Rick Fraga: Wine Tasting in College

Picture this scenario: You are in a college classroom, for the first time or later in life as a returning student. Now a step further, at your seating place sit six wine glasses each holding approximately an ounce of Petite Sirah. Yes, that inky, almost black, rich red wine that can turn your teeth purple in an instant. As you observe the wine, sniff the bouquet and sip its rich, tannic juice you listen to your guest speaker, a professional wine judge, talk about the experience. He is there to guide you through a three hour examination of Petite Sirah wines as a professional wine judge would do in a competition. Sound pretty good??? Oh, and the best part is that you are earning college credit for not only today, but doing this for half of a semester. No, this is not a joke, but actually Wine 110 – Professional Wine Judging at Santa Rosa Junior College and it is the 6th of 7 classes in this course where they discuss, taste and judge a very diverse selection of wine.

Admit it, you think that going to college to taste wine is a scam, a dream come true or something I made up, but in reality it is a great opportunity that exists in college today. This class regularly gives its students the opportunity to evaluate Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc or other wines, then document and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the wines. The final assessment is when the class individually ranks the wines as Gold, Silver, Bronze or No Medal depending upon their sensory examination of the wine. Then the class determines the overall ranking of the wine, which may include some lively discussion.

I am guessing by now you are wondering why I am teasing you with thoughts of wine tasting in college. Well…the answer is because I was fortunate enough to go back to the Wine Studies Program at Santa Rosa Junior College and lead the Professional Wine Judging class through the tasting and judging of 18 Petite Sirahs. The wines were from various regions in California and Washington State, providing a great display of all of the flavors and aromas that define Petite Sirah. It is an experience definitely worth sharing.

This was not my first time having this opportunity to give back to a program that I personally studied through for almost two years. Over the last 2 1/2 years I have had the pleasure of returning and leading the wine judging class, as well as hosting classes for field trips at the various wineries I have worked in the past or currently work at. It is fun and exciting, plus there is something about sharing the wine experience with people that have similar interests and passions.

Enough of the tease, let me share the experience with you and see if I can convince you the value of seeking out similar classes. Depending where you live there are many opportunities to taking wine tasting, sensory evaluation and so many other courses related to wine. You can take them for fun or do as the wine studies students do and use them to seek employment in the wine industry.

The class began with an introduction of the guest wine judge, which in this case is me, and my background. Additionally, I speak about my experiences with the Wine Study program as a student, as well as the other opportunities the program has provided me. As a student, the certificate programs I completed were in Wine Evaluation and Service (Hospitality), then also in Wine Business and Marketing. While participating as a student, I spent time as an intern with the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, then as a judge for the last three years with the same competition. Once I shared that information, it was time to talk Petite Sirah.

We discussed the origins of Petite Sirah, which is basically the child of Syrah and Peloursin, fathered by Francois Durif in the 1860s in France. We traced through the path and history that brought a grape that is virtually non-existent in France now, where it was originally developed, but now thriving in many New World Wine Regions. Once the science and history were complete, we discussed the sensory side of Petite Sirah and the fun began, as it is always better to experience these things than to talk about them. So in an instant we were tasting our way through an education flight of 6 stellar Petites. Listed below are the educational wines:

2008 Concannon Livermore Valley Reserve-Polo Field $35

2010 Vigilance Winery and Vineyard Red Hills Lake County $24.99

2009 Mazzocco Sonoma Dry Creek Valley Pony-Reserve $40

2011 Macchia Amador County Bodacious $24

2007 Silkwood Wines California Satin Silk $120

2009 Wilson Winery Dry Creek Valley Molly’s Vineyard $38

Each wine had won awards, including a sweepstakes winner, a best of class and a double gold winner. This was a great flight of wines to present the diverse nature of Petite Sirah flavors and aromas. There were floral descriptions of Lavender and Violet. We found earthiness like coffee, mushroom, cocoa, barnyard, herbal and black pepper. Then the fruit covered the spectrum of Blackberry, Blueberry, Plum, Black Cherry, Black Raspberry and more. Each of these wines were well made, delicious and a solid expressions of what Petite Sirah has to offer the consumer. So once the class warmed up on the education flight, we moved right on in to the two flights of blind tasting and judging.

The class was definitely into the day’s wine presentation and were very eloquent with their descriptions and fair in their evaluation of the wines. They had a lot to work with as the wines came from a widespread collection of wine regions, like Rockpile, the Livermore Valley, Amador County, Paso Robles, Columbia River Valley, Napa and Dry Creek Valley. Additionally, some of the wineries represented were Dusted Valley, Moshin, Bent Creek, Earthquake, David Fulton, Imagery and others. It was also a challenging day for the students, mainly due to the tannic components of most of these wines, mostly due to their youth. With the exception of two wines from the 2007 vintage, most of the others were 2009-2011. (The ages of these wines lead to astringent, dry mouths by the end of the afternoon. Because of the tannins and acidity in Petite Sirah we also discussed how to treat that evil symptom of Petite Sirah tasting called “Purple Teeth”. Simply put, avoid brushing teeth soon after tasting. Why you ask? Well, the abrasive act of brushing with sometimes gritty toothpaste and the acidic content of the wine combine to possibly damage the enamel of your teeth. It is better to rinse your mouth and find less abrasive products to use, like Wine Wipes that are sold by some tasting rooms and wine retailers.)

By this part of the class, we were all winding down, having enjoyed tasting and talking our way through three excellent and delicious flights of Petite Sirah. We finished up the discussion and sent the class on its way. I took a few minutes to thank Bob Fraser, the Wine Studies program coordinator for the opportunity to return and lead the class. Bob has been involved with the college for quite some time and is stepping down at the end of the semester. He is moving on to be a gentleman farmer in Lake County, growing the same grapes that he has taught so much about over the years. The program will miss him.

I hope this adventure has given some of you food for thought about looking into classes to participate in with the intent to broaden your wine horizons, to maybe pursue work in the wine industry or to just have some fun with other folks. For resources to find wine classes there are many organizations that hold them. Check out local adult education programs through community colleges, culinary schools, possibly through some area wine shops and restaurants, then there is always the internet to guide you. No matter how you get into these types of classes they are fun, educational and a great way to taste new wines and meet a variety of people that work in the industry.

Always remember, “Life is too short to drink bad wine”, by tasting, taking classes and getting to enjoy wine out a bit more you can limit the “bad wine” experience. Thanks for joining in with our wine judging class and allowing me to share a bit more of what is out there and available in the world of wine. Drink well!