Food & Wine

Felled by Oak

January 30, 2013

I wanted to title this post ‘Ashen Faced Over Oak Error’, but that seemed a bit over-the-top. It’s true, however, that my face was pretty red recently when I made my biggest wine tasting error ever. Apparently, no matter how much practice I’ve packed into the last year, this newbie still has a long, long way to go. At least I’m fairly certain the journey will be a fun one.

Here’s the story:

I was invited to a get together with a handful of Toronto’s wine lovers – all of them far more seasoned than me, but all very encouraging of my burgeoning wine passion. We each picked a wine to bring with a story to tell about it. I agonized over what to choose right up until a few days before when I visited the Niagara College Teaching Winery. It was there that I discovered their 2009 Dean’s List Chardonnay – a wine that I anticipated would be a huge, oaky, buttery chard – but when I tasted it at the winery I didn’t get the big hit of oak I expected. It was crisp, a little acidic, nicely balanced. I loved it. So I bought a bottle and brought it to the event as my selection of the evening.

They asked a simple question, is it oaked? Lightly, I replied, suddenly unsure. It hadn’t tasted oaky when I tried it, but it didn’t say unoaked on the bottle. So that meant it must be oaked… Yikes! Anyway,  they served my wine first and I told them how I didn’t like big oaky chards, but this wine was really different – not at all what I anticipated. Then, as I took a sniff, I realized… all kinds of huge oak. How did I miss that? When I smelled it at the winery, I caught a hint of oak but now this was full-on oak-a-palooza. If I could have crawled under the table at that point, I likely would have. But I didn’t, and the wine was still, well, pretty fantastic. And while I could taste the oak more this time, it was not as oaky as most of the Chardonnays I’ve tried and I still liked it a whole lot. I think a lot of the others at the table liked it to.

And, in the end, I had a great night. Everyone was far too lovely to tease me for my oak-error and I learned so much from them that I can’t thank them enough for including me. Was it embarrassing? Absolutely. And believe me, I will never make that mistake again, but I think that these sorts of foibles are par for the course when you’re learning. And having such an amazing and supportive wine community has helped so much – I know that they were all once newbies (I have to remind myself sometimes that no one comes out of the womb a fully formed sommelier), and they know I’m trying my best.

I also saw this as a learning opportunity. So here are the rookie mistakes that led to my oak idiocy:

1. I tasted just after having Icewine. We were there for the Icewine fest and participated in the group pairing and tasting right before hitting the tasting bar. There’s a reason you usually taste Icewine last – it can dull your palette and make it harder to pick up on nuances. Especially for a newbie like me.

2. It was crowded and busy and I didn’t ask enough questions. Or write everything down. I need to have my wine journal out and take my notes right there. The winery staff were a bit overwhelmed and I didn’t want to add to the stress, so I didn’t take my time.

3. I didn’t research the wine. I’d tasted it and loved it, which is great, but before a big wine event you should really do some deeper digging and be fully prepared to answer all the questions.

4. I picked a wine that was new to me. While I had done one tasting, that was it. I should have picked something I was more familiar with and had enjoyed at more than a tasting bar. I was so afraid that I’d bring something that wasn’t interesting enough that I chose a wine I didn’t know well enough.

All in all, great lessons. Do I wish I hadn’t learned them the hard way? Sure. But all that really matters is that you laugh at yourself and pick that wine glass right back up again.

Have you ever made an embarrassing wine error? I’d love it if you’d share some of your stories so I don’t feel so bad about mine!

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  • Reply coopSpeak January 30, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Krista, I don't think anyone there thought any less of you about this and in the end you learned some good lessons for when you are out and about on tastings. It was a great evening, lots of chatter, sharing of wine and stories and people who just love to drink wine. I was just happy to see you out and enjoying the evening. Can't wait for the next one!

  • Reply Craig Kuziemsky January 30, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Krista – One time in the Finger Lakes I was chewing gum while driving between wineries. I stopped to do a tasting and the first up was a Chardonnay. The gum must have dulled by tounge becasue I was sure I tasted some oak and I commented on it. The sommelier replied 'but it's an unoaked chardonnay'. Needless to say I felt pretty stupid but I blamed the Dentyne Ice!


  • Reply KristaLamb January 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    It WAS a great evening and I can't wait for the next one either. I think for me it was just a good reminder that we all make mistakes and that the most important thing is to learn from them and keep right on truckin'! So many people get intimidated by wine – myself included – so I thought this was just a great example of why you don't have to be so afraid. I'm just super lucky to have the opportunity to learn from such amazing people. 🙂

  • Reply KristaLamb January 30, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Craig, I love that story – thank you for sharing. That's sort of what happened with the Icewine, I think. Such a good lesson about how what you eat or drink can affect your taste buds – and make you feel a little silly! 🙂

  • Reply Tyler Philp January 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Krista – It was both a pleasure to meet you and to taste your wine. Please understand that there is not and never will be any pressure at an event that I host. These dinners are designed to gather good people with a common interest – that and our families will no longer listen to us discuss the contents of a bottle. There will always be an element of discovery and uncertainty when surprise bottles are served; that is what keeps us motivated to learn. The fact that we broke into Monty Python skits is telltale of how focused these people are – they are the very best that I could find short notice…

    Until we meet again!

  • Reply KristaLamb January 30, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    I think that the amazing thing about your events, Tyler, is that they strip away the intimidation factor. The post is really about the five minutes of the night that I felt embarrassed, but the reality is that I was able to move on and have a great evening. It was a wonderful lesson to me that the things you think are a big deal are often only a deal at all in your head. We're all still learning!

  • Reply Shawn McCormick January 31, 2013 at 3:26 am

    You learn a lot more by failing or making a mistake than you ever do by getting it right 100% of the time. Even the masters are still learning – check out the "So You Think You Know Wine" videos on Wine Align and watch the experts make is very refreshing. In fact, the two of us in my wine club that are nearing completion of our sommelier program likely get the fewest wines right in blind tastings (I think it is because we think about it too much), much to the amusement of the others. Here's to more failures and mistakes we can all learn from! Cheers!

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