Introduction

The primary purpose of wine is to provide pleasure and refreshment. It can do much more than that, but should never do less.

Eric Asimov, How to Love Wine

Human beings have been planting, harvesting, vinifying and drinking wine for centuries. They have done so for pure enjoyment, religious ceremonies, and possibly to put on a good buzz to get through bad times, like the plague or small pox. It is easy to forget this basic fact given all the noise that surrounds the wine industry. Wine podcasts, trade shows, magazines, tasting notes, workshops, certified exams, websites, and the recalcitrant snob at your local wine store all add to the noise in their own unique way. As Eric Asimov writes in the epigraph to start this chapter, we cannot forget that the primary reason humans have grown and fermented grapes is to provide pleasure and refreshment. We will have to keep reminding ourselves of this basic fact as we investigate how people talk about wine.

When I was a little boy, my Italian grandfather, Armando Serafini made a sickly-sweet wine from dandelions. My cousins were recruited to gather fresh dandelions for him from yards in the neighborhood, but I was too small to take part in this botanical adventure. I tried a sip of that wine. It was horrible, and I swore off the whole enterprise for years. He also made grappa in the cellar of his old house in Solvay, New York. My dad said you should tie yourself to a tree before drinking the grappa his dad made, but that is another story.

In 1984, at the age of twenty-five I bought my first case of wine. It was a “greatest hits of wine” assortment, or at least that is what the guy at the Wagon Wheel liquor store in Durango, Colorado told me. I remember he told me that I would need several white wines, a few reds and maybe a dessert wine. Who was I to disagree? I had ventured into the liquor store looking for some bottles to fill a wine-rack I had bought at a garage sale. It was more about decorating my dining room than taking an interest in wine. I wanted to impress college girls and I thought a wine-rack might make me look more sophisticated. I hid my red plastic cups under the sink and bought some cheap wine glasses. I don’t even remember if all the bottles got consumed.

At the time, I was working as a bartender for Jim (Beetle) Abshagan at the Ore House restaurant in Durango. In the 1980s, he had amassed what I now recognize as an amazing collection of California wines. He was truly ahead of his time as a wine collector. I remember him offering select vintages of Silver Oak, Opus One, and other California wines at the restaurant. He had a leather-bound journal filled with labels taken from his favorite wines and would share the book with anyone interested. At that time, these reserve wines only meant one thing to me; more money in my pocket. The more expensive the bottle of wine, the bigger my tip, at least in theory. I shared his wine book with everyone that sat at the bar, but never really looked at it much myself. 

Many years later, I bought my first wine refrigerator from Costco. It held about 30 bottles and was set at a permanent 45 degrees. Too cold for the appropriate aging of wine, but it kept my limited collection of wines safe from the Las Vegas summer heat. On his way to scout out Death Valley for a photography workshop, a good friend of mine, David Middleton, shared a bottle of vintage 2000 Duckhorn cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley. It was from the Monitor Ledge Vineyard. It was the first bottle of wine I had ever experienced that made me stop and take notice of what was in the bottle. 

Ten or so years later, I started going to a weekly wine tasting. At first, it was more about getting out and meeting people, but it quickly became more about the wine. I met my first certified sommelier at AZ Wine in Carefree, AZ. Meeting Thomas Klafke changed my relationship with wine. Instead of simply drinking wine for a buzz, I began to consciously savor what was in my glass, talk about why one wine was so different from another one, and consider what wine might pair well with particular dishes. Thomas was the first person that made wine accessible and talking about it enjoyable. He humbly shared his extensive knowledge of wine and made it more about what you liked than what you knew (or didn’t know). I was hooked. 

I dove into the wine literature like a madman. I studied hard, took notes, subscribed to Wine Spectator, bought some wine textbooks, and started reading novels that featured vineyards, wine travel, winemakers, and the world of wines. As a tenured, college professor it was really wonderful to play the role of student again. I had been giving exams for years, now I was about to sign up to take one. I asked Thomas about the certification process and he introduced me to the Guild of Master Sommeliers. He said I should have no problem passing the Introductory Level, but the Certified Level would take more knowledge and experience. I loved the challenge! 

On September 12, 2016 I passed the Introductory Level of the Court of Master Sommeliers exam with relative ease. The exam focused mostly on theory, wine varietals, and basic geography. Everything we needed to know had been presented during the two day class in a whirlwind of powerpoint presentations designed to deposit the maximum number of factoids about wine in our heads in as short a time as possible. During the course we were required to try some blind tastings and talk about wines using the established Deductive Wine Tasting Method. This experience is what inspired me to write this book. 

During the Introductory Course, I asked one of the Master Sommeliers leading the group if there were any wine tastings that were being held near my home in Phoenix. He asked me about my level of knowledge concerning wine. I was feeling cocky, so said I was going to be able to pass this introductory exam with no problem, and that I had been seriously drinking wine and studying for a couple of years now. That didn’t matter to him. He said almost everyone would pass the Introductory Course. What he said next was what piqued my curiosity and ignited my desire to understand what I would eventually call a “Discourse of Wine.” 

He asked me if I had stood and shared my part in the “round-robin” deductive wine tasting exercise that was part of the two-day course. I explained that I hadn’t shared yet, but my turn would be coming up shortly. He said, “I will know what your level is after thirty seconds of you talking about wine. I can’t recommend you for any tastings until I know your level of expertise.” Thirty seconds! I was stunned. My academic mind began to spin. Was all this wine stuff about how I talked and acted, or what I knew about wine? Or was it about my sense of taste? Didn’t my nose matter? I wondered if I could talk like them, could I fit in regardless of how I interacted with the actual wine in my glass? It began to dawn on me that this whole wine enterprise had more to do with how I acted and talked than what went on between me and a wine glass. All the places I had been and all the different wines I had experienced would only be helpful if I learned to talk and act like a wine expert. It was more about the talk than about the taste. 

The Certified Exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers requires candidates to answer 40 or so questions about wine theory and general knowledge, blind taste four wines (two red and two white) and demonstrate competence in serving champagne while simultaneously fielding questions from a Master Sommelier. The blind tasting component is based on the Court’s Deductive Tasting Method. The wines used in the exam can be selected from any of twenty grape varietals; nine white and eleven red. 

I decided that I would spend the entire year tasting a selection of these varietals while I studied service and theory on the side. If I selected 5 examples of each varietal from around the world, I would have a corpus of 100 wines (20 varietals x 5 selections = 100). If I drank two bottles each week, it would take me about a year to complete my tastings and my studies. My goal was to be ready to take the Court of Master Sommelier’s Certified Exam (Level II) by September of 2017. 

Throughout this book, I am trying to blend my academic voice and research experiences, focusing on the way humans act and talk about various ideas, with a down-to-earth, and often humorous insight into the various ways we talk about wine. As wine drinkers, which all sommeliers are first and foremost, if we cannot make fun of ourselves, what good is it to learn to be so pretentious?

© Frank Serafini 2018