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Oenophile

by Brent Betit

There are several observations to make about the title to this article. The first is that, if you've never heard the word, you probably aren't one. The second is that it's one of the more ridiculous words in the English language. When it's used to describe a person, there's an "O" at the beginning, as in oenophile [with the "oe" making a "long e" vowel sound]. When the term is used to describe the study of the arcane subject matter in question, the "O" gets dropped -- enology -- and the "e" is short. Are you confused? You might think that the very terminology is designed to make normal people bewildered, and I think you may be right.

Oenophiles are connoisseurs of wines. Enology is the study of wines. Don't ask me what the heck happened to the "O." I don't know. I do know, however, that most cruise ships have well-stocked wine cellars [er. . . stockrooms, I guess, since ships don't have cellars], and that many first time cruisers can be somewhat intimidated by a wine list, and especially by a visit from the wine steward, which isn't a possibility but a certainty on any cruise. Why wouldn't you be intimidated? Those wine-lover types can't even get their terms straight.

Still, wine can be a wonderful feature of a cruise, complementing the fine cuisine that chefs spend so much time preparing and cruisers enjoying. It's a chance to slow down, relax, and savor every experience, particularly the culinary experience. It suggests a certain elegance, and even -- let's say it -- sophistication. Perhaps that is why some people feel uncomfortable when ordering and enjoying wine. And cruisers shouldn't be uncomfortable at all on their cruise. Cruising, in fact, should be the most comfortable, stress-free vacation imaginable.

So if a wine list makes you cringe, or get out your Greek dictionary, read on. There are a few simple things you should know about wine, after which you'll be summoning the wine steward like the debonair and sophisticated folks you really are.

First of all, forget about color, at least initially. Find out what you like. You need to be worried about taste and characteristic, and color isn't really all that great a guide to those. And what about food rules? Can you drink red wine with fish, white wine with beef? Well, sure, sometimes that's fine, and don't let a wine snob tell you otherwise. It isn't color that automatically tells you what kind of food to drink a particular wine with. I'll say it again -- it's what you like. Just who pays for the bottle, after all?

In fact, Robin Garr, a noted wine critic, once described a true "blind test" he conducted. He purchased two white wines and two red wines, then had his wife blindfold him and pour the wines, after which he tried to identify them. Yes, he was successful in distinguishing the whites from the reds; but, by his own admission, only because he has years of experience. He was in fact surprised at how difficult this turned out to be, and says so in a very un-expert-like way. In fact, his entire approach to wine is informal and refreshing. (If he were a wine, would he be a Chardonnay?) His philosophical stance on wine is that "this stuff is supposed to be fun. You don't have to pass a test to enjoy it, and you needn't learn a new language." For more of his views and good advice, take a look at his wine page at http://www.wine-lovers-page.com/. For good links to other pages, visit http://winetech.com/html/links.html.

So if, as Robin Garr admits, you can only tell a red from a white with practice, what's the big deal? Why is there a mystique to wine enjoyment, and an uncertainty about its "rules" that intimidates people? It's simple, I think: people listen to their ears instead of their tongues. What they've learned about wine is mystifying, jargon-filled information and hype which they haven't bothered to test. So to learn what you like, forget your ears. Listen to wine with your tongue. Experiment a good deal, trying a range of wines, and do it in advance of that cruise you're considering, so you'll be more comfortable with ordering once you get there. You might also consider attending a wine tasting, many of which are held -- usually at restaurants -- throughout the country.

To help you gain wine experience, herewith are a few fundamentals:

There are three basic colors of wine: red, white, and blush (or rose). There are certain stereotypes about these three basic colors of wine. These are that white wine is fruity, light in quality, and not very complex. As Robin Garr writes, the stereotype of white wine is that it is "an anonymous tipple for casual sipping." Red wine's stereotype is different. Red wine is considered "heartier," complex, full of nuance, somewhat mysterious. And most wine snobs wouldn't touch a blush wine with somebody else's outstretched pinkie. Rose or blush wine is for the untutored masses, they think, who probably drink it when they're not sucking down wine coolers through a straw.

