Tales of the Vine: Sherry, Sir?

"Sherry, Sir?" by William Powell Firth, 1853

Most of the students in my beginning wine studies class have never tasted real sherry.  If they have encountered it at all, it was most likely the faux version-in-a-jug known around here as “cooking sherry” and used for deglazing sauté pans in their culinary lab classes (what a shame).

They also tend to be of the opinion, common in North America, that Sherry is a drink consumed by British old ladies who sit around sipping Sherry, pinky fingers extended, while nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and bonbons.  

While this might be a mere cliché, one cannot deny the British love for Sherry.  The British have long had a love for Sherry, and are the largest export market for wines from Jerez to this day.  But have you ever wondered why?

The story goes back to the days of Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, the famous Spanish Armada, and Europe’s exploration of the new world. 

In the 1400’s, the great capitals of Europe began sending explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus to find passage ways for trade and to discover what lie beyond the wide oceans.  Christopher Columbus, despite being of Italian birth, made his most famous deal with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain and set sail from Palos de la Frontera, Cadiz, and Sanlucar – all regions well known for wine.

Wine was considered absolutely necessary for these journeys, as any water on board would quickly become unfit to drink due to long length of the journeys. The wines for the ships were fortified with alcohol to give them some preservative effect, beginning the tradition of many such fortified wines.

These voyages were spectacularly successful for Spain as explorers began to return in ships heavily laden with gold, silver, and other wealth from the new world. At the same time that Spain was profiting from the plunder of Mexico and Peru, young Queen Elizabeth of England was benefitting from the wealth brought in by her expanding colonies in North America.

However, it soon became clear that America could not begin to produce the immediate wealth arriving by the galleon load from Spain’s richer New World territories. Knowing that an island kingdom must be strong to survive, Elizabeth turned a blind eye as Sir Francis Drake and other English sea captains raided and seized the treasures from Spain’s heavily laden and slow-moving gold ships. It did not take long for the King of Spain, Philip II, to have had enough of England’s daring Queen and her “sea wolves” and he soon hatched a plan to invade England.   

Golden-hinde_400In 1580, King Philip ordered that a great Armada, or Navy, be built.  His plan was to invade England, remove Elizabeth from the throne, and crown himself king in Westminster Cathedral.  However, Elizabeth heard of the plan and made a bold preemptive strike, led by the skilled seaman Sir Francis Drake.

Drake was sent out from Plymouth, on April 12, 1587. He appeared before Cadiz on April 29th, and late in the afternoon of that day he sailed boldly into the harbor, completely surprising the defenders, and throwing the Spanish land and naval forces there into a panic.

All the remainder of the day, and all the next day, Drake plundered and burned. Thirty-seven naval and merchant vessels were destroyed with very small losses on the English side. During the raid, Drake managed to seize 2,900 casks of Sherry from the Spanish naval stores, which he soon delivered triumphantly to Queen Elizabeth.

amontilladoAs you might guess, it became all the rage in England to drink the captured Sherry.  Spanish Sherry was suddenly the most popular drink in England.  Legend even tells us that the English loved to call it “sack” because, well, Drake had sacked the Spanish supply port. (There are other explanations for the term “sack” as well.)

In the ultimate show of British praise, Shakespeare praised Sherry, or “sack,” when he had Sir John Falstaff proudly declare in Henry IV, Part 2, “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack”.

At top –  “Sherry, Sir?” by William Powell Firth, 1853

Train the Trainer: Storytelling as Teaching

Storytelling as Teaching

It is a proven fact that the use of storytelling – called “the narrative approach” in teaching lingo – is one of the most effective ways to add interest and engagement to a presentation.  Storytelling works in just about any educational platform from lecture to discussion to on-line, and can help you reach your audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.  A well-placed story can make theories or abstract ideas concrete and accessible, can spark interest in new material, and can help students memorize facts.

To put it simply, properly used, storytelling is a great teaching method.   I’ve used storytelling as a teaching method for decades, and would love to share with you all some of the specific ways I use stories.  Hopefully, some of them will make sense to you and you’ll be able to use them in your teaching as well.

