Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Champagne and Cheetos: Wine "Studies"

For those who do not know, Wine Studies is the most difficult class at the Culinary Institute of America. It requires a ton of studying, and a ton of knowledge retention. We are not only expected to know grape varietals, different wine making techniques, and how to pair wine with food, but by the end of the class, I should be able to look at a glass of wine, smell it, and taste it, and be able to tell what kind of grape the wine is made of, where it was grown, and roughly how old the wine is (for reds, mostly, as most white wines aren't aged). Not only is this class the most demanding class I've encountered in my entire life, it signals the beginning of the end.

My schedule at the CIA is divided into 5 fifteen week terms. And the start of Wines Class means the beginning of fifth term. Thirteen weeks from tomorrow will be my last day of school, ever.

Let me walk you through what we learn about wines. The class takes a region by region approach. First was California, including Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Central Cali. There are hundreds of AVA's (American Viticultural Areas) found in California. AVA's are the special place names that can be written on a label that will usually indicate quality in a wine and raise the price. For example, Napa Valley is an AVA known for its incredible Cabernet Sauvignon. Inside Napa Valley, there are tons of AVA's, such as Rutherford and Stag's Leap. We are expected to know what grape varietals each area is known for and what qualities of the region, whether it be climate or soil, effect the grape and how they effect the finished wine.

The Green Valley AVA, of the Russian River Valley AVA of the Sonoma County AVA is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and a large amount of sparkling wines. But the Dry Creek Valley AVA of the Sonoma County AVA is known for Zinfandel and Syrah grapes, because it's climate is slightly warmer than the rest of Sonoma County, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir need a cooler climate. It's a lot of fucking valleys, creeks, rivers, counties, and AVA's to memorise, along with a lot of grapes and wines. It gets repetative, but it has to be crystal clear, or you fail and pay 4200 to retake the class.

And that's just the US. Foreign countries don't even have to put the type of grape on the label. While in the US, the label will read 2006 Reisling from "Such and Such Vineyards" from the Willamette Valley, Oregon; the French label their wines by the region the grape is grown. A bottle of French wine may read "Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur Lie, (Fill in the blank winery) 2007". We have to know that the the Region of the Loire River valley where the grape is grown is Muscadet de Sevre et Maine. There are regions called Muscadet, Muscadet Gros, etc. The grape primarily grown in this region is not Muscat, which would only make things easier, no, it's a grape called "Melon de Burgogne" which means Melon from Burgundy. To make things worse, the grapes neither taste like melon, nor do they come from Burgundy. The "Sur Lie" means that the grape itsself is pretty simple and straightforward, so in order to add some complexity to the wine, they age the wine with the yeast still in the wine and age it "On it's lees" or "sur lie". Thank God I took French in High School or I'd be lost.

And you know what, were cooks damn it, so we should be able to know what foods go with wines. The Muscadet I mentioned earlier would be awesome with oysters on the half shell, a Melbec from Argentina would be killer with big fatty steak, a super dry Riesling from Alsace would go great with some choucroute (sauerkraut slowly cooked with bacon, sausage, and other smoked delicious pork products; a combination I've been craving since I tasted a riesling from the Finger Lakes on Friday). When we have tastings in class, we taste about ten wines every night, we have to imagine foods that would pair well with each wine. Yesterday, while tasting Champagnes (from the Champagne region of France... nothing else can be considered true Champagne) a particular pairing was mentioned by our snobby ass wine professor. Apparently a student of his had mentioned once that a nice bottle of champagne and bag of cheetos was a sublime combination. Our teacher doubted the validity of the statement, and proceeded to pick up a bag of cheetos on his way home, and popped a bottle of "Brut, Blanc des Blancs, Premier Cru Non Vintage" (Which is a dry champagne made from only chardonnay grapes, from the first growth signifying quality, and made with grapes from several different years). He described the tandem as "killer". I knew at that moment that I had to try it.

So today, a study day, meaning that we don't have class and are expected to spend the day catching up on reading, a few friends and myself, decided to do a little tasting from our dorm rooms. There was a bottle of champagne, cheetos, seven other bottles of wine, a vast spread of takeout chinese food, and six studious cooks, looking to develop their palates and wine knowledge while getting hammered on a day off school. I have to say, that the cheeto and champagne were to die for. Try it yourself, take a bite of a cheeto (preferably of the "puff" variety) then sip the champagne. The fatty, cheesy powder on the puff coats your palate, then the acidity from the champagne cuts through the fat brilliantly, and the bubbles (as if they were the magical scrubbing bubbles from the cleaning product ads) magically lift the cheesey powder away and prepare you for another cheeto. I could have eaten the whole bag and drank the whole bottle, but I had to share. The standout pairing of the chinese take out was an off dry riesling with spare ribs. They were slightly smoky, and salty because of an abundance of soy and hoisin. Holy Shit.

I tend to talk shit about the CIA public in general. The school is only slightly corrupt, and the majority of the student body is pretentious, cocky, and not willing to work as hard as a young cook needs to in order to make it in this industry. It's a ton of talk, and not nearly enough walk. But I have to say, I'm lucky to have settled into a niche of friends who are not only really great people, but pretty damn hard workers, and pretty talented cooks. And today I learned what restaurant I'll be in for the first six weeks of restaurant row, and was pleasantly surprised to find that all of my friends will be slaving away with me, bangin out covers, and bustin each others' balls. It'll be the closest I'll have been to recreating the environment in the kitchen at L'Etoile. A few really close cooks, lots of jokes, lots of hard work, and as soon as somebody slips into the weeds your buddy will have your back and all will be okay. And after Friday night service, we sit and enjoy a nice beverage, and talk shit. I cannot wait.

City this weekend. Interesting plans, stay tuned.

Until then enjoy your champagne and cheetos, and thank me later for the suggestion.


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