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Natalie tastes sensuous pinot noir in the ancient cellars of Burgundy while discovering...
Natalie tastes sensuous pinot noir in the ancient cellars of Burgundy while discovering the mysterious tenets of biodynamic viticulture from such colourful characters as the tiny, ferocious Lalou Bize-Leroy, part-owner of France's acclaimed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. She pulls on sturdy boots to help with the grape harvest at California’s Bonny Doon Vineyards–and gets to the root of the anti-establishment philosophy of owner Randall Grahm, notorious for his experimental wine techniques, love for unfashionable grapes, and fondness for naming his wines “Cardinal Zin,” “Heart Has its Rieslings,” and “Big House Red” (whose grapes are grown just down the road from one of California’s state prisons).
Natalie takes a job as undercover sommelier at a five-star French restaurant, spends a day helping customers in a high-end New York wine shop, wades into a famous feud between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, two of the world’s best-known critics and, back home, invites friends over for a casual wine tasting. Along the way she teaches us–painlessly and often hilariously–how to face a telephone directory-sized wine list without fear, what questions to ask to get exactly the wine you are looking, what those scores out of 100 really mean, and how properly to expectorate (it’s best to start out in the shower!)
This wine-soaked blend of Kitchen Confidential and Sideways is a fascinating tour from the grape to the glass that will drive readers to drink. And think. And laugh.
I remember the night I tasted my first good wine. My future husband, Andrew, and I had just graduated from university and were enjoying our “wealth” relative to our student days. We dined out a lot and our favorite place was a small Italian restaurant around the corner from our apartment in Toronto.
The first time we went there, the owner, a tall, burly man with fierce dark eyes, asked us if we’d like to try the brunello. We thought at first it was a regional dish, but it turned out to be a red wine from central Italy. We were relieved not to have to tackle the wine list: neither of us knew much more about wine than which fluffy animals on the label we liked best.
When the owner opened the bottle tableside, the pop of the cork seemed to pierce something inside me and relieve a little pressure. He poured the brunello, a rich robe of mahogany, into two tumblers with none of the pretentious sniffing and approval ceremony. “Chimó!” he said, and bustled off.
As I raised the glass to my lips, I stopped. The aroma of the wine rushed out to meet me, and all the smells that I had ever known fell away. I didn’t know how to describe it, but I knew how it made me feel.
I moistened my lips with the wine and drank it slowly, letting it coat my tongue and slide from one side of my mouth to the other. The brunello trickled down my throat and out along a thousand fault lines through my body, dissolving them.
My second glass tasted like a sigh at the end of a long day: a gathering in, and a letting go. I felt the fingers of alcoholic warmth relax the muscles at the back of my jaw and curl under my ears. The wine flushed warmth up into my cheeks, down through my shoulders, and across my thighs. My mind was as calm as a black ocean. The wine gently stirred the silt of memories on the bottom, helping me recall childhood moments of wordless abandon.
Andrew’s eyes had softened and we talked with the wonder of unexpected abundance about our lives together, our career goals, our hope for a family. The pasta seemed unnecessary next to this wonderful wine. To paraphrase Robert Frost, our conversation glided on its own melting, as we moved from delight to wisdom. By the time we were on our second bottle, I started to feel so flammable that I wondered if I were violating the building’s fire code.
When we finally got up to leave, we realized that the restaurant was empty. We said good-night to the owner and he slapped Andrew on the back as if he were choking on a bread stick. That was the first of many happy evenings there, and we drank that brunello for a year. A pilot light had been ignited inside me; over time it would grow into the flames of full-blown passion.
Today, I joke that I started drinking seriously when I met Andrew. (Andrew is good-natured about this because there’s still some upside to having a wine writer for a wife.) However, my earliest experiences with wine should have driven me into the frothy embrace of beer forever. Growing up in Nova Scotia in the 1970s and ’80s, I’d be given one undrinkable glass of wine to toast the New Year, and another at Easter – usually from the same box. During the rest of the year, my Scottish family knocked back beer and whisky.
My teen drinking began and ended at the same high school dance, behind the utility shed where all the illicit activities took place: I chugged half a bottle of syrupy sparkling wine. Not only did it taste wretched, but it also made me spend the next day in the vise grip of a searing, sugar-withdrawal headache. After this, there were family celebrations. At a cousin’s wedding, I drank their homemade wine: Tanya and Ronny’s True Love Forever Chablis. I hoped the marriage would age better than the wine.
In the years that have passed since we discovered that brunello, the taste of wine has helped me store many memories. I remember one particular bottle because of the weather. Andrew and I were snug inside a rented cabin as rain battered the roof, dripped down the chimney, and hissed on the fire. Thunder rolled overhead as the windows rattled. The wind whipped across the lake in angry gusts, as if hurling itself at our cabin. The smoky aromas of that Rhône Valley syrah wrapped around my head and filled my body. The storm outside made the calm pleasure of the wine deeper, more sensual. As long as my glass was full, I wanted it to rage for years. Even when I’m drinking alone, my mind will still clink with past toasts, glasses drained, fond farewells. Some wines will always taste like a lost argument or a long embrace. I think many of us have a secret cellar in our minds where we collect our empty bottles filled with memories.