 Use stories to spark interest when introducing a new concept.

Familiar stories, especially those from literature, movies, or popular culture, can be useful to ease the transition into a totally new subject matter. I use the familiar Edgar Allen Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado” as an introduction to the subject of Sherry. Despite its status as one of the world’s leading wines, Sherry is a very foreign subject to most of my culinary school students, and Amontillado is the only real Sherry they have ever heard of, even if they do not yet know what that means or why it matters! 

 Use stories to “sum up” the subject matter at the end of a presentation.

After a long, information-packed class, I like to tell a story to tie all the  information together and re-energize the students about the subject matter  before I conclude the class.  Some of my favorite stories and topics to use include Chianti and the Story of “The Hungry Black Rooster,” Charles Heidsieck and “Champagne Charlie,” and The History of Hungarian Wine and “Bull’s Blood.”  All of these wine stories can be found on this blog…just look  under the category “Tales of the Vine.”

Use stories as a “repetition” of important facts or concepts.

After I tell a  lecture or assign a reading that involves certain basic facts that are very important for students to remember (in other words, just about every class), I try to “weave” those facts into a historical or fictional story.  I find this to be one of my most effective methods for “pouring facts” into  my students. 

I often use the story of Emperor Charlemagne and the Vineyard of Corton-Charlemagne to prompt memory of the basic facts of Burgundy Wine, such as the type of grapes permitted, the many different vineyard names and the vineyard classifications.  Another cool trick is to tell the story at the beginnng of class – including all the pertinent facts, and re-tell the story at the end of class, but this time have the student “fill in” the facts for you. It’s a kind of “story-based quiz.”  

Use stories to tie new concepts to something students already know.

It’s a proven educational fact that all new knowledge if built off of information already in long-term memory. (Check back for a post on Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning – if you dare!) Thus, tying new information to something students already know will increase their interest, engagement, and memory potential immensly.  If you can find  something in popular culture that your audience enjoys (such as a song, television show, or movie) that involves your subject matter, you have hit the jackpot, educationally speaking!

You can use the familiarity (dare I say popularity?) of Dom Perignon, Veuve Cliquot, or Cristal to interest your audience in the story of Champagne. Use the stories to spark interest in grapes, production method, and aging underground. It wil make terms like “sur lie aging” and “assemblage” much more interesting.  I have even used scenes from “James Bond” movies that feature Champagne to peak my audience’s interest in the science of the wine.  There are some awesome James Bond movie posters featuring Champagne out there you can use as visuals as well.

Use stories to engage or “wake up” your audience at any time.

Before you begin a course, seminar, or sales pitch, be armed with at least a few stories that relate to your subject.  Then, if you ever sense your audience losing interest, hit them with a story.  It’s bound to re-invigorate your talk! 

 Remember, storytelling is one of the oldest forms of teaching. 

With all our brain-based science, educational psychology, and cognitive philosophies, one thing we have learned is Aristotle was right – stories are a great way to engage, inspire, and teach our students and our selves!

For more great ideas about stories to use in teaching wine, check under the “Tales of the Vine” category on this blog.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…  missjane@prodigy.net




Tales of the Vine: Bull’s Blood

In the Northern Massif region of Hungary, the famous Egri Bikavér, or “Bull’s Blood Wine” is made in the area around Eger, a beautiful town about halfway between Budapest and Tokaj.

The name of the wine dates back to a Turkish invasion led by Suleiman the Magnificent around 1552.  During the invasion, Suleiman the Magnificent and his army of Turks attempted to siege of the Castle of Eger.  The defending Hungarians, led by Captain Istvan Dobo, were largely outnumbered by the invading army and the situation appeared dim. However, the Hungarian forces, fortified by days and nights of delicious food and large amounts of the local red wine, managed to successfully defend Eger. In doing so, the Turkish army was forced to withdraw, and Turkish westward expansion was delayed for forty years after this battle.

