Fine Wine: Overlooking the complexities of the wine world, a vino virgin has a taste of Napa
Timidly, I twirl a glass of crimson wine and wait for the evaporating flavours to hit my nostrils. “Now sip and let the aromas explode in your mouth,” suggests a dedicated wine enthusiast. There’s a very berry initial taste followed by a peppery finish. “Velvety or textural?” he asks politely. I’m unable to decide, since I’m still wondering whether I should open my palate to this tedious tasting exercise. But what’s Napa without wines? I make up my mind. Faltering sips continue.
Honestly, I haven’t thought about the history of Sonoma or the geography of Napa. My wine vocabulary is limited to white and red. And I’d rather talk about casual-wear than stem-ware. I hit Napa as part of a touristy itinerary in California. Endless views of lush vineyards, quaint cellars and fine-dining experiences as captured in travel brochures enticed me, not the unique varieties of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon in the bountiful valley.
So where do I start in this unwieldy world of vineyards and wineries? The Napa Valley Wine Train has all it takes for a perfect primer. The lavishly restored vintage rail car with huge windows rolls through 25 miles of famous vineyards, offers gourmet food from local produce and provides a selection of wines in a stylishly done-up tasting car during its three-hour round trip from Napa to St. Helena.
As the tour guide talks about the distinct wineries and commercial producers of Napa — from the over 150-year-old Charles Krug and David Fulton wineries to the iconic Stags Leap, lunch is served. Predictably, the pairing happens. Baby lettuce salad with candied walnuts and smoked goat cheese in a honey cider vinaigrette. The suggested wine for this first course is Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier Blend 2011.
Even as I try to get the name right, the menu that lists entrées arrives. Roasted beef tenderloin, grilled pork tenderloin, coriander breast of chicken, grilled salmon fillet or chef’s vegetarian trio. All entrees are paired with wines whose names might take a while for me to pronounce. My grilled salmon fillet is beautifully placed on a shrimp risotto with wilted spinach and shaved parmesan. I can’t wish away its accompaniment — ZD Wines Chardonnay 2010. As a co-passenger extols the intimate marriage of pineapple and apricot and the balanced acidity of this full-bodied wine, I sip mine and desperately try to match his description with my impression. The tasting bar that showcases some boutique wines and Napa classics lures a good number of visitors. But I simply sit by the window enjoying the views outside. Uninterrupted rows of verdant vineyards with rose bushes playing sentinels remind me of computer-generated images. Groups of cheery tourists at wineries add colour to a predominantly mono-toned landscape.
When the train returns, we take a conducted tour to get a feel of the vines-to-wines journey that includes more tasting sessions!
So the swirl-sniff-sip-spit routine happens all over again. I’m not whining. There’s a lot of interesting light conversation happening between well-orchestrated sessions. Why shouldn’t you wear heady perfumes to tasting dos? Why should you smell wine before you taste it? What are dump buckets / spittoons doing in well-anointed tasting rooms? Can the warmth of your palms alter the taste of your wine? What are the safe bets for beginners? Why do some connoisseurs hate the wine-cheese pairing? What are rose bushes doing in vineyards? Is blind tasting a good idea? How do you survive tasting sessions without getting tipsy?
The art of vinology has kindled so many thoughts on my mind. Let me just wait for them to ferment and distil before I hold my next glass of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.