Tag Archives: wine pairing

Italian Vino for Wine Newbies

Charlie Adler Doing His Best “I Love Lucy” Grape Stomping Rendition!

I’ve been teaching and organizing wine classes at TasteDC TasteDC Website for over twelve years now, and just as soon as I think I’ve gotten it into an art form, I realize that every audience is unique – the principle that “one size fits all” just doesn’t hold water. That point plus the volunteers who pour my wine at events seem to have disappeared (you mean I need to keep in regular touch with them, shouldn’t they realize that I’m writing a wine book?!) means that tomorrow night I’ll most likely be juggling my notes, pouring wine and registering about 30 people all at the same time. Ahh, the life of a wine professional who drinks on the job, all is not fun and games!

The question is, how can I cover all of Italy in just under 2 hours? Although it’s a difficult task, I know I’m going to have to talk about food as well as wine. The whole premise of my upcoming book “I Drink on the Job” I Drink on the Job Book Website is that wine and food were meant to be together and this is based on the whole European food and wine lifestyle. Below are a few thoughts on how I’m going to introduce Italian wine to an audience that is starving to discover the pleasures of the Italian Table.

1) Break Italy down into major regions and taste and discuss wines that are representative of those areas.
Not an earth-shattering point, but it’s extremely practical. Some regions like Tuscany and specifically Chianti within that region are a given. I’ll focus on wines like regional Sangiovese, Barbera, Nero d’Avola, and Valpolicella. These wines/varietals have distinct regional variations and relate to the geography, climate and lifestyle of a given appellation.

2) Choose wines that deliver bang for the buck and represent the kind of wines that Italians would consume on a daily basis with their meals
Italy has some unbelievably fantastic show-stopping wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello. As good as these wines are, their prices have sky-rocketed in recent years to such an extent that even your average Italian can only occasionally afford them. Piedmont has some excellent Barberas and Dolcettos that have never become fashionable in the world market, so they’re very affordable. Pinot Grigio has become popular in the U.S. but there are many whites like Vermentino and Trebbiano that are less famous in the U.S. and can be delicious at a reasonable price.

3) Share stories and anecdotes of my various trips to Italy that are “relevant”
Here are some fun stories that accomplish two things: 1) they entertain and get people to relax and relate to the wine experience and 2) they teach a relevant point about Italians and Italian wine that can help the wine consumer make purchase decisions when they need to:

-My trip to Vinitaly in 2004, where 4,000 wineries and what seemed like 4 million Italians (slight exaggeration!) hold a week of tastings and Italians get to show off their designer shoes and belts. This is held in the town of “Romeo and Juliet’s” Verona in the Veneto region. Lots of great stories from this trip including how we shut the bar down every night in our hotel in Bussolengo (those crazy Americans!!), and the amazing number of wine varietals that Italy produces.

-My buddy Antonio whose family comes from Piedmont not too far from Turin who told me that his family often visits a local farm where they purchase wines by the gallon jug for around $1 each!

-There are no spaghetti and meatballs in Italy – there’s spaghetti and then there’s meatballs, but they don’t go together, they’re served separately! This is similar to the Italian rule that you should never allow cheese to be shaved onto seafood, this is just a well-known “no no”!

-One quote from an Italian I met at a tasting is just a jewel: “in Italy, the trick is to find a job with the least amount of hours and the most amount of pay!” If you know anything about Italians, generally work comes second; friends, family and a fun lifestyle are more important!


Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler


Debunking Terroir

I’ve heard so much about terroir in the wine press/blogging/twitter the last few years, that I’m past overwhelmed by all the statements and now into my denial phase. If you’re not familiar with “terroir”, it’s all about the “placeness” of a wine: the what, where, and how of the type of vine chosen, the varietal, the roots, the soil, the micro-climate, the wine maker, the regionality and of course all the factors that go into making the wine. For example, the “terroirists” or proponents of the idea that wine (and cheese, and beer, and pretty much anything you consume) should represent the unique characteristics of its region, are generally against much human manipulation, ie. chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and too much use of new oak (this is a very short list, there are many more!). Their thinking is that we should taste nature’s gift the way nature intended it to be–use natural yeast, don’t filter or fine, and let the grapes ferment and express themselves the way they were meant to..enough, enough!