According to one legend, the enemy soldiers were frightened by the fierce fighting and red wine-stained beards of the soldiers.  Among the Turkish soldiers it was rumored that bull’s blood had been mixed into the wine, as otherwise the strength and firm resistance of the town and castle could not be explained.  Another legend states that the swords of the enemy could not cut through the Hungarian blood thickened by the wine.

The wine named for the legendary “bull’s blood” of the siege, Egri Bikavér, is still produced to this day, and is very popular on both the domestic and international markets.  Egri Bikavér is made up of a blend that has varied over the years, although the blend is anchored by the ancient Kardarka grape. Kadarka is a difficult grape to vinify, and has increasingly been replaced by Blaufränkisch, known locally as Kékfrankos.

In modern times, Egri Bikavér must contain at least three of the following 13 grapes: Kardarka, Kékfrankos (known as Blaufränkisch in German), Blauer Portugieser, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Menoire, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Turán, Bíborkadarka, and the modern Austrian hybrids Blauberger and Zweigelt.

Tales of the Vine: The Evil and Disloyal Plant Gamay


The Story of Beaujolais…

Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was one of the most powerful men in France from 1388 until his death in 1404. Philip managed to keep Burgundy independent from France and doubled the size of his dukedom by marrying the Margaret III, Countess of Flanders. Philip was an excellent capitalist and under his rule the wines of Burgundy became quite fashionable and expensive. Philip the Bold is said to have selected the clone of Pinot Noir that became the mainstay of Burgundy’s red wines and is credited with having chosen the name “pineau noir”, meaning “black pine cone”, due to the shape and size of the grape clusters.

Enamored as he was with the red wines of Burgundy, Philip was infuriated when the wine growers of his region started to plant Gamay grapes in the vineyards of Burgundy. The Gamay vines were vigorous, easy to grow and high-yielding, and their rich, fruity wines were at their best while young, making Gamay a cash-flow wine the growers loved.
Philip the Not-so-Bold (anonymous 16th century painter) Currently displayed at Versailles

Philip the Not-so-Bold (anonymous 16th century painter)
Currently displayed at Versailles

Philip felt the presence of Gamay in the vineyards of Burgundy would harm the reputation of the fine wines he had worked so hard to promote, so he banished the grape from his kingdom. He declared Gamay “foul” and “harmful”, and in a royal decree denounced the “tres mauvais et tres desloyaus plant nomme gamay”, translated as, “the very evil and very disloyal plant called gamay”. Philip thus forbade the cultivation of Gamay in Burgundy and banished it from the Kingdom.

The despised Gamay was down but not out, for it soon began to thrive just beyond the Southern border of Burgundy in the region known as Beaujolais. Beaujolais, with its cold winters, hot summers, and decomposed granite soil is now known to be the one perfect spot on the face of the earth to grow Gamay. One of the wines of Beaujolais, Beaujolais Nouveau, is among the first French wines to be released with every year’s new vintage, and is one of the most popular of all French wines.
The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The More the Meritage

Take the word “merit” and combine it with the word “heritage.”   Put in the hands of a master wine maker and blend well.  What you have is Meritage, a relatively recent addition to the wine lexicon, coined in 1988 to describe new world wines made with the grape varieties of, and in the blended style of, the noble wines of Bordeaux.

The name “Meritage” was originally intended to give the wines of California a little much-needed marketing moxie at just about the time that California wines were beginning to be gain international acceptance. Since the inception, winemakers in California, Australia, Israel, and Argentina have embraced the name, and wine makers all over the world craft some of their finest wines with the Meritage blend.

The story of Meritage begins in the 1980’s.  Wines from California had stunned the wine world at the Paris Tasting of 1976, and the eyes of the world had begun to be opened to the fact the some darn good wine was coming from the New World.  The American public had started to embrace wine, and wine lovers from Oregon to New Jersey were happily slurping the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc coming out of Napa and Sonoma.

So here’s where the plot thickens:  due to labeling laws set forth by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, wine from the U.S. must be at least 75% the named varietal grape in order to be labeled using the name of the grape, such as “Cabernet Sauvignon”.  If a wine was not 75% one grape, it had to be called by a “made up” or proprietary name, or use the generic term “Table Wine.”

