When it comes to wine, I have a discriminating palate, so I know that whites go with lighter foods, such as Twinkies and Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks, and that reds pair well with meatier offerings, like hot dogs and Slim Jims.
But even I, a person whose prodigious proboscis has sniffed so much wine that I often need a decongestant, had a lot to learn when I met Jeff Saelens, a true oenophile who recently taught a Wine 101 class at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead, N.Y.
Accompanying me was my wife, Sue, who is something of a wine connoisseur herself (she prefers a glass of chardonnay, out of a box, with one ice cube). The only other students were Brittany Rosen and Chase Smith, a very nice young couple who not only were delightful to talk and drink with, but who guaranteed that, unlike in high school or college, I would graduate no lower than fourth in my class.
Jeff, 78, a wise and witty wine wizard (say that five times fast after you’ve had a snootful of sauvignon), isn’t snooty or snotty, even though he is sophisticated. He also is a retired business development expert who used to own a wine shop in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and has a degree in neurochemistry from Harvard Medical School.
“Can I call you doctor?” I asked him as the class began.
“I’ve been called worse,” Jeff replied with a wry smile.
Then he handed out the course materials, including a map of France, which Sue and I visited in 2011 for our younger daughter’s wedding. In preparation for the trip, I learned such important French words as “bonjour,” “bon appetit” and, of course, “Bon Jovi.”
The map was divided into France’s premier wine regions, such as Loire Valley and Rhone Valley but not Silicon Valley, where California grapes, not to mention Apples, are grown.
In front of each student were two wineglasses, into which Jeff poured Tang instant breakfast drink.
No, actually, he poured wine, starting with reds, which I prefer, and finishing with whites, which Sue likes.
“First, we will try pinot noir and syrah,” Jeff said as he gave us a small amount of each.
“The syrah is drier and the pinot is sweeter,” Sue remarked, to which Brittany and Chase agreed.
Showing my impressive expertise, I noted, “They’re both better than Boone’s Farm.”
Jeff said the grapes for both wines grow better in “a cold, miserable climate,” adding that the best syrah is from Rhone Valley and the best noir is from Burgundy.
“Syrah dates back 2,000 years,” Jeff said. “Pinot noir is even older: 3,000 years. Bordeaux, on the other hand, is only 200 to 300 years old.
“Still,” Jeff added dryly, “that’s even older than I am.”
Our education continued as Jeff talked about different kinds of grapes, as illustrated in our materials, as well as various types of soil, including the sandy loam of Long Island, where the maritime climate also contributes to what we all agreed is the excellence of Martha Clara’s wines.
Having sipped our way through the reds, which made my eyes the same color, we went to the whites, which I really liked even though I don’t normally drink them.
Jeff also discussed food pairings, the fermentation process and wine consumption by countries (France and Italy consume the most, while the United States is near the bottom).
“Don’t blame me,” I told Jeff. “I’m doing my best to make America grape again.”
Jeff thanked me for my patriotic efforts and finished by saying that we all passed Wine 101 with flying colors.
“The colors are red and white, right?” I asked.
“Don’t make me revoke your diploma,” Jeff said.
Brittany, Chase, Sue and I didn’t get sheepskins, or even grape skins, but we did get a well-rounded education from a man I would nominate as teacher of the year.
“You’re a good student,” Jeff told me.
“Thank you,” I replied. “In Wine 101, I’m tops in my glass.”