fruity, qualities which usually appeal to younger people.

  • Get what you like.
  • When it comes down to it, if you know what you like, go for that, Fisher said. Don’t just order a wine because it sounds fancy or because its price suggests high quality.

    "What matters is that you like what you drink, that you’re pleased with your decision,” he said.

—Source: Alfred Fisher, music professor

Overheard in Kingston

Drunk Guy 1: “B-A-N-AN-A-S! … She thinks we’re homosexuals.”

Drunk Guy 2: “Well I’m metro.”

—Walking up the hill next to Ban Righ after midnight on a weekend.

“So … I think I might be allergic to cocaine.”

—Girl talking to her friend at a downtown bar.

“I know I’m supposed to be doing all these essays and stuff, but I would way rather bake. It’s like, if I was at cupcake school, I would be getting all As.”

—Girl on a cell phone in line at the Common Ground.

Greasy Boy: “Did you see Alice Cooper?”

Flat-ironed Girl: “Ew, no! And if you did we can’t even be friends. Did you? Don’t answer

—Walking down the main hall in Mac-Corry.

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