So what’s my issue with the concept of terroir? Does my skepticism towards the idea that you can (or can not) taste the soil in the final expression of the wine give me the right to throw the whole idea of nature’s expression out the window? Well, that’s not my point. I actually believe that better wine makers know and understand the locality they live in and they should use the least aggressive means of getting the vine to ripen grapes and express the full range of flavors. I believe that terroir, like character, is personal to each wine consumer. We each HAVE our own terroir (where you were born, your family history, the way you were brought up, etc.) and VIEW terroir differently – you say tomato, I say tomaato, well..you get the picture. We all express our own terroir, taste things in our own way, and we should each express our own opinions. The terroirists like many idealists are just too fanatical for my tastes, so to speak. They often condemn “manufactured wines” that have no soul, no individuality, and don’t represent a unique micro-climate. Fine–but just like the average American consumer, I want to enjoy a wine and I want it to taste good – what if 2 Buck Chuck tastes better to my palate than a $45 bottle of Burgundy, does that make me insincere? Isn’t there a place for mass market wines just like there’s a place for chain stores, or other commercially made products? Sure, I prefer handmade chocolates, but I’m not offended by the highly industrialized manufacture of Hershey Kisses, hey they taste good too!

The French say “to each his own” – so be it with wine. You only buy grass-fed organic beef from the farmer’s market, I like Prime-Aged corn-finished meat, but my mother swears by the tenderloin at Costco. Same with wine, each of us has different needs and goals in mind, so that should sincerely respected. I’d rather drink a local Virginia or Maryland wine (non-organic – it’s not possible at this point to produce organic wines in our area primarily due to humidity and rainfall during harvest issues) than an organic wine from say Chile. Both wines are great, but I can see the face of the Virginia winemaker at a local wine tasting room or at local tastings. I like the idea to keep money in the community when possible – that’s my feel good issue. For me, my sense of terroir is connected with the people I help in life – economically, spiritually, and in whatever way I can be of assistance. I don’t give money to international charities because I try to assist the homeless that live within a mile of a my home. My terroir is right here..

Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler

Wine Book Tour Thoughts

Charlie Adler - Drinking on the Job!

Charlie Adler - Drinking on the Job!

I’m putting together the finishing touches on the book “I Drink on the Job: A Refreshing Perspective on Wine”. Right now, I’m organizing the photoshoot and working on the book website. FYI, http://www.idrinkonthejob.com will change from being the blog itself into being the website for the book. In other words, The blog will be one of the links on the website, but the overall site will include excerpts from the book (like “nobody ever dies from a bad food and wine pairing”), a Calendar to find me on tour, photos, videos and details on how to reach me. My goal is to be a major wine speaker at wine festivals throughout the U.S. and possibly some international venues. I expect to increase my exposure to corporate event planners who are looking for an entertaining speaker who can also educate their audience with common sense anecdotes that will help them improve their ability to choose a wine..Oh, and of course, being a better wine “chooser” makes a person a better employee, leader, and overall great person – yeeowww!!

If you represent any wine festivals, feel free to contact me at wine@tastedc.com. My twitter account at idrinkonthejob went active and live about two weeks ago and I’m adding followers at a good pace. My intent is to use Twitter to give quick anecdotes of my tour and things I learn and experience while out and about and tasting. I love my Blackberry Storm and it really helps me to quickly take photos, blog, Tweet and even add video. My message is both to the Newbie wine consumer and to the industry as well: anyone can quickly get started in wine, all they have to do is think of wine as part of a meal. Keep it simple and don’t worry about the details, drink first, ask questions later, there are so many excellent choices, it’s best to learn as you go!

OK, back to drinking on the job, have a great football Sunday everyone – Cheers!

Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler

I Drink, Therefore I Am!

Charlie "I Drink on the Job" Adler

I’m taking a slightly new direction on this blog – I’ll continue to update you on my wine and food experiences, but I want to refocus my efforts on my upcoming book “I Drink On the Job” and the process of publishing (self) a book on wine. Since I recently submitted my manuscript of just over 58,000 words for a 2nd edit to my publisher http://www.booksurge.com, I’m expecting a completed work of a bit over 200 pages by the end of 2009 – well, or a few weeks after! No one can properly warn you of the pitfalls of self-publishing, but hopefully in the end I’ll look favorably on the experience.

