One of the reasons we enjoy visiting wineries is the opportunity it gives us to learn more about wine. Okay, we like tasting it, too, but let’s focus here on the educational experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a well-versed server who has the time to chat, you can learn a lot that way. For a more structured and formal educational experience, there are the lectures you can attend at Joseph Phelps Vineyards (www.josephphelps.com).
On their web site, the winery refers to these lectures, rather grandly, as Exceptional Wine Experiences. For once, a bit of marketing hype is justified. These lectures are exceptional; they are quite an experience; and they’re about wine. They’re also $75 per person and last an hour and a half (with additional time for tasting). To our minds, this price is well worth it.
The first one we attended was an introduction to wine tasting. This one is not listed on their current schedule, alas. If you’ve never paid much attention to wine tasting, this really showed what to do and what to look for. Even for those with some experience, there was a lot to learn. In this lecture, as with most of them, the teacher arrives with a basket of Phelps wines, starting usually with a white and usually finishing with Phelps’ remarkable flagship wine, Insignia, a Bordeaux blend.
Perhaps our most memorable lecture was the one about aromas. Lucie’s sense of smell is rather acute, while Steve’s nose doesn’t always pick up much, so Lucie was able to get a great deal more out of it. But even Steve learned to appreciate what the bouquet of a wine has to tell the attentive taster. The lecture was memorable because we were there on a rainy October afternoon and were the only ones in attendance. The Insignia was open, so when Steve asked for a little more, we were told, “Sure, help yourself”.
The lecture on wine barrels, or cooperage, didn’t seem all that interesting beforehand but wound up being the most instructive we have attended. The impact that the barrel has on what goes into your mouth was astounding to learn about. Wine makers tend to brag on their 100% new French oak barrels, but we learned that that isn’t always a good thing, that American and Hungarian oak bring other qualities to a wine and that some used barrels actually give a wine better balance. We are aware of cooperage now whenever we go wine tasting.
Most recently we sat in on the lecture about blending Insignia. You are presented with most but not all of the individual wines that go into a bottle of Insignia and then you are given the chance to mix your own. Finally they serve a bottle of the actual wine so that you know what professional winemakers did with the grapes. We learned two things for sure: the professionals are way better at it than we are and Insignia is a very good wine. In the outdoor tasting afterwards, with a beautiful view of the valley, they opened a library bottle of Insignia so that you would learn what the latest release would grow into.
There are few ways to spend an afternoon in Wine Country that are as rewarding as one of these lectures and a tasting of Phelps’ wonderful wines.