This proved vexing for a very good reason:  At the time, Americans equated generic wines or proprietary wines with bad, bad wine, which there was plenty of in those days.  Many of the first wines out of California post-prohibition were “mystery blends” of grapes grown in the warm Central Valley, distributed in big, round bottles reminiscent of a bootlegger’s stash.  These wines were labeled with generic names such as “Table Wine” or they sported proprietary names.  Who can forget Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Carlo Rossi Paisano or Italian Swiss Colony Red Table Wine?  The 75% rule was, and still is, the labeling law in the U.S. Thus, if a winemaker was making a top-flight blend in the style of the finest blended wines of Europe, no matter how expensive or delicious it may be, it had to be labeled like a jug wine.

The truth is that the ability to blend grape varieties gives a winemaker an added tool with which to create wines of complexity and balance.  Some of the finest wines in the world, such as those of Bordeaux, Chianti, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape are blends of many different grape varieties.  So, it seemed that American winemakers were at a competitive disadvantage compared to the wines of Europe.  In order to label their wines using the accepted vernacular, the wines had to have a minimum 75% of one grape variety, while many European wines are blends of several different grape varieties, in any proportion the winemaker chooses.

Enter our hero, The Meritage Association!  Formed in 1988 by a small group of Napa Valley Vintners, the members sought to create a recognizable name associated with high-quality blended wines.  In a stroke of genius, they hosted a contest to create a catchy name.  The contest received over 6,000 submissions.  Neil Edgar of Newark, California won by suggesting “Meritage” – a combination of the words merit and heritage.

So the requirements for Meritage were set forth:  A red Meritage wine must be made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenère, and/or Petit Verdot (the classic Bordeaux Grape Varieties).  Gros Verdot and St. Macaire may also be used, in homage to the grapes that were grown in Bordeaux pre-phylloxera. The proportions may vary, but at least two of the grape varieties must be used, with a maximum of 90% of any single variety.  For white Meritage, only Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle du Bordelais, the white grapes of Bordeaux, are permitted.

A wine meeting the requirements for a Meritage does not need to use the term on the label—and many wineries prefer to use proprietary names (such as Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the well-known “Opus One”). Others just stick to “red table wine!” However, if you read the wine’s tasting notes or technical sheets you may find the term “Meritage blend” or “Bordeaux blend” used.

Today, there are over 120 winery members of The Meritage Alliance, and the style of wines (both red and white) made with the grape varieties of—and in the blended style of—the noble wines of Bordeaux continue to be some of the world’s most cherished wines.

By the way, most of the wine enthusiasts I know use the pronunciation “meh-ri-TAHJ”, as if the wine rhymed with the French wine “Hermitage.”  However, according to The Meritage Alliance, the word should really be pronounced like heritage-with-an-m.  Don’t sweat the pronunciation too much, though…either way you pronounce it, wine people will know what you’re talking about.

Note: The Meritage Association has since changed its name to the Meritage Alliance. 

Reference/for more information:

The Mertiage Alliance: http://www.meritagealliance.com/


Tales of the Vine: Flying Cigars

Tales of the Vine: Flying Cigars

Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhône is one of the oldest and most prestigious wine growing regions in France.  The famous red wine of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is made from a chorus of grapes, with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre making up the bulk of the blend.

The town name, roughly translated as “New Castle of the Pope”, refers to a time in the fourteenth century when the French Pope Clement V resided not in Rome but in the city of Avignon, a short fifteen-minute drive from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine making region. Pope Clement’s successor, Pope John XXII, chose the town for his summer residence, and built the namesake “new castle” papal estate on a hill overlooking the vineyards. Pope John XXII also planted olive trees, expanded the vineyards, and was a great proponent of the wines of the region.

To this day, the castle’s majestic remains loom over the town and form a picturesque backdrop to the surrounding vineyards.

