The Reluctant Sommelier: Making a point vs creating crazy

Silver Oak Vineyard
Silver Oak, Napa Valley (Image from HuffPo)

by Nina Sventitsky

My Editor has been hounding me for weeks (er …, months) about another post. I have been putting him off because, like everyone I know who has two day jobs and who spends off time devoted to yet another passion, I’ve simply been stretched to the limit.

Mainly, the past two months have been spent getting things organized for a pet project, the American Wine Specialist certification course that I co-developed. I just completed teaching this course for the third time, and it takes every spare moment and double-timing the waking hours to get things done.

I have a lot of respect for teachers, because I now understand how difficult it is to develop a lesson, do the curriculum, gather materials together and strive to make a point.

To this last item — making a point — this last go-around for the course I found myself obsessing about proving what wine tastes like in specific soils and macro-climates from the same wine region. This is a point we make in the course for wines from Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, New York’s Finger Lakes, Washington State, among others. But there is a difference between making a point, and creating crazy.

For example — I teach the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area. AVAs are what stands for Appellations here in the US – designated areas set aside for reasons of boundaries, climate/weather/soils, and traditions. The AVA system does not follow exactly the system in Europe, where more stringent rules apply to areas like Barolo, Chianti Classico, or Burgundy for grape yields and barrel aging and one may understand that certain wine styles are unique to that region as well. But it does go partway to helping consumers know why the wine in the bottle comes from Napa Valley and not some random vineyards throughout California.

Napa Valley is a tiny area (29 miles long x 1 to 5 miles wide) of hugely diverse soil types (volcanic, ancient sea-bed marine, deep stony soils, river-bed alluvium, etc) and as well, different weather patterns that confound. One of the most interesting to me and easily proven – the concept that mountain vineyard wine is quite different from valley floor wine. But let’s be more geeky – you think that mountain weather is generally cooler all the time, right? Not in Napa Valley. At night the weather is sometimes 10 degrees warmer up top than on the valley floor. It’s due to the fog; it advances and retreats during the day in/out of the valley and up/down the mountainsides. It can be hot in Napa during the day, typically 85 to 95 degrees in St. Helena – “up-valley”. As the fog comes back in the valley in the early evening, it pushes that hot air up the mountainsides – et voilá, you have warmer evenings in the altitudes than at the French Laundry in Yountville on the lusher valley floor.

Outcomes? Typically, ideally, if you’ve sourced your wines correctly and vintage doesn’t screw with you — mountain wines from Napa Valley will have more pronounced tannins and slightly less acid than some valley floor wines. Valley floor wines will show more fruit character, and mountain wine will show more herbal/pine/cedar character than fruit at first sniff. All relating to Cabernet Sauvignon and other “Bordeaux” varieties.

I became enamored of showing — not one example each of a mountain and valley floor wine – no, I did not think that was enough. I sourced three of each, expecting to make an excellent point. I was able to source some of the wines from someone’s cellar, different vintages but notable award-winning wineries. Now, I was not just making the point about differences in terroir, I was also trying to give people a specific experience — to make a point about how stellar Napa Valley wines were. We spent over an hour in class comparing six wines, because I simply could not focus on one or two important elements. And I had to control everything about the experience rather than accomplish more with less — and stick to the general point.

Same with Willamette Valley in Oregon. As with Napa Valley, the soils are quite important here, having different origins and history (volcanic flows, ice age floods) and creating certain outcomes for Pinot Noir. Again, I had three different Pinot Noir from three different wineries. One winery, however, sent me a 2011 vintage, rather than the 2012 that I requested. Again, I erred on the side of piling on more wines, thinking it would make a point, rather than scaling back to two wines from 2012. That 2011 did not show well, it was a cold vintage in general and the wine showed more acidic astringency and not enough briary, brambly dark berry fruit that is indicative of Eola-Amity Hills versus the soft, red fruit elegance of Dundee Hills only about 10 miles away.

Now, was all of this horrific for students? No, they got more than they expected for the cost of the course. Who wouldn’t want to taste Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain, or Chateau Montelena Cab? Cool, right? This course however is a certification and students take an exam. So, did I teach something, or was I so driven and controlling that I ended up with chaos?

Okay, some of you might say these are lessons for me in developing as a teacher. I have a different take on this, one that relates more to the audio industry.

Have you been to an audio show?

I made the same mistake that some of our audio industry colleagues make in trying to create perfection for one moment in time, with one piece of music, at a certain volume level, and only when one is consuming ice cold water and 70% cacao chocolate from a tiny village above the Costa Rican rainforest where the locals have been crowdfunded for a school. Some of our colleagues ONLY PLAY MUSIC SO LOUD. Some only play one piece of music in a loop … over and over. Some don’t allow jazz. Or Diana Krall — okay, that I understand; love her, but enough already. Some of us (ahem, us at WyWires especially) try to provide too much overall. 4 terabytes of music. Three amps. Two DACs. Three headphones. A/B comparisons. Yikes.

All it really takes is trusting your product and your knowledge — the rest speaks for itself, if your stuff is good. And so it goes with good wine, good music, and good design.

I think we all try too hard for a controlled experience. Yes, everything is crazy-expensive, and there is a lot on the line at shows (and in class). But we spend a lot of time focusing on this one moment in time and a lot of money reaching this moment — is it worth it? Are we making a point, or is the point just getting lost?

As it is Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary year, and I am from Long Island, I will channel Michael Meyers’ Linda Richman character in her Coffee Talk segments: “Are we so meshuga about the perfection obsession that we forget to be simple, clear and let the music and machinery speak for themselves? Go! Discuss…!”

About the Author

NinaSunsetGlassNina Sventitsky has been “into wine” for the last 20 years. She serves as the Secretary General of the North American Sommelier Association (NASA) and is the brand ambassador for the wine region of Rioja, Spain. She is also a professional wine educator, focusing on US varieties. Her professional certifications include: WSA/NASA Silver Pin Certified Sommelier, NASA American Wine Specialist, NASA Italian Wine Specialist, WSET Advanced Certificate, and the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1.

She’s also a partner at WyWires.