An oenophile-in-training catches the bouquet
Standing behind a neat row of six bottles of wine — two white, four red — Susan Buchanan smiles and waits expectantly for me to take my first sip. “What do you think?” she asks, then laughs as I grimace and spit out a small mouthful of Xenius, a Spanish sparkling wine, into a nearby vase.
“It confirms that I don’t like white wine,” I tell her. “Especially bubbly.”
The woman behind me loves the stuff, however, and immediately orders several bottles for New Year’s Eve. “To each his, or her, own” could be the motto here at Wine Works, where customers are encouraged to become not wine snobs — as I facetiously set out to achieve last Saturday — but simply more knowledgeable about their own tastes.
Along the way, of course, you might pick up a thing or two about the venerable fruits of the vine, which, as mountains of books, glossy magazines and devoted oenophiles will happily tell you, come in a dizzying number of varieties. But Wine Works proprietors Bill Shahady and Brent Sloan, along with “bartender” Buchanan, are eager to demystify the seemingly overwhelming arcana of wine, sip by sip. And there is no better teacher than experience.
That’s why Wine Works has offered twice-weekly evening classes and weekend tastings in their downstairs classroom since the store’s opening in October on St. Paul Street in Burlington. The first thing you learn is that at a wine tasting, here or anywhere, it’s not impolite to spit — even if you like the stuff swirling around in your mouth. After all, even at tiny 50-cent samples — state law requires the store charge something for alcohol — six different varieties can give you a bit of a buzz. And it’s still early in the day.
The tall, clear glass cylinder — call it a wine spittoon — is nearly half-full of presampled vino when I arrive for my lesson on a Saturday afternoon. As it happens, the white stuff comes first, and I gamely try both. I don’t know why I dislike the taste of white wine, I just do, and it gives me an instant headache — a reaction most people more commonly have with reds. I figure I might meet a white I like eventually, or at least learn the difference between, say, a chablis and a chardonnay. But chances are, the one that wins me over will be a hundred dollars a bottle — all the more reason to stick to my humble-priced merlots.
The second white today is an Alsace Hugel Gentil. Ick. Spit. Better luck with the first of four reds. The Echelon Merlot, from the central coast of California, has a bit of that smoky flavor I don’t like, but has a pleasing smoothness that manages to be tart and soft at the same time. Returning to it later, I find it’s improved after “breathing.” Swallow. Buchanan, a former lawyer who clearly delights in her newfound weekend job, reveals the Echelon has been the hands-down favorite today. Shahady confirms
it’s a “real crowd pleaser” in general — a good wine to take to a party.
Next up is Buckley’s — named after a well-known Australian character considered to be “the original hippie.” A blend of cabernet and merlot, this one is a little more syrupy, what Sloan might compare to chocolate milk — as opposed to whole or skim, his way of talking about a wine’s density. I think I could get used to the Buckley’s, and I like the chatty explanation on its handsome label. Swallow.
The Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel, a vintner’s cuvée, or blended wine, from California, goes over the edge for me — too syrupy and sweet. Might as well drink a port. Spit.
As it happens, the best — my best — comes last. Coincidentally or not, it’s also the oldest of this sextet: a ’96 Chateau de Perron Madiran. I’ve never heard of Madiran before, and am pleased to learn something new that I actually want to remember. From the southwest of France near Bordeaux, this red is fruity and full of tannins. It’s made with the tannet grape, Shahady informs. He and Buchanan think its aftertaste is like blue cheese. I don’t quite get that, but this one earns a couple of swallows, and an asterisk in my notebook.
The six bottles presented at Wine Works today are in the $10 to $13 range, not a huge step up from the $7 to $9 I typically go for. In fact, a new favorite is a $7.50 Levefano “Negroamaro” — I’m partial to Italians at the moment — I’d purchased upstairs the week before. You can, of course, go sky-high with prices on the bottles offered here, or in any wine store. But at least you know what you’re getting into: At Wine Works, the wares are nestled in industrial wire racks that are well lit arid labeled with price, country of origin and brief descriptions of the wine’s flavor. They’re democratically arranged, with less expensive wines side-by-side with far costlier ones — reflecting the store’s philosophy, perhaps, that price is a less important guide than personal taste. (Or maybe it’s the only way they can get people like me to even look at something above $12 a bottle.) Reference books are available, as are piles of magazines such as Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast and Decanter, these parked in front of a TV that is always tuned to the Food Network. The bright, roomy store is user-friendly, and so is the help, if you want it.