In 1954, at the height of the cold war, this famous wine region and the nearby town were suddenly plagued with a series of U.F.O. sightings.  The town and the surrounding areas were full of panic-stricken citizens and rampant rumors of an alien invasion. The town council was very concerned – but not about the public panic or the possibility of local citizens being abducted by aliens.  What concerned the town council was protecting the region’s priceless vineyards. In response, the following municipal decree was adopted:

Article 1:  The flying overhead, landing, and taking off of aeronautical machines called “flying saucers” or “flying cigars”, of whatever nationality they may be, is strictly forbidden in the territory of the commune of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Article 2:  Any aeronautical machine –“flying saucer” or “flying cigar”-that lands on the territory of the commune will be immediately confiscated and its passengers taken off to jail.

The “flying cigar” laws remain on the books today.

Several decades later, renegade winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, California set out to create a California Wine based on the grape varieties and in the style of the legendary red wine of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, he named his wine, with a respectful tongue held-in-cheek, “Le Cigare Volant”.  “Le Cigare Volant” is the French term for “flying saucer”.

Oh…and by the way – you can stop worrying…as far as I know, no flying saucers have ever landed in the commune of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.











Tales of the Vine: The King with the Grizzly Beard

Behind every bottle, there’s a story…

Born in 742 and rising to power as the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of much of the Western World, it was Emperor Charlemagne who commanded the planting of the Pinot Noir vines that produce the excellent red Burgundy of Le Corton.  It is well-known that Emperor Charlemagne adored the precious red wine of Le Corton, and drank some every day.

However, as the years past and the king became an older man, his hand was no longer as steady as it once was.  From time to time, while enjoying his precious red Burgundy, he would spill some wine onto his flowing white beard.  The resulting red stains annoyed his wife to such an extent that she demanded that he stop drinking wine.

Emperor Charlemagne was a legendary lover of the company of women, but was determined nonetheless to not give in to his wife’s demands.  Charlemagne craftily decided to become a white wine aficionado in order to be able to drink to his heart’s content without compromising his regal appearance or arousing the wrath of his last and reportedly favorite wife.

Thus, Emperor Charlemagne demanded that part of the hill of Le Corton be replanted with white grapes, and the famous white wine vineyard now known as Corton-Charlemagne came to be.  With white wine in hand, Charlemagne was able to drink his beloved wine again, shaky hands, grizzly white beard, and all.


Tales of the Vine: Est! Est!! Est!!!

Behind every bottle, there’s a story…

Legend has it that in 1107, under the order of The Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, a German Bishop named Johan Fugger was sent to Rome. He was journeying there to visit the Pope in hope of being elevated to Cardinal.

Fugger was a rotund man known for being very fond of food, wine, and the other good things in life.  So fond of good wine was he, that on his travels he customarily sent his faithful servant, Martin, one day ahead of the rest of his group in order to seek out the best local wine in the towns along the way. When he found an inn serving good wine he was to mark the door with the word “Est”, being short for the Latin Phrase “Vinum Est Bonum” – the wine is good.

When he got to the town of Montefiascone in northern Lazio, Martin was so impressed by the quality of the wines being served at one tavern that he excitedly scribbled “Est! Est!! Est!!!” on the door. When the Bishop arrived the next day, he agreed so heartedly with Martin’s opinion of the wine that he cancelled the rest of his trip and lived the rest of his life in Montefiascone, enjoying the good things in life and eventually dying from the overconsumption of his beloved Est! Est!! Est!!!

Bishop John Fugger is buried in Montefiascano in the Church of San Flaviano, where his inscription reads, “Est, Est, Est et propter nimium est, dominus meus, mortuus est!” which translates (loosely) as: ‘Est Est Est. He Died from too much Est.”

The legend of Bishop Fugger and his faithful manservant Martin is celebrated every August in Montefiascone with the town’s “Festival of Wine” known as the “Fiero del Vino”.  During this festival, hundreds of people in traditional costumes retrace the story of Est!  Est!! Est!!!, from Martin’s arrival at the tavern door until Bishop Fugger’s death from too much wine.  The festival ends with the dousing of his Bishop Fugger’s tombstone with a barrel of his beloved Est! Est!! Est!!!.