Teaching wine classes is always fun. It is a rare person in attendance that doesn’t already have a sense of the wonder of wine. Occasionally someone will bring a spouse, friend or significant other in hopes of lighting their wine fire and in those cases my job is to fan the flames. All in all teaching wine classes is a blast because most everyone has an interest in the topic….and they’re drinking wine.
This week however, I had a different audience that added a new challenge to the excitement of wine education. I spent two days with a group of junior and senior Restaurant and Hotel Management majors from Texas Tech University. These millennials were more the connoisseur of “dollar PBR” nights than wine and food pairings. To make matters more interesting, my daughter was part of the class. Not only was I there to enlighten the unenlightened but I needed to do it in a way that made my daughter proud or at least not embarrass her.
The ten students were part of a May-mester program. Instead of a traditional semester class on campus in Lubbock, Texas, the group was based at a satellite campus in the tiny Hill Country town of Junction, Texas where they completed two intensive weeks of all-day class and field trips. From Junction they made excursions to San Antonio, Austin and popular tourist destinations around the Hill Country. The campus is rustic to say the least, offering a summer camp appearance complete with bunkhouses and swimming pool, rather than a collegiate environment.
I had a two day assignment. The first afternoon was a three hour talk (diatribe with wine samples) on all aspects of wine and some ideas about food/wine pairing. The second day we toured four Hill Country wineries. Texas, by the way, has more than 225 wineries and the Hill Country, according to three of our tour guides, is the second most visited wine destination behind only Napa Valley. Based on personal experience in many crowded Hill Country tasting rooms, that may well be true.
I arrived in Junction with plenty of time to set up and grab a bite of lunch with my daughter and a few of the students. Cafeteria ladies, hairnets and all, served up a mean Frito pie (Frito chips smothered in canned chili and topped with bagged shredded cheese) and chili dogs. A jammy zinfandel would have paired perfectly with these delicacies.
Even though most of the students had little exposure to wine, they appeared attentive and interested. Maybe that was because my seminar had the promise of free wine. We started with a wine history lesson and then moved into Champagne and sparkling wines. Coincidentally, one of the students was celebrating his 26th birthday so we toasted him with a bit of bubbly, Mumm Napa Valley. Apparently that was just the start of his birthday celebration because he was “under the weather” the next day for the winery tours.
Whites were up next beginning with a discussion of Rieslings and a tasting of Decoy Sauvignon Blanc. One student in the back, to his surprise, showed a great nose and palate for recognizing flavors and aromas. It was around that time that things began to get interesting and I could see some light bulbs going off about this “wine thing.” The discussion began to flow as they compared an oaked and buttery Chardonnay from Artesa to an unoaked Chardonnay from Chamisal. It was about a 50/50 split between the two but some of the students tried to convince others that their choice was the right one. Same thing happens in wine bars every night.
Instead of sampling a Pinot Noir, I decided to use a Pinot Rosé from Belle Glos to debunk the myth that all rosés are sweet like white Zinfandel. They seemed pleasantly surprised with the exception of one of the girls. She couldn’t pin down what is was she didn’t like so I got her to agree to sample some rosés on the winery tours to determine if she didn’t like rosés at all or just that rosé. The answer surprised her, I think.
For the reds, I offered a Napa Valley Cabernet from Uppercut (second label to Provenance Winery). This wine is a great value for under $20 offering rich blueberry, dark cherry and spice flavors complimented by soft tannins… a good intro to a food-friendly Cabernet. By now the class, after 5 samples, was really into the wines and good discussions and questions made the time whiz by. We finished with a conversation about dessert and fortified wines with a sample of Bernard Griffin Syrah Port. All the wines I purchased locally for under $20 each.
The kids seemed to have fun and impressed me with how quickly they picked up on the whole idea of wines. My favorite moment occurred during the Chardonnay tasting when Jose’s, an older student and former serviceman, eyes lit up upon tasting the Artesa. I’m certain that was the first wine he ever really enjoyed. At that moment, for the rest of the day and during the tours, Jose was on a mission to learn about wine, asking some of the most insightful questions.
The next morning I met the kids at William and Chris Vineyards in Hye, Texas between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. This is one of my favorite spots for a couple of reasons. First, the tasting room is in a restored pre-1900’s house. More importantly Chris Brundrett is a 28 year-old enthusiastic and very talented winemaker. I knew his passion would be infectious and the students would relate to him. We started out in his newly planted three acre vineyard of Petite Verdot and Tannat where Chris explained how good wine always begins in a good vineyard. From there we toured his small 5,000 case winery where Chris gave a short lesson on winemaking while emphasizing the hospitality aspects of the winery operation. Chris is all about providing great wines and a great guest experience.
From there we toured the much larger Becker Vineyards and Lavender Farm which produces about 80,000 cases a year, big by any standards. At the 2011 Houston Rodeo auction, a large format bottle of Becker’s 2009 Viognier sold for $100,000, the most ever for a Texas wine. One of the students left his pickup running in the parking lot and so I asked why. Birthday boy, I learned, was too hung over to participate and was relegated to recovering in the air-conditioned cab of the truck. Kids today are such lightweights.
We then zipped up to Pedernales Cellars where they consistently produce some of the best Tempranillo in the state. Tempranillo like Viognier are good grapes for the Texas heat. It was at Pedernales Cellars that Ms. “I don’t like rosé” had a change of heart after tasting their delicious Tempranillo, Grenache, and Sangiovese dry rosé blend.
We finished the day with a superb tour from Jeff at Grape Creek Vineyards. A former instructor in the hospitality department of a junior college, Jeff came in on his day off just to meet with our Texas Tech kids. Jeff’s tour started in their vineyards and offered the best winemaking education of the day. Like Chris, Jeff’s enthusiasm for wine and Grape Creek in particular, kept the kids excited. The highlight for everyone was a barrel tasting of the 2011 Cabernet Franc. We tasted the same wine from a new American oak barrel, a new French oak barrel and a once used French oak barrel. What a great opportunity to experience the influence different barrel types have on the same wine. On top of that, the Cabernet Franc was the best I’ve tasted from Texas. By the time it is bottled, it should be a showstopper.
With that, two days of wine and college kids came to an end beside a robust vineyard of Montepulciano grapes. My daughter approved and some of the students later told her I was a “cool dad.” I’m certain their positive opinion was enhanced by the free booze I provided. More importantly, I witnessed some of these future hospitality gurus start to understand and grow excited about wine.