As I developed a taste for wine, I wanted to find words to describe the way it lightened and lifted me. I had long admired the way Colette, Dorothy Parker, and M. F. K. Fisher wrote about food and drink. They fused mind and body with their narratives, and I reread my favorite passages until I was drunk on their prose.
While Andrew and I were still in the bloom of childless romance, we decided to take an evening course: wine appreciation. Drinking at night was something we could handle after a long day’s work, and perhaps I’d even learn how to describe those feelings. That course opened our eyes to the diversity of wine: all the wine-producing countries, the subregions, appellations, quality designations, and the thousands of wineries – some of which are centuries old. There are hundreds of grapes, blends, styles, and winemaking methods to learn about, not to mention the chemistry of aging wine, the art of matching it with food, and the history of its role in civilization. In fact, at first our eyes were wide open in fear – the range of the subject seemed so daunting. How would we ever master even a small part of it?
1. Chapter 1: The Good Earth
a) Describe the difference in taste between wines from the Old World, such as France, Italy, and Spain, and those from the New World, including California, Australia, and Canada? What do you think causes these differences? (Hint: Try a couple of pinot noirs from Burgundy and compare them to pinots from Oregon, New Zealand or Canada.). For wines in stores now visit http://www.nataliemaclean.com/vintages.asp.
b) What style of wine do you prefer? Do you like a particular region or grape? Why?
c) How do you think France, in particular, will have to change its approach to marketing in order to compete more successfully with new wine regions?
2. Chapter 2: Harvesting Dreams
a) Do you think wine is more influenced by the soil and climate or by the winemaker? Why? Is this changing with wines today?
b) Which wine regions have you visited that were memorable? Why? Which regions would you like to visit?
c) Have you ever dreamed of a career in wine, food, travel or other related fields? Tell us about it.
3. Chapter 3: The Merry Widows of Mousse
a) Describe the difference in taste between bubbly from Champagne, France, and sparkling wines from other regions.
b) How well do you think bubbly marries with various dishes, such as oysters, sushi and sashimi, creamy cheeses, salads and vegetarian dishes, and even fried food and potato chips?
c) Why do you think women were so successful in running the great champagne houses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
4. Chapter 4: Purple Prose with a Bite
a) What's your view of the role and importanceof wine critics? Compare their influence in the world of wine to that of critics in other spheres, such as books, movies, and restaurants. Have you ever dreamed of being a critic in one of these spheres?
b) Does it make sense to score wine? Why or why not? Do you see scores as a useful tool when shopping for wine?
c) It's been suggested that women are better tasters than men? Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
5. Chapter 5: A Tale of Two Wine Stores
a) Describe the best and worst bottle of wine you've ever bought. The cheapest
and most expensive?
b) What are the wackiest wine labels you've seen? Do you think these are just gimmicky or do they help to make wine more accessible?
c) How could wine be marketed and sold differently?
d) Where is you favorite place to buy wine and why?
6. Chapter 6: A Glass Act
a) Describe the difference in taste between wine in a glass designed for it compared to those that aren’t or that are too small?
b) Why do you think Riedel has been more successful than other glassware makers in marketing its line?
c) What are some of the strangest wine descriptions you've read or heard?
7. Chapter 7: Partners at the Table
a) Can you recall a time when a wine and food pairing seemed truly spectacular? A time when one ruined the other? Do you think it's really worthwhile trying to match wine and food?
b) Have you ever had any memorable dishes cooked with wine?
c) What are the best dinner parties or dinners you've had with friends or colleagues? Why do you remember them?
8. Chapter 8: Undercover Sommelier
a) What have been your best and worst experiences ordering wine in a restaurant?
b) What do you think makes for good wine service? Have you ever had a nasty house wine?
c) How much should you tip on wine? Does that change for expensive bottles?
9. Chapter 9: Big City Bacchus
a) What have been your most memorable bottles of wine? Why?
b) Why do you think we accord wine such special status over other drinks?
c) What special bottles do you have in your cellar and when do you plan to drink them?
a) What did you learn about wine from Natalie's book? In what ways has reading it made you feel more confident about wine? What were your favorite and least favorite
parts of the book?
b) How would you compare her book to others about wine or food in terms of approach, research, voice, style and other aspects?
c) How was wine treated when you were growing up? Were you allowed to taste it? Was it forbidden? How has that influenced your consumption of and interest in wine?
d) How would you compare your consumption of wine to cocktails? Spirits? Beer? Why are there differences?
If you or your group would like to share your thoughts about Natalie's book after your session, please visit http://www.nataliemaclean.com/book/readers_form.asp to submit them.