My current book experience is now is the time to think about cover design and promoting the end product. This is a book about my experiences in wine with a heavy dose of humor as well as interesting anecdotes and practical knowledge shared with the reader. Hopefully, it’s an engaging story – you never know how people perceive one of your own life experiences, but some things just seem too absurd or real not to titillate the reader. I start off early in the book with a short vignette on the woman who was stuck in the bathroom stall at the French Embassy at a wine tasting I was holding there. There are many stories of awkward situations where I’m trying to discuss wine intelligently, but always a complicated situation “arises”. The reality of being a wine professional in the U.S. is that there is so much interest in wine but so much poor or outdated information, that misunderstandings are natural. I take a positive spin on these type of reactions, sometimes people want more out of life but they simply don’t know how to express that. As the song says “whatever gets you through the night, itsalright, its alright..”

I’m meeting with a few “foodie” publicists in the next few days and I’m hoping that one of them takes the lead and sees the value of having a writer who knows something about their subject, is passionate and can handle any Press obligations. My job for twelve years has been as a combination wine professional, foodie, educator and public speaker. I’ve been in front of the TV camera around a dozen times and to me it’s just a natural part of telling my story. In the world of the internet and online marketing, you have to keep your message short, sweet and to the point, and that is how I have always approached my business, it has to be relevant today. Social Media appeared a few years ago and I dove right in – when ask me if I think Facebook or Twitter are for real, I tell them that they are more than just realities, they are part of the world we live in like TV, internet or satellite. I’m a quick learner, and I think Facebook and Twitter in particular have changed the way we communicate, mostly for the better. I want to get “I Drink on the Job’s” message to my target audience of newbie wine drinkers who are looking for a lifestyle change.


Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler

Is Taste “Personal”?

Don't Clow Around with Your Cheese!

Don't Clow Around with Your Cheese!

Is tasting wine, cheese or any other foodstuff something your predestined with or something you learn? The “Nature vs. Nurture” argument fits tasting so well because we know so little about people’s ability to taste.  One day wine professionals are talking about “supertasters” http://supertastertest.com who have extra taste buds on their tongue which makes them super sensitive to bitter flavors and the next day (minute?) we’re teaching people what “cassis” tastes like http://www.wine-lovers-page.com/cgi-bin/lexicon/gd.cgi?w=246.  Can tasting be taught if your genes are predisposed to make you a tasting flunkie?

Since I’m writing a book I Drink On the Job right now about wine from the point of view of the Wine Basics 101 class that over 16,000 people have attended over the years at TasteDC, I’ve really been thinking about how people approach taste in wine classes, but cooking classes as well.  Often, people ask me how to “describe” a wine, I guess they want to better explain what they’re experiencing.  My weird reply is usually that we don’t know what you’re tasting, there is no way for us to measure that – yet anyway.  If I’m tasting a piece of fresh mint, I can say it tastes like “mint” and you can agree, but I don’t know what exactly is going on inside your mouth, much less your brain.  Many critics of frankly wine critics argue that we can’t have a true discussion about the objective quality of wine until we can agree to the terms.  If new wine drinkers are relying on the accuracy of wine critics explanations in order to form their own tasting skills, how is this possible if there is no objective way to varify tastes?

In a society where science has become our religion, some technology people have attempted to break down how we taste from the receptors in tastes buds, to various tests of the brain’s response to aromatic stimuli.  I think this is exciting, but frankly missing the big point: much of what we taste is part of our past experiences.  I might be able to measure your brain wave response or see which parts of your brain are stimulated by certain smells, but what I can’t do is determine how your past experiences have effected that response.  I’m even going to venture a guess and say that about 90% of what we experience in taste has to do with our past experiences, and most people think about taste when they’re eating.  In a nutshell, no one should discount the effect of your family background and the times spent at the dinner table with them and the types of foods and beverages you consumed.  Many early wine drinkers have a sweet tooth and I’ve noticed that many of them were brought up with highly sweetened foods and beverages.  This kind of tasting “history” is cultural and seems to have the influence of making dry wines often seem unpalatable to these individuals.  The effect on taste is so significant that I’m not sure any change in future habits can get this person to enjoy a dry wine, a significant issue because over 95% of wines sold in the U.S. market are “dry”.

