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Aspen's Food and Wine Classic: secrets to picking wine

What does a wine expert wear for schooling a crowd of wine lovers at the exclusive Food & Wine Classic in Aspen?  If you’re Mark Oldman, you channel Loverboy’s Mike Reno in retro red leather pants and red bandana (more on his costume later). 

I attended two wine seminars at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo.  The first, with wine author and lecturer Oldman called Outsmart the Wine List, was peppered with so-called “nugget alerts". 

If the wine list gives you performance anxiety, you’re not alone, but turn it around to your advantage.  Oldman recommended seeking out the "un-pronounceables".  People tend to skip over them for fear of sounding silly, but that’s where you can get more bang for your buck.  Oldman, author of award-winning wine books including Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine (W.W. Norton), said he too, is constantly mistreated in restaurants.

In order to get a good suggestion, don’t use or fall for the buzzword “values” because there is a value to be had at any price range.  Instead, tell the server you want something at the low end of the list. Oldman said don't feel bad about it; wine is heavily marked up in restaurants.

If there are folks at your table who want red and others want white, go for Pinot Noir, it’s a “pivot” wine that can please both crowds.  And Malbec is not necessarily the steal it used to be because its popularity has caught on. Oldman says Portugal’s reds are the new Malbec.

Pinot Grigio, one of the better-known whites that people gravitate to, is where you might pay a premium. Oldman likened it to buying batteries in the airport.  He said bubbly is like ginger ale with bubbles and if you get something other than Champagne, it’s one of the best buys for “getting sassed.” Oldman argued even bad bubbly is like bad pizza or bad sex, it’s still good.

As we worked our way through his selections, he pointed out rosé suffers “pigment prejudice” – many won’t order it due to its pink color.

Last year, he bought wine from Bernie Maddof’s former collection in order to offer Drink Like a Felon.  So, why the 1982 Loverboy wardrobe this time?  In Oldman’s opinion, 1982 is the most important year in wine history. 

It's when famed wine writer Robert Parker made his name: "wine went from kind of this wine for a few, kind of esoteric, archaic, only for a few cranky collectors.  Once Parker's reviews of the great '82 Bordeaux vintage came out, it started this kind of momentum of modern wine love and wine became more and more accessible."  As a special treat to the audience, Oldman shared a few sips of Chateau La Croix Pomerol 1982.

Over at the Outstanding California Cabernets seminar with Master Sommeliers Paul Roberts and Jason Smith, we tested Cabernet from different sections of Napa.  The selections were pricey, ranging $80 to $175 retail, per bottle.  Going from South to North, we examined how soil, sunshine and air flow influences outcome in this one, small region.  Roberts noted Napa contains more than half the soil types than there are in the world. 

Roberts said, "Watch how the fruit changes… and then also how much tannin changes and that is a real thing in beginning to unlock the secret of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  So when you go into a restaurant, you go into a retailer, you can now give them a little bit more clear and concise language, not just go in and say 'I love Napa Cab.' Okay, that's like saying you love cars. You want a fast car, a slow car, a big car, an old car. Napa Valley has that type of diversity."

I asked Roberts if he is seeing any trends in wine. "You know the world of wine is also a business that I hope doesn't too much follow trends because it is an agricultural product… but I think what we're seeing is, we're seeing much more around the world, people trying to focus in on specific sites with this idea that little pieces of dirt have a story to tell and…there's more of not just 'I need to make a price point of a certain style of wine.  I want to make something that reflects a sense of place.' To me, that's really exciting in the wine world these days."

Roberts recommends jotting down your impressions. "You gotta think when you drink. And that means you can't just knock it back.  Have a little sip, write a note.  Understand why does that Napa Cab taste different than Bordeaux, why does the Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast taste different from Burgundy? Try not to make it overly complicated… the job of a great retailer and a great sommelier is to interpret your language to make you happy."