By H. Asuncion, Understanding Wine Student
After drinking 80 glasses of wine I’ve come to this conclusion: wine goes with everything, even burgers. Yes…burgers.
The revelatory burger and wine pairing was Frog’s Leap’s Shack Red, a blend expressly designed to pair with the Shake Shack “Shackburger,” and was just one of the many surprises I experienced during ICE’s groundbreaking new wine course, Understanding Wine. This 10-session program, developed in partnership with Union Square Hospitality Group, focuses on getting to know your individual palate, learning to respect the diversity of wine and taking the risk of trusting yourself and your own taste.
Each Tuesday evening we were supplied with a bottomless barrel of expertise and knowledge, overseen by John Ragan, master sommelier and wine director at USHG. Over the course of 10 weeks, John was our seasoned guide on a tasting tour of the world’s major wine regions (an overview of the full 10-week curriculum is available here).
We explored “old world” wines, including the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France, including a vintage 1988 French Bordeaux by Château Doisy-Védrines. From there we tasted newer styles of production Spain and Portugal, as well as various sparkling varietals. One evening, our glasses jetted to California to explore its famous Zinfandels. On another, we learned to challenge our perceptions of Riesling (heads up—not all of them are sweet).
“One of the biggest takeaways from the class is developing an open mindedness,” said Ryan Fissell, an Understanding Wine alumnus who works in the technology industry, “[Before the class] I wouldn’t look at [wines from] Spain or Portugal—I was so California-centric. This class has taken away that fear—I now know what I like and what I don’t like. I’m so much more objective.”
To that point, the course’s expert dialogue never came from one single perspective. Each week, John shared the floor with a fellow wine industry leader—be it ICE’s own Wine Program Director, Richard Vayda; Jeff Kellogg, wine director at Maialino; Mia van de Water, wine director at North End Grill; Christopher Tracy, winemaker and partner at Channing Daughters Winery and even CEO and founder of USHG, Danny Meyer, who stopped by one evening to tell his wine story, one that starts with his father bringing his travel business home—to the family’s St. Louis, Missouri, dinner table—in the form of an exotic bottle of wine. These personal perspectives were enlightening, offering multiple starting points and various paths by which to discover the nuance of our own palates.
What’s more, the class seamlessly blends work and play. By lesson two, student Rachel Spring summed it up with a new catchphrase: “Tuesday is the new Friday.” In truth, learning about wine under Ragan’s guidance felt more like an evening out than a traditional class. One evening, the staff of Blue Smoke stopped by with pulled pork sandwiches. On another occasion, Maialino’s Executive Chef Nick Anderer supplied paninis to pair with Italian wine. “When you break it down by the hour,” says class graduate and banker Susan Ellis, “this has been one the most affordable things I’ve done in New York.”
For our final class, we explored the power of pairings with the help of an eight-course tasting menu prepared by ICE Chef Instructor Sabrina Sexton. Alongside Sexton’s elegant dishes, Ragan served wines that represented different pairing strategies: matching color with color (red meat with a red wine), amplifying flavors (spicy Zinfandel with spicy barbecue), balancing strong tastes (port with Stilton cheese) or selecting complementary textures (a creamy Verdicchio with oysters).
Yet our final takeaway was far from exact science: “What do you like?” It was a wisdom that too many novice wine drinkers take for granted; the perfect wine, in every situation, is one that makes you happy.
Summer Wines Recommended by Understanding Wine Students
2010 Legras & Haas Rosé Champagne
Tart, crisp and effervescent, this bubbly rosé was an overwhelming favorite by many in the class. With a strong aroma of red fruits on the palate, it’s the perfect pick for a dinner party, pairing well with dishes that feature the flavors of strawberries, cherries, currants and raspberries.
Grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier
Producer: Legras & Haas
2006 Philippe Foreau Vouvray
This dry white impressed students and, like the rosé, was mentioned as a favorite by many. Full of orchard and stone fruits with some citrus and almost tropical elements, it has a notable minerality and well-balanced acidity. Pour this in your glass when you need something to cut through a dairy-heavy summer dish.
Grape: Chenin Blanc
Producer: Philippe Foreau
2011 Sartarelli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Tralivio
This wine is bright and light, with orchard and citrus notes on the nose and some herbal and strawberry flavor elements. A slight prick of acid and creamy texture makes it an ideal bottle to enjoy with oysters.
For more innovative beverage courses at ICE, click here.