We all wish we knew more about certain topics. We wish we were suave like James Bond and had a running knowledge to infiltrate any conversation. Life, however, has separated us into two categories: those who “know”—and I mean REALLY know—wine, and the rest of us.
Most of us are completely “new” to wine, but are good sports about learning more about it. We are dads taking our daughters to winetasting classes for their birthdays, young professionals taking the next steps beyond college-centric wine (Barefoot) so we can host dinners, or older individuals looking to expand our knowledge and impress friends at lunch or dinner.
You get the point.
This article is for us: those who aren’t as comfortable talking about what we smell and see in wine, but are still interested in learning more, choosing better wines, and, of course, drinking. Through two of New Orleans’s most prominent sommeliers, we can learn how to hold our own with wine—at least, in conversation.
Melissa Rogers, General Manager at Doris Metropolitan, Certified Sommelier via Court of Master Sommeliers
Melissa fits into the vein of renowned New Orleanian females frequently spotlighted in these articles. She cultivates a homestyle hospitality feel in her restaurant—a place where everything is taken care of before you can even ask.
New Orleans has the right vibe for Melissa. “I am a huge history geek, and when I made the decision to stay working in food and beverage after college, I was looking for my place in this massive industry,” she says. “Wine seemed like a natural fit. Exploring different regions inevitably leads you into the history of the area, the people, and the wine.”
For someone who isn’t accustomed to talking wine, “the tricky part is that we use a completely different vocabulary in the wine world than anywhere else,” Melissa says. “Part of my job is taking what a guest says and breaking down what they actually mean based on the vocabulary that I have.” But if you are looking to start somewhere, she recommends a red that is lighter in body. “Pinot Noir is a great place to start, specifically from Oregon,” she suggests. “For white, I recommend something easy-drinking, like Sauvignon Blanc, specifically from the Loire Valley.”
Bringing booze to parties is never a bad idea, especially in New Orleans. For a gift idea, Melissa says, “I am a sucker for bubbles, and I think it just makes a great gift. It’s celebratory and fun.” Her wedding gift go-to is a bottle of champagne from the year the couple met. “Keife & Co. and Pearl Wine Co. are two of my favorite places to shop. Everyone who works there is passionate about wine and spirits. They really know their stuff.”
Okay, the real question: should people smell the cork?
“The smell of the cork is much less important than the feel,” Melissa explains. “I almost never smell the cork. Most cork smells like cork. More important is whether or not the cork is dry. The best way to get to know the wine is to taste it.”
So, why is everyone swirling and smelling their glasses?
“Although guests mistakenly equate smelling and tasting wine to be about personal preference, you are smelling and tasting to see if the wine is flawed in any way,” she says. “If you are uncomfortable with the tasting process, opt to let the sommelier take over. When you order the wine, ask them to taste for soundness—a.k.a., is the wine flawed in any way? Your guests will think you really know your stuff, and it takes all the awkwardness out of the situation.”
There are numerous restaurants and bars at which to sip, but Melissa suggests “picking up a good bottle of wine from a wine shop and enjoying it at home with good friends. It’s less embarrassing to wax philosophically about soil types and flavor profiles and sound like a complete ass with those who have already accepted your quirks.”
It’s inevitable you will be asked what you think about wine, so here is a little lingo to pad your conversational contributions, according to Melissa:
“Sweet: this is a big one. In the wine world, it is speaking solely about residual sugar. If there is residual sugar in the wine, it is off-dry or sweet; if not, it is dry. Tons of people equate fruit with sweet. Fruit-forward: just like it sounds, it is a wine dominated by fruit flavors and smells; think California Cabernet or Argentinian Malbec. Earth- or Mineral-Driven: the wine is dominated by secondary flavors, both organic (dirt, mushrooms) and inorganic earth (limestone, slate).”
