Felled by Oak

I wanted to title this post 'Ashen Faced Over Oak Error', but that seemed a bit over-the-top. It's true, however, that my face was pretty red recently when I made my biggest wine tasting error ever. Apparently, no matter how much practice I've packed into the last year, this newbie still has a long, long way to go. At least I'm fairly certain the journey will be a fun one.

Here's the story:

I was invited to a get together with a handful of Toronto's wine lovers - all of them far more seasoned than me, but all very encouraging of my burgeoning wine passion. We each picked a wine to bring with a story to tell about it. I agonized over what to choose right up until a few days before when I visited the Niagara College Teaching Winery. It was there that I discovered their 2009 Dean's List Chardonnay - a wine that I anticipated would be a huge, oaky, buttery chard - but when I tasted it at the winery I didn't get the big hit of oak I expected. It was crisp, a little acidic, nicely balanced. I loved it. So I bought a bottle and brought it to the event as my selection of the evening.

They asked a simple question, is it oaked? Lightly, I replied, suddenly unsure. It hadn't tasted oaky when I tried it, but it didn't say unoaked on the bottle. So that meant it must be oaked... Yikes! Anyway,  they served my wine first and I told them how I didn't like big oaky chards, but this wine was really different - not at all what I anticipated. Then, as I took a sniff, I realized... all kinds of huge oak. How did I miss that? When I smelled it at the winery, I caught a hint of oak but now this was full-on oak-a-palooza. If I could have crawled under the table at that point, I likely would have. But I didn't, and the wine was still, well, pretty fantastic. And while I could taste the oak more this time, it was not as oaky as most of the Chardonnays I've tried and I still liked it a whole lot. I think a lot of the others at the table liked it to.

And, in the end, I had a great night. Everyone was far too lovely to tease me for my oak-error and I learned so much from them that I can't thank them enough for including me. Was it embarrassing? Absolutely. And believe me, I will never make that mistake again, but I think that these sorts of foibles are par for the course when you're learning. And having such an amazing and supportive wine community has helped so much - I know that they were all once newbies (I have to remind myself sometimes that no one comes out of the womb a fully formed sommelier), and they know I'm trying my best.

I also saw this as a learning opportunity. So here are the rookie mistakes that led to my oak idiocy:

1. I tasted just after having Icewine. We were there for the Icewine fest and participated in the group pairing and tasting right before hitting the tasting bar. There's a reason you usually taste Icewine last - it can dull your palette and make it harder to pick up on nuances. Especially for a newbie like me.

2. It was crowded and busy and I didn't ask enough questions. Or write everything down. I need to have my wine journal out and take my notes right there. The winery staff were a bit overwhelmed and I didn't want to add to the stress, so I didn't take my time.

3. I didn't research the wine. I'd tasted it and loved it, which is great, but before a big wine event you should really do some deeper digging and be fully prepared to answer all the questions.

4. I picked a wine that was new to me. While I had done one tasting, that was it. I should have picked something I was more familiar with and had enjoyed at more than a tasting bar. I was so afraid that I'd bring something that wasn't interesting enough that I chose a wine I didn't know well enough.

All in all, great lessons. Do I wish I hadn't learned them the hard way? Sure. But all that really matters is that you laugh at yourself and pick that wine glass right back up again.

Have you ever made an embarrassing wine error? I'd love it if you'd share some of your stories so I don't feel so bad about mine!