From a can of Budweiser to a connoisseur (kind of)
When it comes to drinks, I’m not really a wine guy. Beer is more my thing.
I appreciate wine like I appreciate vodka. I occasionally sip it, I enjoy the way it makes me feel and I don’t think any more about it. In a blind tasting, I could probably tell the cheap stuff from the expensive stuff, and that’s about as far as it goes.
I’m a 32-year-old married man, and I’ve never been to a vineyard. My main criterion for purchasing wine is: “Under $20? Great! Red? Sure. White? Why not?” At home, my wife and I will split bottles of sparkling Moscato or Lambrusco. And when I’m buying wine for myself, I’ll go with Chianti or Pinot Noir.
I know the rule about ordering wine in a restaurant (If you have money, order the second most expensive bottle on the list and if you don’t have much cash, then go with the second cheapest), and I know how to use a corkscrew. I guess I’m not what you would call a “connoisseur.”
The Wine Coach
I decided it was time to learn a little more about wine, so I called Laurie Forster – a certified sommelier and author of The Sipping Point: A Crash Course in Wine. She’s extremely knowledgeable, and her casual approach takes the snobbish pretension out of a subject famous for snobbish pretension.
Forster is the creator of The Wine Coach – a free app available for iPhone and Android – which was rated in the Top Eight Wine Apps by Wine Enthusiast magazine. Along with corporate wine tastings, Forster (who had stand-up training at the DC Improv) mixes stand-up comedy with her tastings for her Something to Wine About show, where she’s billed as the Stand-Up Sommelier.
“The whole big message of the show is trust your own taste,” she says.
But what if you don’t know where to start?
<<< Read our Q&A with The Wine Coach here. >>>
“I started to attend tastings and wine classes,” Forster says. “It’s a great way to start – especially if you’re on a budget. Just getting out to the vineyards, tasting the wine and asking questions – that’s how you learn.”
Central PA wineries operate on a smaller scale than their West Coast counterparts, but that’s also what makes them so special, Forster says.
“You taste something that you couldn’t taste anywhere else. That makes it exciting,” Forster says. “In the wine industry we call it terroir*, meaning that a Merlot from Hershey is not going to taste like a Merlot from California.”
The Vineyard At Hershey
I was wearing a pink shirt because that’s what you wear when you’re going to a vineyard – right?
It was a warm Sunday in October as my wife and I drove northwest on Route 283. We turned off at the Hershey exit and passed through idyllic farm country – the rustic barns and colorful foliage creating the perfect mood for a day of wine tasting at The Vineyard at Hershey.
When we pulled up to the vineyard, we saw that a homebrew festival was taking place. The Vineyard at Hershey is also home to The Brewery at Hershey, and it’s Pennsylvania’s first winery and brewery under one roof. Basically, it’s the perfect place for a beer guy to learn how to be a wine guy.
We met Mike Wilson (aka Merlot Mike), the vice president of marketing and outreach at the vineyard. We caught him along the driveway leading to the barn, which doubles as a tasting room and a production center. He had some quick things to attend to with the homebrewers, so he led us into the beer tasting room and set us up with a beer flight sampler. So far, I was loving wine tasting.
The crowd was a mix of jovial homebrewers and bearded hipsters, young couples and the casual middle-aged professional set. There was a live band doing some folksy-rockabilly stuff on the patio. There was a line at the food truck that they brought in for the event. It’s obvious from the hip crowd that the winery has a huge social media following. In fact, it has the largest social media following of all PA wineries (shout out to
It wasn’t exactly the stuffy, highbrow vibe I was expecting from a vineyard. I liked it right away. “This isn’t your Grandfather’s winery,” says Wilson.
(Side note: Wilson got his nickname from the vineyard’s inaugural Merlot release party – their signature event – where, sporting a pimped-out purple suit, Wilson flew in on a helicopter and declared himself “Merlot Mike, King of the Grapes.” Last year’s event drew more than 5,000 people, which is unheard of for a Pennsylvania wine release party).
The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey sits on 40 acres of farmland with rows of vines facing east on a sloping hill and a pond providing a natural water supply. A Penn State agricultural professor once surveyed the land and commented that the property was the “perfect place to grow grapes.” There is a small brewer’s garden with some hops, pumpkins, melons, peppers and blueberries that all find their way into the beer.