But there is a certain power in stereotype and lore, and so most people drink red wine with red meats, or any strongly-flavored dish that can tend to overchallenge wines which lack their own strength. Most people drink white wine with white meats (chicken, pork) and some seafoods. Blush wine is something like the utility infielder in baseball, that can play all the positions, just not terribly well.

Of course I hate stereotypes. They're simplistic, quite often misguided, and certainly not always correct. But if you don't know a darn thing about wines, the simplicity of stereotypes can at least get you started, and even if you make a poor individual selection (a Merlot you don't like the taste of, for example), the wine steward won't wrinkle up her nose at you for ordering a Gewurtztraminer with a sirloin steak if you stick with the red wine = red meat; white wine = white meat stereotypes. Of course, a good wine steward won't wrinkle up her nose at anything (they are supposed to be serving you, after all), but may make diplomatic suggestions regarding good selections, and is almost always perfectly willing to make your choice for you, should you be totally at a loss.

To determine what kind of wine to order with which course, you should understand a few fundamental wine terms as follows:

Wine Production Terms

Acid: all grapes have acids. Good wine retains the ones that support longevity and the salutary effects of aging. Acid is therefore essentially a good quality in a wine, and the proper acidity with certain foods can balance and complement those foods, resulting in a marriage made in heaven.
Breathing: most people uncork red wines and allow them to breathe for a few hours before serving, which improves the bouquet and flavor. Some enologists now postulate that simply opening a red and decanting it is sufficient. Try it yourself and see what you like.
Brut: you'll see this term on a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine. It refers to the sweetness level, and means that it is the second lowest sweetness level on the standard scale. It is, therefore, quite dry [see below].
Charmat process: when wine is fermented in a tank rather than in the bottle to produce sparkling wine,(as opposed to the methode champenoise).
Oak: a wood often used to produce casks or barrels for the storage of wine, and which impart a distinct and usually desirable flavor to the wine.
Sulfur dioxide, SO2: a chemical added to wine as a preservative, which some people are allergic to, and which can give you a headache.

Wine Tasting Terms

Aftertaste: the sensation or flavor left in your mouth after you have swallowed the wine. This is also called the finish.
Astringency: if you've ever used witch hazel, you know what an astringent is. It produces a dry and mouth-puckering sensation.
Bouquet: one of those snobby terms: the smell or aroma of a wine, usually used by an enologist to describe the aroma of a mature wine.
Crisp: the clean aftertaste you get from a good white wine.
Dry: not sweet; the absence of sugar or sweetness. Semi-dry, therefore, means somewhat sweet. You can probably figure out what semi-sweet means yourself.
Grassy: like it sounds; the smell of fresh-cut grass, often found in white wines such as sauvignon blanc.
Mouthfeel: like it sounds: the entire sensation of taste, texture, and even aroma wafting up, that makes for a certain feel in your mouth when savoring a sip of wine.
Residual sugar: sugar that has not been converted to alcohol during fermentation, and that results in a relatively sweet wine (often served with the dessert course).
Rough: harsh, aggressive wines that tend to overpower or overwhelm the taste buds rather than simply challenge them. Some young rough wines can mature into quite good, even fantastic, wines.
Short: a wine with very little complexity or character. Many white zinfandels are short, which is only a complaint if you're enough of a connoisseur to notice the difference, or if you're drinking that particular wine in an inappropriate context (such as with a strongly-flavored dish).
Spicy: an aromatic, spicy wine which got its flavor either from the grapes or from the wood of the barrel.

The major domestic (mostly California) wines you'll likely encounter may be detailed as follows; bear in mind that this is highly simplified and represents only a place to begin:

Reds

The stereotype: serve red wines with red meat and richly-flavored foods.

Reds are usually served at room temperature, or very slightly chilled. But if you like it cold, chill it. I like reds colder than the experts say you should serve it.

Cabernet Sauvignon: the heavy hitter of red wines, often acidic, complex, oaky, and rather dry. New cabernet sauvignon can be rather harsh, then mature over several years into a complex masterpiece.
Merlot: a usually less expensive red very like cabernet sauvignon, though less heavily-bodied, that is increasing in popularity during the late 90's.
Pinot Noir: a red made from a Burgundy grape, reputedly one of the more difficult wines to produce.

