Editor’s Note: Several weeks ago, I called an old friend from high school. He’d made some snide remark in a text message about my writing about wine for a living, so I challenged him to the equivalent of a wine duel. I offered to pay him (as I get paid) to write about wine. “Camron” we’ll call him, to protect his identity, works in law enforcement. He’s never taken a class on wine, and I’m pretty sure he’s never tasted a wine over $15 a bottle. So, how did it go? Here is Camron’s [generously edited] recounting of his experience buying, tasting, and reviewing two wines, along with his best “recommendation” for why these wines would be good wines to sample if you’re studying say, WSET. So, as we collectively shelter-in-place, I hope this provides a brief, light-hearted respite.
Story by Camron Grey
I don’t often get asked to write about anything, let alone wine.
Until recently, that is.
I was on the phone catching up with an old friend of mine from high school, Jonathan Cristaldi. You may have heard of him? He’s a big-deal wine writer and editor out in California now, where he gets to wear sunglasses all the time and post photos of wine for a living.
Me? I’m a correction officer in a rural county in upstate New York, not too far from where we went to school. There’s always a hint of manure on the wind here—a bit like in some town named “Petaluma,” Cristaldi tells me, which I’ve never been to, and probably never will visit.
During our conversation, “Jonathan” proposed a bonkers idea:
“Hey, why don’t you write an article for me?”
“What, about wine?” I asked.
“Yeah. Yeah, about wine,” he said, puffing a cigar into the phone.
“I drink Bud Light. I know nothing about wine.”
“I know, I know,” Cristaldi blurted back at me through a sinister chuckle. “Hey, consider it a challenge.”
My Fair Lady sprang to mind. If you’re not familiar, it’s a musical about a lower-class Cockney woman who is given elocution lessons by a refined gentleman so that he may pass her off as a “Lady,” and thus win a wager he made with a friend.
Was Cristaldi, who is definitely more refined than I am, attempting something similar? Unsure if I should be insulted or not, I agreed.
An email arrived the next day detailing my mission: Given $40, I was to purchase two bottles of wine, review them, and ultimately decide whether they would be good for a “student of wine.”
Motivated by the knowledge that I’d be drinking for free that night, I got on with it. My journey took me to Grapevines Fine Wine & Liquor, in Wilton, New York, just down the road from the historic horse-racing town of Saratoga. (It’s also near the closest Target, where I had to return some light bulbs.)
The interior of Grapevines boasts warm lighting, just-wide-enough aisles, and thick-carpeted floors. Chest-high wine racks allow you to see all of your options—or if you’re being followed.
Each section of wine in the rack even had a display bottle on top with a handwritten note detailing the wine, like a “wine-at-a-glimpse.” These range from what flavors to expect, to the pedigree of the winery, and so much more.
Thanks to my training and innate attention to detail, I could easily discern which wine was red and which was white. As for the rest, well…
Of course, I’m familiar with the words “Chardonnay” and “Merlot.” I’m not a complete bumpkin. But, combing the aisles, as I began to see words like Shiraz, Malbec, Riesling, and others I couldn’t pronounce, I knew that I was in over my head. (I say “Sauvignon” with a ridiculous French accent to mask the fact that I don’t know how to say it the right way.)
So it was that after wandering around, picking up random bottles and frowning at them, I figured I should just ask for help, or else I would be there all day.
The employee at the register, a pleasant young lady I’ll call Alice (because I forgot to ask for her name), was busy with some work-related task behind the counter. I didn’t really want to bother her, but, by golly, I was there on a mission. I laid everything out on the table: About how my friend “Jonathan” was proverbially trying to turn me into a Lady, my lack of wine experience, all of it.
Alice was more than happy to assist and led me over to a red wine that she liked: a 2018 L’Umami Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. She explained to me that this wine had fewer “tannins” than other reds. That meant it wouldn’t “sit” on my tongue too long, which is nice, I guess.
Red wine in hand, Alice and I poked around the white wine section.
From a door in the back of the store (doesn’t that seem like a good title for a children’s wine book?) came a middle-aged woman who set about restocking the inventory with the sort of careless ease that only a veteran employee can have. I’ll call her Beverly. (Again, to my chagrin, I neglected to ask for her name.)
Conspiratorially, Alice said “Oh, she knows a lot about wine,” and she then explained to Beverly what I was looking for.
Beverly regarded me with a shrewd eye and began peppering me with questions I hadn’t considered.
She wanted to know:
Q: What was my experience with wine?
