WineInk: Learning from the vines

Education in a glass

Kelly J. Hayes
Orange wine being enjoyed in Los Olivos, California.
Sarah Girgis/The Aspen Times

This past week, a friend from Aspen took a wine trip to the Central California coast. Lucky her. She sent me a beautiful photo of a glass of orange wine with the note “Making Paul (her husband) try orange wine for the first time,” followed by the appropriate smiling emoji. Lucky him.

Now, orange wines aren’t for everyone. They can be a bit funky, and they have a broad flavor profile. But they have been having a moment for about a decade now, even though they have been made for 8,000 years or so. And they have a solid following amongst the learned wine set who appreciate these wines made from white grapes that have obtained color through maceration — or extended contact with the skins of the grapes. They are easy to make, fun to drink, and are exploding in popularity.

But the thought of Paul taking a sip of something new got me thinking about how people learn about wine. I am often asked by people who read this column just that: “How do you learn about wine?” And the best answer is to drink it. If you expand your wine-consuming universe beyond your usual glass of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and dip your nose into other grapes or styles of wine, you begin to grow your base of knowledge.

Take a taste of orange wine, and if you like it, it may lead you to ask questions like: How do they make it? What’s the grape? Who makes the best orange wines? Where can I get some of this stuff? Simple, right? One taste and you are off on an educational journey that has elements of technology, viticulture, geography, and commerce from just one sip.

The best way to learn about wine is to drink wine.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

One of the things that makes the world of wine so enjoyable is the same thing that makes it so daunting. Too much information. There is so much to know about wine that trying to learn it all can seem a burden rather than a fun challenge. But don’t be discouraged if you want to learn about wine — learn from wine. Break it down to what you like, and study just that.

Let’s say, for example, that you get your first taste of the big wines from Châteauneuf du Pape, and they speak to your soul. You’ll, of course, want to turn your friends on to your new discovery.

“Mmm,” they’ll say when they take a sip, “that’s mighty good.” And then the barrage of questions will come: “What grape is it?” (Well, actually, there are as many as 13 different grapes allowed, but Grenache dominates.) “Where is it from?” (France, but beyond that, the Southern Rhône region, and more specifically, a sub-district where large stones reflect the sun onto the maturing grapes creating heat and high alcohol.) “Who makes the best CDP?” (Try Château Beaucastel or Château Rayas, but there are so many other small, wonderful producers.) “What vintage should I buy?” (While the ’05 is highly-regarded, it is best saved for the next decade. Now, if you happen to find a ’98 …)

That’s a lot of stuff to know, and you haven’t even gone into the history of the place, the age of the vines, how the blends are made, what foods the wines pair best with … Oy vey! Enough already. Also, consider that this is just one wine we’re talking about here.

The vineyards of Alma Rosa Winery in the cool climate Sta. Rita Hills of north Santa Barbara County.
Courtesy photo

So how do you get your head around the vast quantities of info and try to make some sense of the world of wine?

First, remember that the one thing — the only thing — that really matters is what kind of wine you like. Once you decide that Sancerre is for you, or that Oregon Pinot Noir makes your leg quiver, or that you’d pay good money (lots of good money) for that CDP, then you are on the road to discovery. Find out as much as you can about that wine and then add branches of knowledge from there.

Let’s say that Oregon Pinot Noir is to be your go-to wine. Start by picking up an Oregon wine book. You’ll see that the Willamette Valley is Pinot central. Write that down on a 3×5 card. Next, select, say, 5-10 producers whose wines you have either tasted, had recommended to you by someone in a wine shop, read about, or seen on the web. Write those down. Now look at a map and see what appellations, or districts, those are in. Then buy some bottles, and taste the wines. Make notes on what you taste next to the names on your card or cards.

Slowly and methodically, the Willamette Valley will start to make sense to you. You may find that you like elegant single vineyard wines made in classic Burgundian style by Domaine Drouhin. Perhaps the cuvees from Beaux Fréres, made from grapes grown throughout the Valley, please your palate. Regardless, you will have a more complete understanding of what it is you like to drink.

The Foxen Vineyards and Winery in Santa Barbara County focuses on the production of single-vineyard and single-block pinot noir, as well as a plethora of other wines.
Courtesy photo

Once you get the basics, your tree of knowledge can grow in different directions. You may progress to trying Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills. Use the same methodology, trying the wines, reading about the region, and writing notes on cards that you can keep and study. Next up: Burgundy.

Or maybe you fall in love with a particular producer who makes your favorite Oregon Pinot Noir and decide to try wines they make with other grapes in other regions. Think Owen Roe, who makes great Pinot Noir in Oregon, as well as Syrah and Cabernet Franc grown in other regions of Oregon and Washington State. Try the same process with another grape and your base will simply expand.

And remember, wine snobs are not cool. Frequently, those who act like they know, don’t. Ignore someone attempting to use their knowledge of wine as a weapon. Secondly, like skiing, there is always someone a little better than you and someone who doesn’t have your chops, but all deserve to share the hill. As you learn, take lessons from those who know more and share with those who know less. Wine is a very egalitarian thing.

I have not heard whether Paul liked his orange wine. I’m going to guess yes, but I hope the experience was worthwhile. It was such a pretty photo.


2020 Sea Smoke TEN

My aforementioned friend who poured the orange wine for her husband also has great taste in wine and shared that she is fan of the Sea Smoke Pinot Noir made in the Sta. Rita Hills by Victor Gallegos. This wine is unique in that it is the product of a blend of ten different clones of Pinot Noir that are planted on the biodynamic Estate vineyard high in the hills above the picturesque valley. Each of the clones hand-harvested in clusters brings something different to the wine. A bigger, or as they say, more masculine style of Pinot Noir, these wines have a hint of the spice and sage that surround the estate.

Sea Smoke Ten Pinot Noir.
Kelly J. Hayes/Courtesy photo
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