Allow me to paraphrase from a really great documentary I just viewed: “Whenever you open a bottle of wine you are introduced to a year of weather, generations of history, and thousands of years of biology and geology.” With all of the discussion and interest in farm to plate, we do not pay enough homage to the relationship of agriculture and wine. For all intents and purposes, wine and cooking are agricultural products and processes. The beginnings of a great meal and an accomplished cook are the same, in many respects, to the accomplishments of a great wine maker and sommelier.
American Wine Story
The more a person delves into the enjoyment of drinking wine, the more he or she needs to understand the process of growing grapes, just as the more passionate a cook becomes, the more he or she must understand how crops are grown and animals raised. To some, wine is a commodity, just as the food that they consume for energy. Great wine and great food is beyond their comprehension and far from their focus of interest. This is, of course, their loss. A wine without the passion of a dedicated grape farmer and wine maker is no more interesting than food reheated in a microwave. To those who have never experienced the epiphany of an incredible wine or a life-changing meal, I can only say: “I am sorry for your loss.”
What is most interesting for professional cooks and chefs is the relationship that knowledge of wine has to their ability to cook at the highest level. There is a direct corollary between wine and food knowledge. As a college student, my experience with wine was limited to Mateus and Lancers Rose, and an occasional bottle of Boone’s Farm (yuck). I had early line cook positions at restaurants that would proclaim these items as “must haves” on a wine list, so you can appreciate the skill level and lack of passion that might have existed in the back of the house.
As my desire grew to stay the course and become proficient as a cook, so too did my interest in drinking “real wine”. It really wasn’t until my first trip overseas that the light bulb went off. I attribute some of this early lack of interest to a universal lack of appreciation for wine by Americans until the late 1970’s. When I was able to toast a chef from another country, in his wine cellar, with wine that he made, my culinary life really changed. Sure, I was working in much better restaurants at this point, but cooks at the time were unfamiliar with wine as a thing of passion and an agricultural product that enhanced the experience of dining. That glass of wine (the first in a cellar owned by an Austrian chef) was an extension of who he was, it was a child that he and his family grew to love, respect, and in this case share as a symbol of hospitality. It was exceptional!
From this point on, my standards truly changed, my expectations of everything to do with food and restaurants changed, and my intent on building a base of knowledge was set. This same type of experience and transition is necessary for anyone who wants to pursue a life of food, a career behind the line. To know food is to understand the farmer and the soil that he or she works with. To know wine is to know the grape farmer, the wine maker, the vineyard family and the soil that they work with. Here are some bits of information that might help young cooks take an interest in this magnificent agricultural product as they pursue their dream of a life with food.
THE TEN MINUTE WINE CLASS
 THE PROCESS
Grapes traditionally grown during the summer months and are harvested approximately 100 days after blossoms appear on the vines. Vines rarely produce any grapes until they are three years old, but can continue producing for a generation or more.
When grapes reach the correct brix (sugar content), they are harvested and crushed to release their juice. In most cases the pits are set aside, in some cases the skins remain through the first maceration, or in the case of most white wines, removed.
Wines are both vat fermented (sometimes in stainless steel, other times in oak barrels) and bottle fermented (sometimes available for consumption very early – such as Nouvelle Beaujolais) for a period of months or years before they reach their peak of drinkability. Wine is, a living product, constantly changing as it sits in cask and bottle. Some wines age well; others should be consumed young, since they will rather quickly deteriorate in quality.
The process of converting grape juice to wine is known as fermentation (conversion of natural sugar and yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide).
 TYPES OF WINE
All wines fall into one of these three categories:
Table Wine: 8-15% alcohol – this includes nearly every wine that would accompany food or serve as a “quaffing” beverage on its own.
Sparkling Wine: 8-12% alcohol – The carbon dioxide is retained in these wines that include Champagne. NOTE: To officially be classified as champagne, a sparkling beverage must use the champenoise process and originate in the champagne region of France.
Fortified Wines: 17-22% alcohol – these wines have a higher viscosity and include sherry, marsala, port, and madeira as examples.
This term does not refer exclusively to soil, although soil is an important part of terroir. It also includes consideration of climate and topography. The single most important factor that impacts the flavor and quality of wine is the composite of terroir.
 WINE QUALITY
Wine quality is impacted by:
*The Process Used (everything from how the grapes are crushed and macerated to the type of vessel used in vat fermentation)
*Blending (This proprietary process, or recipe, is determined by the wine maker. It is his or her signature.)
Tannin is that astringent or bitter experience that some describe when drinking wine. It is NOT a taste, but rather a tactile part of the experience of drinking.
Tannin is a natural preservative in wine (those with minimal tannin are not likely to age well, where those with a young, pronounced tannin feel will likely age and need to age before consumption).
Tannin comes from the skin of the grape, the pits (if they are left in during maceration), and in some cases the barrel wood used in fermentation.
That acid or tart taste to wine will oftentimes mellow with age and in many cases is a result of picking grapes too soon. Sometimes weather conditions like an unexpected frost or heavy rains late in the season will force a vineyard to harvest prematurely in order to save the crop.
Every wine has a vintage. Vintage, in itself, does not mean quality; it is simply the year that the grape was harvested. That being said, some wines are made from an exceptional harvest that wine “experts” may conclude as noteworthy. This exceptional, or even good year may result in a wine being marked as “better” than others. In the end, quality is in the palate of the consumer.
 THE LABEL
Whether we like to admit it or not, people DO JUDGE A BOOK BY LOOKING AT THE COVER. In the case of wine, this might be a legitimate way to assess what a wine will be like. Law, in most countries, will dictate basic facts about the wine including: the source of bottling, the name of the grape(s) involved, the alcoholic content, the country, state, region, and vineyard where the wine is from, and when the vineyard chooses to identify the wine by the name of its primary grape, they must even assure that a high percentage of that wines juice came from the identified grape (% varies by state and/or country).
What is most important for young cooks is that they dedicate the time to learn about wines and how they pair with the items that they cook. This must be a combination of reading, discussions and, of course, lots of tasting. A palate for food and wine is the greatest asset that any cook owns; develop it.
In the next post, I will look at the process of tasting wine and some basic rules of thumb for pairing with food.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
COMING SOON: Chef Paul Sorgule’s second novel:
“The Event That Changed Everything”
Look for it at the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015
On amazon.com and iuniverse.com