Grapes and Gaffes: In which I bumble my way through Arizona wine country

click to enlarge Grapes and Gaffes: In which I bumble my way through Arizona wine country
Though the French may may not agree with the rest of the world, Arizona soil has produced grapes that have eventually been made into internationally-awarded wines.

I’m never sure how many questions you’re allowed to ask at a wine tasting. Part of me is eager to learn, but the other part doesn’t want to be annoying and isn’t sure how much information I’d retain anyway.

Once, a man at a relatively fancy winery gave me a sample of wine and explained that the grapes, let’s call them B grapes, were different than the grapes in the last wine I’d tried, which were A grapes.

“What’s the difference between A grapes and B grapes?” I asked.

“They’re a different kind of grape.” The man sounded a little exasperated he’d had to repeat himself.

“Oh no, I understand. But, I mean, how are they different?”

“They taste different,” the man said.

“… how?” I asked. “Or, why? Are they grown in different ways?”

The man, who didn’t appreciate what must have felt like the third degree (though a very friendly-in-tone third degree, I swear!), said he didn’t know. My friends teased me, and I dropped it and drank up.

When I went wine tasting in Elgin recently, I decided I wasn’t going to really try learning anything. Maybe a question or two, here and there, but I’d focus on being content with the information people presented voluntarily. I was going to relax and be content and not try to make it a learning experience. Maybe it was OK for this to just be a wine experience, and a day of laughter and cheese boards with a friend experience.

One question I did allow myself to ask at several different wineries was “How did you learn about wine?” I’m curious how people go from maybe, if anything, preferring white or red to being able throw around phrases like “medium bodied” and “mouthfeel.” The most common answer in Elgin was just that people learned as they went. They tried different wines, figured out what they liked and learned the vocabulary bit by bit.

It’s an honest answer, but never the one you want to hear, right? Like when you ask someone about how they learned a new skill or achieved success and the answer is just that they worked hard. That’s great, but, frankly, I’d appreciate some sort of gimmicky shortcut being offered up instead. One winery manager takes the opposite tack when I ask him, admitting he’s mostly just faked it since he was hired. I immediately feel more at ease. It’s not exactly an expert hack, but it makes me feel like it’s okay not to know.

I pick up a small sample of red wine and read the menu description, which describes the wine as “literally sparkling.”

“Would you say that’s ‘literally sparkling?’” I ask out loud, half joking, half curious. It’s not carbonated, but maybe sparkling means something else in this context? I am clueless! The question is directed at my friend, but winery manager, the one who said he’s been faking it until he makes it, answers first with a laugh and a firm no. “I’m not the one who wrote that,” he says.

The man tells my friend and me that we are fun customers, that he’s glad we’re not pretentious like some customers. Of course, it’s difficult to be pretentious about a subject you know almost nothing about, but some people do manage to do it. So, we take the compliment.

I think of a friend who would deserve the compliment more, because he does understand wine and manages not to be pretentious. He’s from France, where, I imagine, everyone is holding a glass of high-quality wine at all times. He doesn’t enjoy the Arizona wines he’s tried, but he tries not to be too harsh when he says so.

“I just don’t understand who came out to Arizona, looked at this landscape and thought, ‘This is a great place to grow grapes for wine,’” he said once, gently, rather than just saying, “I know a lot about wine, and this wine is bad.”

I had no answer for him (see above re: I know nothing about wine). But when I tell this to the winery manager, he has an answer without skipping a beat: “Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist from the University of Arizona, back in the ’70s.”

Well, look at that! Apparently, Dutt originally planted grapes as an experiment in 1972 and thought it went pretty well, so he expanded, eventually opening Sonoita Vineyards winery, the first commercial vineyard in the state. And, my French friend’s personal tastes aside, today many Arizona wines are recognized the world over and have won international awards.

And so it was that I learned something about wine on our wine-tasting trip, even when I wasn’t trying to. Next, I’m going to visit France. If I learn anything about tannins or tartaric acid there, I will report back.

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