A: None. (One time, against my will, I saw Sideways, but I didn’t tell her that.)
Q: What I was using it for?
A: I would be drinking it. (I wasn’t being glib: Some people cook with wine, you know.)
Q: Who was I drinking it with?
A: My wife, unless she went to bed early.
Q: What we were eating with it if anything?
A: I said steak, but in truth, I’d been looking forward to a frozen pizza all day.
Since I was obviously no help, Beverly moved from one wine to the next, using terms such as “refined sugars,” doing her best to help the helpless.
In the end, because she had sounded very excited about it, I chose the 2016 Il Disperato Bianco delle Venezie IGT. She mentioned that it’s served in many fine restaurants in Saratoga and that it’s from Italy. Yes, that Italy. Good enough for me! I thanked them both and cashed out.
I had a few bucks left from my $40 stipend, so I went over to Taco Bell for lunch. I figured “Jonathan” wouldn’t mind.
— Later That Evening —
My wife was as excited as I was to do some real “adult” stuff, and prepared smothered steak tips with roasted potatoes, smashing my dreams of frozen pizza for at least one night.
I put on some music, broke out our two wine glasses (most recently used for margaritas) from waaay back in our highest cupboard, and rinsed the dust off. We plated up and got down to business.
I poured a few fingers of each wine, sniffed, and sipped both, with and without food, and possibly once or twice at the same time.
— The Tasting —
The Red: 2018 L’Umami Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Oregon
Is good wine supposed to have a twist-off cap? It smelled kind of “heavy.” It tasted earthy and dark, sour on the back end. The first couple of sips were fine, but each one after tasted more and more bitter. Was it those dang tannins Alice told me about, sitting on my tongue? After waiting five minutes or so, the next sip was actually pleasant, like when you’ve been in a hot tub too long, so you run to the pool for a quick cool-down and then get back into the hot tub. This wine did not alter the taste of the food.
The White: 2016 Il Disperato Bianco delle Venezie IGT
It had a cork! But my wife said that it was an imitation cork. (Thanks, Reddit.) Smelled very fruity. Tasted bright, sweet, a bit tart, with sour notes on the back end. My wife said, “Ladies would drink this when they hang out!” I could not detect any tannins sitting on my tongue. No alteration to the taste of the food.
— Scoring —
Cristaldi tasked me with scoring these wines using the 100-point scoring system. Do you know what that is? Because I don’t. To Wikipedia!
[Brief pause… and… we’re back!]
So, there’s a guy named “Robert Parker,” and, among other things, he’s widely credited as the person who popularized this numerical scoring system sometime in the 1970s. It actually ranges from 50 – 100 points, with an 85 being a “good” wine while a 100-pointer is extremely rare:
96 – 100 Extraordinary
90 – 95 Outstanding
80 – 89 Barely above average to very good
70 – 79 Average
60 – 69 Below average
50 – 59 Unacceptable
It’s essentially a 50 point scale, but an 85 sounds more impressive than a 42.5, so, I get it. The 50 points are awarded based on the following:
5 points for First Impression or Color
15 points for Aroma or Bouquet
10 points for Flavor
10 points for Finish
10 points for Overall Quality
Using the above grading system, my understanding is that a wine with a rating of 96 – 100 would be so “Extraordinary” that, once a single drop touches your face, you will probably never be the same again, and will spend the rest of your life scoffing at any other wine you taste, annoying everybody around you.
This type of rating system strikes me as being very subjective, and will likely vary from person to person. With all that in mind, I shall now pass judgment.
The Red: 2018 L’Umami Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Oregon: 70
The White: 2016 Il Disperato Bianco delle Venezie IGT: 82
— Final Thoughts —
I have completed two-thirds of what Cristaldi tasked me with. I have acquired the wine and graded it. All that remains now is to decide if they’d be good for a student of wine. There’s just one problem: I’m not that familiar with “wine studies.”
So, I think either bottle would be a great study in diversity for a student of wine, in the same way that I feel a student of medicine would benefit from examining different cadavers to determine the cause of death.
Next time: As I begrudgingly acquiesce to Cristaldi’s attempts to culture me, I shall journey to another wine store and regale you with some of the most inventive places I’ve seen inmates make hooch.
See you then!
Editor’s Note: Hope you enjoyed! Let us know what you think of Camron’s story. In the meantime, check out our online course offerings here.
Once an aspiring stage actor, Camron has spent the past thirteen years working in law enforcement because he is not a good actor.