Don’t fear the vine

Simple tastings educate your palate

It’s a challenge I face daily.

How do I train The Golden’s wait staff on not only how to sell wines, but how to be unafraid of wine? How do I take away the intimidation, especially with our very young staff?

How do I get them to embrace wine, embrace its flavors and complexities, so that they can make suggestions to our customers?

Such is the life of a sommelier. Luckily, there are solutions — and pay close attention, because I’m telling you this for a very, very good reason. It’s not to get you to eat at The Golden.

As sommelier, I buy all the wines and curate the wine list for the downtown restaurant. Before we opened, we had massive wine tasting sessions. At some point, though, the process of tasting large quantities of wine becomes overwhelming.

Your palate goes soft, it’s difficult to differentiate flavors, and you’ve just had to much information to discern the nuances of each varietal.

So a few months ago I decided to implement a wine class for the staff. 

Every Wednesday afternoon we taste wine. I pick out only one to four wines for these training sessions and we keep it simple. We don’t blow our palates. We ensure everyone can take notes and actually remember what each wine tastes like — and more importantly, with what menu items the wines will pair well.

Sometimes I select obscure regions on the list, such as Savienniers or Vouvray, wines that — unless specifically tasted — would be nearly impossible to sell, but pair beautifully and naturally with the food. Sometimes I ask the servers to choose a couple of wines from our wine wall; any wines at all, at any price point, which have piqued their interest.

Expensive cabernets such as Silver Oak or Orin Swift’s Mercury Head, both of which retail for over $100, are wines that are incredibly intimidating — not only to sell, but to open table-side. Servers really need to understand what these pricey wines taste like, why they are so expensive, and how to relate the flavors to the customer. (Yes, they are some lucky ducks, I know.)

Last week I changed it up a bit: We did a blind tasting and everyone loved it. I brown-bagged three white wines. Each person had three glasses lined up side-by-side.

They tasted the wines and took notes. I then asked them to identify the varietal. One person said wine number one was Pinot Grigio, and another guessed it to be Sauvignon Blanc.

To their complete surprise, all three wines I poured were Chardonnay.

One was from Burgundy (my favorite region for Chardonnay), and two were from different locations in Napa Valley. All of the wines were 100 percent Chardonnay, but had different fermentation and aging techniques (some in stainless steel, some in oak and some in new French oak). All were markedly different, but tasted great. This way of tasting also showcases terroir, which relates to where the wines are grown and how location is such an enormous influence on the ultimate product.

Why am I telling you all this? Remember, I had a reason.

I want you to keep these fun tasting ideas in mind. Buy three similar wines and brown bag them. Buy an expensive bottle and determine why the big cost, and whether it was worth it to you. Invite friends over. Do it on a weekend. Try the wines with different foods. An inexpensive start could be three rosés.

And that’s perfect for starting the deck drinking days!


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