In the wine industry and some degree the food industry, we need to better understand how past experiences relate to taste.  Expectations of taste may effect us more than what we’re actually experiencing in our mouth, and this is one of the reason’s that people prefer more expensive wines if they are told the price before they taste themhttp://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP35.pdf, while in actuality, most new wine drinkers actually prefer cheaper wines by “taste” if they don’t know the price of the wine.  I don’t know which will win in the Nature vs. Nurture argument, but I will be willing to guess that one of the biggest influences concerning tasting wine will for the new consumer will be time – the more wine becomes part of our regular meal and tasting experiences, the more comfortable and knowledgeable we will become relating to our tasting it – the classic reply I have to “what am I tasting” should be only time will tell..

Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler

What Wine Goes with PB&J?


They don’t stress much about drinking New Zealand wines in France – there is plenty of great wine in a French person’s backyard.  So why is it Americans stress out so much about choosing the right wine with say a French dish like Ratatouille when a French wine from say the Languedoc would work fine?  What is it as Americans that we expect from a wine and food pairing – a result of perfection where we can tell all of our compatriots how we successfully completed a veritably impossible task, matching the flavors of a dish with an unknown wine? Maybe we should study up on the world of wine, learn more about the intricacies of Gruner Veltliner from Austria and how it’s put this varietal on the map, or maybe we should read a few books on wine and food pairing to avoid that embarassing faux pas when we mistakenly ordered a Brut Champagne with our P,B &J when it should have been at least Extra-Dry or even sweeter?  Oh, why can’t this be so much easier, why can’t they just put little labels on food telling us what goes and doesn’t go, why do we have to use our feeble brains??

That’s because the French eat French food everyday, and guess what wine they drink with it?  French – their wine goes great with their dishes, eat up!  This is all part of that horrifically difficult to explain “terroir”.  Most of what you read and hear about terroir in wine circles relates to the location the vines were grown, but you rarely hear about the producer side of the equation, what I like to call “Pride in Ownership”. The tradition of drinking and eating local products created the pride in ownership that is part of terroir and what makes localities compete to make the best products.  Just like a New Yorker will bitch to no end about how bad the bagels are outside of New York (must be the water?), a Frenchman will claim that their regions chevre (goat cheese) is better than even the neighboring villages.  That cheese comes from a local goat, which was fed on local grasses and vegetation and its manure was used to fertilize the vines, or possibly it ate the weeds between the vines.  The French drink French wine most of the time as do the Italians and the Spanish not only because it’s cheaper for them and readily available, but they connect emotionally with their own produced wine and cuisine.  Being fussy about wine doesn’t make sense because it’s something consumed with everyday meals, normally lunch and dinner.  You eat local and you drink local because you know what tastes best.

Americans are still developing our pride in our own products and sometimes it embarasses us – once I was at a French Burgundy wine tasting early in my career at TasteDC in Washington, D.C. and I mentioned half-jokingly that one of the wines might taste great with a good cheeseburger and french fries – I got a look like I had just committed a sacrilege!  Wine was meant to be consumed with “real” food, not casual foods that were not worthy of their lofty reputations.  I had offended the American luxury ethic – thou shalt not enjoy any luxury without tight-lipped apprehension – how dare I, Charlie Adler, a non-wine expert at the time, attempt to create an unofficial food and wine pairing!  Call in an expert, food and wine pairing is rocket science, you need a degree in oenology even before you should be allowed to remove the cork!

OK, this seems a bit facetious, but if you had been consuming wine in the 90’s, you met quite a few people with sour puss demeanors.  Even the idea that someone would pair wine with something as mundane as a sandwich, much less a PB&J was considered to be preposterous and very uncouth.   Times have changed, wine is prevalent and available everywhere from supermarket and in some cases to the corner 7/11.  You don’t need a degree to enjoy wine with food, just do what the French do – eat and drink local.  So now that I’m serving Virginia ham with some local cheeses, I’ll choose a wine that..wait, isn’t ham salty and that will have a chemical effect on tannin?  Well then, I better not choose a wine that’s too tannic, it will..

Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler

Red Wine with Fish

Tsk, Tsk, Red Wine with Fish - He's a Fraud!!

Tsk, Tsk, Red Wine with Fish - He's a Fraud!!

How important is wine and food pairing as part of the wine tasting/learning experience?  Whole chapters have been written about this subject, even books, so one might assume that it’s mandatory for wine drinkers to understand all the nuances of food and wine pairing before they start opening bottles of wine.  I mean, you don’t want to be embarrassed like the fellow above in the James Bond From Russia with Love who gave away his lack of sophistication and his cred’s when he chose a red wine to be consumed with fish – a 1960’s faux pas, definitely a sign of poor upbringing, he probably attended public schools, the shame!!

A recent article which was Tweeted to me over at “tastedc” brought new light to the subject or at least rang true to my ears –Perils of Food and Wine Matching. Essentially, this article introduces a classic wine dilemma – what if a wine doesn’t taste very good on its own, but when paired with food, it is fantastic, sort of 1+1=3?  Is the wine good or bad?  And what about creativity and innovation in wine and food pairing, do we want to have people memorize and repeat like Zombies rules that may be outdated like “white wine with fish, and red wine with meat”, and “Chablis with oysters”?  The dilemma seems to be that people often believe that there is in fact a right or wrong wine choice, and if they get it wrong, they will somehow suffer for the mistake. It’s already difficult enough getting started consuming wine, I mean you have unintelligible foreign labels, combined with strange/confusing terminology like “on the lees” or “39% new French Oak”, plus thousands of choices, now you add the question “what food fits best with this wine?” to the equation, and frankly, I can imagine why most people skip wine and stick with beer!

I have a whole chapter on wine and food pairing in my upcoming book I Drink On the Job, but I still want to state for the record that I think wine and food pairing doesn’t matter much – yes, there are excellent pairings, but as often as not, I’ve found by breaking the rules, you can actually discover better pairings.  How did I know when I opened a bottle of a $9 bottle (2000 price) Virginia Cabernet Franc that it would go excellent with my Szechuan Beef?  Of course I love the traditional Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese, but one time I had it with a very untart example, and the wine went flat.  And how about a wine with a little sweetness like an off-dry German Riesling that went reasonably well with sushi, but really was fantastic when I added the pickled ginger to the equation!  How many combinations of food and wine are there anyway, do we actually expect people to memorize them BEFORE they actually unscrew the cap of wine and start imbibing?  I think not!

I say, break all the rules and let people start from scratch.  I’m no patriot, but the stodgy old wine and food rules are just that, restraints on the individual’s right to experiment and frankly get it wrong.  I say purposefully “unmatch” the food and wine, Get a big, bold red wine and pair it with oysters, eat a goat cheese with Port, try a steak with a white Burgundy, see what happens.  As part of this experimentation, I taught the wine portion of a TasteDC (www.tastedc.com) class on American Cheese 101 class I put out inexpensive samples of Prosecco, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon and I told the audience that I wouldn’t suggest any combinations until the participants had tried the cheese and wine pairings FIRST!  It may have seemed that I was torturing the attendees (I’m notorious for pushing the envelope and getting attendees a tad bit out of their “comfort zone”) but all I was trying to do was see if any light bulb appeared above people’s heads, if anyone jumped out of their seat and yelled “Eureka, this combination is Fantastico!” or if faces looked bitter and unpleasant after an especially bad pairing.  Interestingly, neither happened, except for the one wine “pro” in the class who was confident of her decisions (thank you Ellen for your observations!), everyone pretty much looked to the “wine expert” (me!) for a nod of approval or disapproval.

Conclusion: Wine and food pairing is not particularly important, but because most Americans find wine to be pretty much a total enigma, they don’t trust their own senses yet.  Time will tell, and hopefully with more Americans consuming wine over the coming years, we will see more interesting wine and food combinations, and for that matter, beer and food, whisky and food, and even Sake and food..Cheers!

Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler