Red, Red Wine
Considering that I’m halfway through a bottle of wine as I write this, it’ll come as no surprise when I say that, yes, I like wine. Let’s go so far as to say that I love wine. It’s just one of those things in life that makes me incredibly happy. It’s not so much the alcohol content (which helps in that elevation of mood, I’ll admit) but the way wine tastes, as well as how different notes hit the nose and the palate and conjure up different associations. A hint of earthiness, a whiff of freshly cut grass...
I have friends who are able to swirl their glass, take a sip, and declare "limestone!" or "wet wool!" and then go on to pair the wine perfectly with beef bourguignon. But I've never been much good at expressing what a particular varietal tastes like beyond abstract images. So, while I know what I have in mind, how do I explain to a waiter or sommelier that not only do I want a white that will go well with my oysters, but I want it to remind me of sunshine and lounging by the seashore? Or a rich, dark red that’ll evoke the smoky campfires and good times I had in the Sierras last fall? Is there actually a way to quantify these things and a vocabulary to bridge the gap?
To find out, I turn to Mark Bright, sommelier and co-owner of the Mission district’s Saison. Having always wanted to peep into the spot next to Stable Café (but deeming it sadly outside my pay grade), the Saison Wine School seems like the perfect way to spend a couple hours in the private dining room, taste a handful of amazing wines, and possibly get a pro's approach to some of my questions. That is, if I can remember what my questions are after 10 glasses of wine.
Upon entering the courtyard, it’s immediately apparent that Saison is a wine spot. Empty bottles abound and I’m reminded of my first visits up to friends’ houses in Napa, where treasured bottles line windowsills, desks, and everywhere in between.
Like those first informal “wine tutorials” with friends, Mark's approach is a cross between educating us on the physical landscapes of these wines and giving us his guidance in vocalizing what we sense – fruit, earth/mineral tones, wood flavors – all the while going off onto incredibly funny tangents. He's like a favorite college professor, only younger and better looking (at least if you went to Catholic school).
The informal nature of the class stretches even into Mark’s preparation for it. Often the region or theme behind a Saturday class will be decided the night before (and more often than not it’ll depend on what he happens to be drinking). On this particular Saturday we’re diving into the Loire Valley, which features clean, pure wines with high acidity, a choice I can definitely live with.
Good glasses help, though Mark likes to point out that tasty wine will still be tasty however you drink it. (But for God’s sake, go for a keg cup over Styrofoam; that stuff sucks the flavor out of everything but instant noodles.)
Once thought of as an indicator of quality, Mark explains that wine "legs" (those streaks that run down a glass after you swirl it) are actually just indicators of a wine's alcohol content – higher alcohol, more visible legs. He also remarks on the "body" of the wine and tells us to compare it to milk. Light-bodied wine will be similar to nonfat, medium-bodied to 2 percent, and full-bodied will feel almost like whole milk. Of course I forgot to ask about the soy milk crowd.
Who knew a wine could smell like "I left my blueberries in my saddlebag strapped to my horse for one day too long"? Or that a particularly funky white could be described as "so crazy, it's like you're running around in the labyrinth with David Bowie singing to you"? As both descriptions came straight from sommelier Mark Bright, I am no longer afraid to vocalize my dreams: I want a rosé that smells like the Napa River, but tastes like strawberry-rhubarb pie. You got one?
In the end, Mark assures us that his uncanny ability to detect all the nuances of any given wine comes not from some God-given talent, but from practice, and lots of it. Finding a wine you like to drink is one thing, but articulating why you like it can be another challenge altogether (especially if the one comes before the other) so it's often helpful to have a few guidance counselors on hand.
You can start by taking one of the weekly classes at Saison Wine School. For $150 you’ll get two hours of Mark’s knowledge on specific wine regions, plus healthy pours of up to 12 different wines. Classes are held to a max of 12 participants, so you’re guaranteed plenty of individual attention.
If structured learning isn't your bag, sidle up to Terroir Natural Wine Bar and start asking questions. Not only are its wines fantastic, but all the gents behind the bar love to help figure out what you’re hankering for and are happy to let you taste until you hit on the perfect glass. Plus, if you like what you’re drinking, you can always splurge on a bottle to take home (and turn that Tuesday into its own pleasant memory).