Shahady and Sloan, both 28, are graduates of the New England Culinary Institute — they met at the school and were two of the first class of students in the B.A. program in food and beverage management. Shahady is from Chapel Hill, N.C.; Sloan grew up all over the world, mostly in Asia, but most of his family now calls Houston home. Both have learned the restaurant business from kitchen to cash register — and learned they don’t want to run one. “It’s still 100 hours a week, but it’s not the same as a restaurant,” says Shahady, referring to launching a new retail business. “We hate perishable things,” chimes in Sloan.
Some of those long hours are still in the classroom, however; both owners teach at NECI Commons on Church Street and at The Inn at Essex. Shahady handles financial analysis, Sloan taste and flavor — “all about food, wines, what goes with what,” describes his partner. Sloan was also the wine director at NECI and, though Shahady’s knowledge is significant, it’s Sloan who steps in with the detailed explanations. But I suspect it wasn’t NECI that taught him to compare wines to rock ‘n’ roll, jazz or easy listening, nor to make statements such as “Wine is like the Force in Star Wars — it can be used for good or evil.” The store’s intern, Matt Imse, is a NECI guy, too, getting a hands-on education in wine, of course, as well as retail service.
An extensive background in food and wine, coupled with a laid-back, unpretentious attitude, is what sets Wine Works apart from many a big-city wine shop — and what makes browsing there simultaneously more fun and less haphazard than, say, grabbing a bottle off the shelf at the supermarket. But the fact that you can buy wine just about anywhere — including at well-established venues like Burlington’s Cheese Outlet-Fresh Market, Cheese Traders or the Net Result — makes you question how a store selling only wine can survive in a relatively small city like Burlington. After all, Romancing the Vine, the last place to try, died on it.
Shahady and Sloan are banking on customer service, and the growing sophistication of wine drinkers. “We think people are more adventurous [about wine]” offers Shahady, “and there’s no one to help you in a grocery store. We try to take people on an adventure.” Indeed, he and Sloan frequently refer to wine as the taste of a region, as if imbibing alone is like communing with the people, the very earth, of France, Italy, the Napa Valley.
“Wine consumption [in the U.S.] is stable,” Shahady continues, “but people are spending more on a bottle. They’re getting into ‘boutique-y’ wines and away from the ‘name brands.’” So is it out with Gallo and in with, say, Salice Salentino? Not necessarily; American consumers in general like consistency of flavor, points out Sloan, and large producers such as Gallo blend grapes and vintages to create the same taste year after year. Wine from a small vineyard, on the other hand, may vary somewhat from year to year, or from one slope to another, depending on weather conditions and other factors. That’s why oenophiles can wax over minutiae of “good years” and “bad years” that will leave the wine spritzer crowd scratching their heads.
Using proliferation of choices as a measure of sophistication, I’d have to say wine consciousness is up in Burlington, because another outlet du vin has appeared just a block from Wine Works on St. Paul. A darkly contemporary reincarnation of Iron Works restaurant opened three weeks ago, and already rivals the reservation recommended status of its former location in Lawson Lane. The restaurant, this time, comes with a retail wine store attached. It is a very different experience from its friendly competitor down the street. Darker, for one thing, like a cross between a wine cellar and an upscale lawyer’s office. Murky colors and small pools of track lighting seem to cloak the mysteries of the grapes. The visual effect is appealing, unsullied by the usual signs of commerce, but it’s daunting to the novice.
Bottles are lined up tightly in narrow shelves, so that you must pull the entire thing out to read the label. No signage here to point the way; customers must search for the perfect bottle as if it were an obscure book in the library stacks. While I can imagine the pursuit being thoroughly enjoyable — and young sales clerk Sarafina Wiezalis says she has “a passion for helping people make the right choice” — I also imagine it helps to know what you’re looking for before you get there. Or find something you like with dinner in the restaurant, then grab a bottle to take home for later.
Which brings me back to education, and the down-home approach Shahady and Sloan take to it. Try as I might to pick up some “snob” terms, this duo would rather tell me what fun it is to “blind-taste” wines and try to describe them. “I love a wine that smells like Fruit Loops,” says Sloan, “I always recognize it.” For his part, Shahady characterizes a recent olfactory encounter with a syrah like “wet pavement.”
“It’s just so hard for me to tell people there is a language to wine,” Shahady adds. “You make you own terms.”
“Like, is it a GE Soft Light or a laser beam?” Sloan offers.
I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it has a big nose.