While helping guests in one of the Quarter’s most popular restaurants, Melissa encounters new people and stories every night. “I had a guest who was overwhelmed by the wine list. When I went over to speak with him, right off the bat he told me he didn’t really know a lot,” she recalls. “I recommended a few Pinot Noirs from California and then told him about a Trousseau we had from California as well. We talked about the grape and its origins. I geeked out just a little bit. He decided to go with the Trousseau, but seemed a little unsure. I opened the wine for him and poured a taste. The minute he tasted it, I could just tell that he loved it. To this day, it is one of my favorite wine experiences. Watching people enjoy a bottle of wine they truly love is an amazing feeling, especially when you helped them get there.”
John Mitchell, Certified Sommelier, Purveyor of Fine Wines
John has roamed New Orleans’s downtown districts as a well-loved and respected sommelier. From the Windsor Court to Stella! and now as a wine purveyor, he drinks, talks, laughs, and eats his job. Drinking wine with him is unpretentious, fun, and always a treat to see what he brings to a party.
“I’m from a small town: Travelers Rest, South Carolina,” John says. “Since I grew up in a city devoid of worldly knowledge, wine was a way for me to travel to a place and get a feeling of culture by way of smell and taste.” His interest in wine isn’t all about the romance, though. “Originally, wine was a way to make more money,” he admits. “The more you knew about wines, especially the expensive wines, the more you could tell the story and help better sell them. After a few years of selling wine, wine became more of a passion. Having never traveled to a foreign country, opening a bottle of wine was like being transported to a place and getting a sense of the culture and what they were able to produce.”
When you ask John how to start approaching wine or new wines, he meets it with a gentle chuckle: “Hey, it’s grape juice!” he jokes. “No, but seriously, there are generalities you can discuss with someone who wants to know what they would like to drink. I cut my teeth on California wines and in the style that bigger was better,” he says. “The wines had so much alcohol and fruit that they were easy to relate to. Almost like drinking Coca-Cola and eating ketchup. Who doesn’t love those two? So much sugar and sweetness. That was the way my palate was calibrated. I have since found wines that ride the lines of being opulent and balanced: Cliff Lede, Stags' Leap, Napa Valley Cabernet. Trefethen, Napa Valley Chardonnay. German Rieslings from the Mosel.”
John share’s Melissa’s idea of what a real winning gift is. “Champagne is always a winner. It doesn’t even matter the type,” he says. “People love the idea of champagne; it makes you feel special and festive.”
Should people smell the cork?
“Ugh ... I mean, I do, but it truly takes someone who knows what they are looking for in this case,” he says. “I would say no, unless the cork looks like it is in bad condition. And if that is the case, look for a wet cardboard smell.”
How should people smell wine? Is it really necessary?
“Wine, at its very basic level, is grape juice that has been fermented, hence the reason you see people swirling the glass,” John explains. “Swirling the glass releases the esters and aromas in the wine. Swirling is also really fun, and practice makes perfect. Swirl clockwise for a few seconds and then smell. Smelling is actually more important than tasting. About 90 percent of tasting is smelling. If a wine is great wine, sometimes I will just smell it for a while—really enjoying it before drinking it.”
One of the best ways to approach wine is with John. He’s the guy who will respond to any outrageous wine comment, such as, “This one smells like mustard,” with, “Okay. I can see that.” Again, leave the pretentiousness outside. “Have fun with what you smell and taste by being honest,” John suggests. “The majority of wine drinkers don’t give themselves enough credit for what they smell in the wines. I love tasting with people who aren’t in the business. I always learn from what they experience.”
Where do you go to buy wine?
“Spirit Wine, Keife & Co., Faubourg Wines, Hopper’s Carte des Vins, and Swirl.”
Where do you drink wine?
“Emeril’s has an incredible list of old wines from California, Burgundy, Rhône Valley. Clancy’s has some really old bottles that are reasonably priced.”
New Orleans is a drinking town, yes, but that doesn’t mean we only drink cocktails at bars or beer at boils. Wine is a great way to enjoy food and friends. Remember, the most important thing is to drink what you like.