“This like Pennsylvania agriculture redefined, but it’s craft; it’s fun,” says Wilson. “We’re experimenting with it and just making it part of the whole drink local movement.”
I asked Wilson if we could sample some of the wines, and he led us to the vineyard’s tasting room.
The Vineyard at Hershey’s tasting room is housed in a 19th-century farmhouse and offers 20 different wines to choose from. There’s a style for every palate and plenty to explore.
As we looked over the sheet Wilson provided, I noticed some of the sweet whites my wife usually gravitates to (like the Sparkling Moscato), and I was intrigued by some of the interesting dry reds and blends.
“There’s this stigma that Pennsylvania is only able to produce these super sugary cough syrupy wines. Pennsylvania gets a bad rap for wine,” says Wilson. “We use a tagline, ‘The Pennsylvania wine that will change your mind.’ The whole point is to do premium products in a non-pretentious atmosphere.”
Being a wine novice, I had to ask Wilson about the proper way to taste wine. “We’re very laid back,” Wilson says. “Have fun with it, and just experiment and try different things. But if people want to be educated, we can certainly do that.”
Then he told us about the “Five S’s.” Swirl your glass. Sniff the wine, and if you want to maximize that, you can cover your glass and bring it to your nose and take a big nice deep breath. Sip. Then savor, letting the wine sit on your tongue for a moment. Then come two more options: spit or swallow.
Merlot Mike led us through a tasting of dry white wines, dry reds, sweet and dessert wines. First, Wilson poured us two kinds of Chardonnay – an oaked and un-oaked. It was interesting to taste how much difference the oak element added to the same grape. The oaked was smooth and buttery, and the un-oaked was a little more citrusy and crisp.
Next came the reds, and Wilson explained that typically you should let a wine breathe for about 15-20 minutes. He also explained tannins*, which determine how dry a wine will be. Since we were hanging with Merlot Mike, we had to taste the Merlot, which he says often elicits an, “I can’t believe this is a Pennsylvania Merlot” response. It had a fruit forward taste with notes of smoke and oak. I think I was getting the hang of this tasting thing.
Before we left the vineyard, we decided to buy a few bottles. I thought of Laurie Forster’s advice to “trust your own taste.” In the end, we bought what we typically buy: the Sparkling Moscato and a red Lambrusco-style, which The Vineyard at Hershey calls Crimson Fox.
We strolled around for a bit longer and even tasted some young grapes that had grown back on the vines since the harvest. The music was still going, and it was a beautiful day.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur to enjoy wine. You just need some good wine, good friends and maybe a list of terms to help you bullshit your friends. (Oh hey, that’s directly below this paragraph.)
Step Up Your Wine Game: Learn these terms
Holiday season is fast approaching, and you’ll be at plenty of parties where wine is being served. If you don’t really know what you’re talking about when it comes to wine but you want to sound like you do, then this glossary of wine terms is for you. (Hint: Each one of these terms could have it’s own article written about it. So drop them in conversation and quickly change the subject to the Eagles game or your cousin Sarah’s boyfriend’s “career” as an artisanal birdhouse maker.)
adjective | prounouced: new-VOH
The first wine of a vintage usually available around mid-November.
“This nouveau wine was made from Chambourcin grapes that were on the vine just a month ago – just like Sarah’s boyfriend’s latest artisanal cubist-style birdhouse was a balsa tree a month ago.”
noun | pronounced: ter-WAHR
The effect of the geography, soil composition and climate of a region on the characteristics expressed in the wine.
“Much like Sarah’s boyfriend’s birdhouses are totally unique, this Pennsylvania Merlot’s terroir distinguishes it from those made in California.”
noun; adjective | pronounced: ooh-MA-mee
One of our five basics tastes – along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Debated since the early 20th century and officially recognized in 1985, umami (a loanword from the Japanese) is a pleasant savory taste that appears in wines like some Chardonnays as well as foods like shitake mushrooms.
“Ooh, mommy! Do you taste that umami flavor in this creamy Chardonnay?”
noun | pronounced: TA-nins
Have you ever sipped a red wine and immediately felt a dry sensation in your mouth? That’s from the tannins. You know – the astringent polyphenolic compound found in plants. Duh.
“This Cabernet Sauvignon has some firm tannins. Did you see Sarah’s boyfriend’s birdhouse sweater?”