Whites

The stereotype: serve white wines with white meat, seafoods, and bland, less flavorful foods.

White wines are usually served chilled but not cold.

Chardonnay: a crisp, dry to semi-sweet wine which is a wonderful complement to many foods and can be enjoyed all by itself.
Sauvignon Blanc: another crisp, often grassy wine.
Chenin Blanc: often described as fruity, though not necessarily sweet.
Gewurztraminer: sometimes "peachy," fruity wine, often quite sweet, almost always characterized by spice. Great with certain desserts.

Blush

The stereotype: blush wines shouldn't be served with anything, or even served at all. But to heck with stereotypes here. Find out if you like it, then serve and order it with whatever you think it tastes good with.

Blush wines are usually served chilled, and won't suffer if served cold.

White Zinfandel: I'd be willing to wager that more of this light, somewhat sweet, short and uncomplicated wine is sold than any other. Good with a wide variety of foods, but can be easily overpowered by strong flavors. After drinking it for a while, you may feel it is somewhat nondescript, but it's a versatile wine that you shouldn't be afraid to drink. It is also usually reasonably priced.

Sparkling Wine & Champagne

The stereotype: a celebratory drink, served sometimes with appetizers or finger foods, sometimes with desserts. A traditional bon voyage beverage.

Sparkling wines are always served chilled. Be careful not to shake the bottle.

Sparkling wine: white or sometimes blush wine with effervescence, this is a light, refreshing, festive drink that goes well with hors d'oeuvres and some dessert courses. It waltzes out and says, "let's celebrate!"
Champagne: by law, only sparkling wine produced in a certain district in France by a certain method (methode champenoise) may be labeled champagne. Do a blind test someday with a domestic sparkling wine of good quality and a French champagne. You may conclude, as many others have, that champagne is simply sparkling wine that costs more per bubble; nevertheless, there is a certain chic cachet about drinking French champagne. It says "ooh la la, aren't we sophisticated?"

Wine Etiquette

Wine is a relaxed and relaxing drink, meant for savoring and enjoying, not quaffing in large drafts. Toots Schor once said, "if a guy can't get drunk by midnight he ain't trying." My own advice is that you would do well to avoid trying to get drunk on wine, or you could end up feeling like Mr. Big-Head on the Nickelodeon Network show, Rocko's Modern Life. There is nothing quite like a red wine hangover, and if you couple that with a few fifteen foot waves and a ship, you might wish you hadn't started.

On that last evening of the cruise, when your room steward discreetly leaves a few marked envelopes on your cabin desk, you won't find a gratuities envelope for the wine steward. Bar servers are tipped "automatically" whenever you order an alcoholic beverage. Usually 15% is added to each drink order to cover gratuity. Nevertheless, a good wine steward offers you a great deal of expertise, and if you'd like to recognize this, your generosity won't be declined. I would suggest that, when you are checking your table during the first afternoon aboard ship, you introduce yourself to the maitre d', and also your table's wine steward (it will be the same person each night). Giving him or her a tip of $10.00 or more at that first meeting won't hurt the service you receive during the cruise at all, and if you get wonderful service, consider an additional tip at the end.

And finally, what the heck do you do with that cork when the wine steward presents it to you? I've seen people sniff it, study it, and most often, ignore it a bit sheepishly. You can sniff it if you like, but why bother? The very next thing she will do after you approve the cork is pour you a small glass of wine to test. No, you should pick the cork up and roll it slightly between your thumb and index finger. If the wine has been stored properly on its side, the cork should be damp all the way around. A perfectly dry cork may have shrunk, allowing air and bacteria or yeast into the wine, spoiling it.

Bon appetit, and happy cruising.

Line

Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

Brent is also the Executive Vice President of Landmark College in Putney Vermont, and we are proud to announce that Landmark College is the recipient of a U.S. Department of Education Title III (Strengthening Institutions) Grant. Landmark is one of only 32 institutions selected from among approximately 1,800 applicants for this highly competitive grant program this year and Brent and his staff worked with Senator James M. Jeffords and his staff at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions who provided substantial support, advice, and guidance during Landmark's two-year quest to gain funding within the grant program. Congratulations, Brent!

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.


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