It’s an irony that the most popular alcoholic beverage is also the most feared.
Perhaps more than any other drink, wine can intimidate the casual sipper. How many of us have balked when presented with a wine list with its seemingly endless choices and regions? And how to describe the taste of a specific vintage without sounding like a gasbag?
Worse still is wine’s association with in-the-know snobbery. Even among friends, can we safely admit that we actually like the unfairly maligned merlot?
Fortunately, two local establishments offer the chance to sample the wares, learn more about wine-producing regions, how to distinguish between varietals and, above all, the opportunity to learn what appeals to our palate. Ultimately both programs are about educators sharing their passion and creating nonfussy environments where beginners can feel comfortable asking questions and savvy connoisseurs can broaden their knowledge with behind-the-scenes information and sample wines from off-the-beaten-track estates.
Windsor Uncorked: The Grill Room at the Windsor Court
Affable, smooth, approachable: It’s easy to describe John Mitchell, sommelier for the Grill Room, as one might a bottle of wine.
Mitchell is a certified sommelier and former director of wine at Stella!, which, before it closed last year, had been a Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Wine Restaurant. Recently, I had the chance to attend one of Mitchell’s wine courses, part of the recently launched Windsor Uncorked series.
Sipping at a relaxed and question-friendly pace, Mitchell led our small group through a tasting of six red wines from France’s celebrated Côtes du Rhône, an area that runs roughly between the cities of Lyon and Avignon, and is known, as Mitchell noted, as the birthplace of Syrah and Grenache.
Culling from the Rib Room’s cellars, Mitchell’s offerings spanned both larger estate-bottled wines as well as labels from small, independent producers, many of whom he’d visited firsthand.
While one bottle would retail at more than $100, most had far more moderate price tags — between $25 and $35. Mitchell focused on distinguishing between the variety within the appellation and how shifts in soil and climate can affect taste. Mitchell admitted he lets his palate drive the tasting menu.
“I pour what I want to drink,” he said.
The next Windsor Uncorked series, scheduled for April 17, will offer a tour of Spanish wines. Future events will bring beer and cheese pairings into the mix in partnership with St. James Cheese Co. (May 6), and sherry will be the focus in June.
The Windsor Uncorked series convenes in the elegant and upscale Grill Room in the Windsor Court Hotel. Most courses run $40 plus gratuity. Class size is limited to create an intimate experience, and reservations are required. Call (504) 522-1994 and see descriptions and dates of upcoming classes at www.grillroomneworleans.com/special-events-and-offers.
WINO: The Wine Institute of New Orleans
WINO owner and educator Bryan Burkey’s credentials are impressive and include a Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma from the International Wine Center in New York City.
“Bryan is one of the most knowledgeable sommeliers in the South,” WINO Manager Caroline Harrington said.
While Burkey offers certification-level courses for wine and restaurant industry professionals, the bulk of his students are not experts. One of his most popular and perennially sold-out Tuesday night classes, Intro to Wine Tasting, is an informative overview and sampling of eight wines from eight regions.
WINO most likely will expand its class offerings as Harrington also begins teaching on Sundays. She is developing a how-to course on navigating a restaurant wine list.
“We want to get away from the general consensus that wine people are snobby and push folks to not feel intimidated,” she said. “Wine classes are a great date night out. They’re a lot of fun.”
Classes begin at 7 p.m., run for approximately 90 minutes and generally cost $40. For information and a schedule of upcoming courses, see www.winoschool.com.
WINO 610 TCHOUPITOULAS ST., (504) 324-8000.
WINO has shifted from its previous model as a retail-heavy store to an on-the-premises drinking destination. With its exposed brick walls and stainless steel tap systems, WINO does indeed resemble a vineyard cellar.
Wines can be purchased on tap in 1-, 2- or 4-ounce quantities, allowing visitors to sample widely without burning a hole in their wallets. Short wine notes posted above each tap help guide in making selections. For take away bottles, visit WINO’s new retail space at 201 St. Charles Ave.
The Tchoupitoulas location will add a small bar to its front area. While the focus will remain on wine, the beer selection also will grow and be joined by a full bar with a short craft cocktail menu.
THREE GREAT MERLOTS
SELECTED BY CAROLINE HARRINGTON, MANAGER OF WINO.
“If anyone orders merlot, I am leaving,” declares the character of Miles Raymond (played sneeringly by Paul Giamatti) in the 2004 hit film “Sideways.” The famously snarky line has kept lovers of the varietal in hiding for years. But Harrington begs no more and claims merlot should be considered a serious contender for any wine lover. Here are three of her favorites, all of which can be found on tap at the Tchoupitoulas location. The prices are per bottle.
OPOLO, CALIFORNIA, $18
PRENDINA GARD, ITALY, $25
EHLER’S, SAINT HELENA, CALIFORNIA, $40.