If yours is one of the many wonderful blogs I read, I must apologise for my comments of late being a bit ‘woe is me’. I am fronting up to my next major exam (fortified wines) and have had a heck of a lot of stress at work, all at the same time. I am struggling a bit with my direction. This diploma program is incredibly difficult; we are basically given 200+ key words, half a days worth of lecture notes and sent out into the wild to learn the rest of the material. I’ve never loved exams but I’ve always felt that if I put in the hard yards that I could do well. This isn’t the case here. I’m terrified that if I miss studying one tiny Port producer I will lose 1/6 of the marks immediately, and don’t get me started on blind tasting.

It’s rough to be studying something I am so passionate about and to feel so lost and helpless doing so. When I tell people I’m studying wine I usually get a bit of a wink or an eye-roll and a comment about how tough that must be. It is! Jokes about all my “study” time spent drinking wine make me fire up immediately. I am drinking very little at the moment; I walk through my front door at 6:30 after an hour-long drive home, make a green tea and hit the books until about 11. The whole thought of wine initiates a bit of a stress response.

I was pretty upset last week and wondering if I was completely off-track in my life when I came across a post I published on my old blog about nine months ago. I had just started my diploma and was feeling so good about making this huge commitment to my career. It helped me remember the love. Not many people read Seeking Victory so I thought I might republish it here.

I remember my first wine tasting very well.

I was terrified.

I can’t remember how we decided on the first cellar door, possibly someone had suggested they had good wines, it may have been on a tourist brochure; I don’t know, but within minutes I knew I wanted to leave and never taste wine again.

You see up until that point I knew I really liked wine but I didn’t know anything about it. I was brave though- my selections were based on the label, it had to be a ‘cool bottle’ and usually my budget was anywhere up to $20, but outside of these criteria I did not discriminate. While most of my mates were drinking premixes, I had found wine and I bloody well liked it. I drank sparkling in abundance. Red wine, especially shiraz, was tasty-good (and it looked grown-up and classy). I also stumbled my way through a bunch of cheap and nasty whites but every so often a colourful label choice would turn out to be drinkable, so I didn’t write them off entirely.

I’m not sure where the idea for a tasting holiday in the Yarra Valley came from, but on that frosty morning in late May it nearly came to an abrupt end. The girl who new she liked bubbles and shiraz had arrived at Coldstream Hills. For those who don’t know it, Coldstream Hills is a winery established by James Halliday, the esteemed wine writer and judge. It is a Serious Winery. I meandered in to the pure white tasting room, where the most elegant glassware I had ever seen was set up ready to go and I wanted to run for the (Coldstream) hills. A perfectly lovely cellar door attendant asked if I would like to taste their range and I was left with a tasting pour and the tasting notes/price list. I went into a spiral of panic, the thought ‘I should not be here’ was tunneling through my brain and all I could see was white and the pale lemon wine in the super-elegant glass that I was too scared to pick up. Just when things couldn’t get any worse I observed my first Wine Snob- a robust chap settled in beside me and started swirling maniacally and pompously proclaiming everything he could smell and taste. All attention was diverted to him for long enough for me to delicately lift my glass, give it a little sniff, taste it and set the glass down again without disaster. The wine, probably a chardonnay, just tasted like fear and with that I muttered my thanks and goodbyes, scurried out of the whiteness and cried.*

What was I going to do? On holiday in a wine region and I was never ever going to do a tasting again. I was too stupid and if I stayed past that first sip somebody was sure to notice my ignorance and kick me out.

witchmount, first wine tasting, wine, cellar door

Somehow later that day I was coerced into Tarrawarra Estate. At that time the cellar door was in a casual dining space. A combination of the noise from lunchers and a very chilled staff member got me out of my funk and tasting some lovely wines, and feeling good about it.

I was hooked. Ever since, most of my holidays have been to wine regions. Some of the highlights have been:

Ballandean, 2007, Tobin Wines. The winemaker happened to be in the tasting room that afternoon and after a bit of chatter about where I was from and what I did he revealed that he was also an (ex) Pharmacist. At that stage I was training to be an actor and we connected over the need for artistic expression. I was still very new at this wine thing and so he took it upon himself, that afternoon in his winery shed, to teach me. He opened back vintages of Savignon Blanc and discussed how the year was reflected in the wine. I learnt about the way Semillon honeys as it ages and he gave me words  to describe the wines I liked. He also tolerated me for close to 2 hours 🙂

Yarra Valley, 2010, Tarrawarra Estate. Back at Tarrawarra, the first time I took My Love tasting. He was as nervous as I was the first time, terrified he would make a fool of himself. He wasn’t really into whites back then and I had to convince him to just taste the whites on offer (a tasting is the best way to challenge your ideas about what you think you like). That was possibly a mistake as he discovered his deep and abiding love for oaky Chardonnay in the 2004 Reserve Chardonnay. He has expensive taste.

tarrawarra, tarrawarra estate, winery, wine, yarra valley, first wine tasting

Heathcote, 2013, Condie Estate. I had booked a few nights accommodation in Bendigo, specifically for its proximity to Heathcote, an area known for ancient Cambrian soil and the extraordinary richness and complexity of it’s Shiraz. I had requested a few wineries when booking a tour but the highlight of my trip was Condie (I have told this story before). It was a lesson in oak. I had spent a bit of time in my fledgling wine career mentioning oak- American or French- when asked to describe wines, and I knew that they expressed different flavours in the wine but I had never actually tasted the difference back to back. Richie, the winemaker, allowed us to taste ageing shiraz from different barrels and finally this oak business made sense.

condie wine, condie estate, heathcote, winery, cellar door, barrels

Often when I mention I am studying wine or that I work in the wine industry, people express a desire to learn more. It seems to be one of those things that, across the board, people lack confidence in. I like to relate it to art- whether you understand it or not; it can be appreciated, debated, hated, loved, discussed, assessed.
In fact the only wine that doesn’t elicit my devout interest is the mass-produced, uniform, bland, easy-drinking stuff. Except that even as I wrote that sentence I started to disagree with myself. There is a place for wine that you don’t need to think about; that is purely to refresh, aid digestion or just provide your daily dose of polyphenols.

What I think it should not be, is a source of anxiety or insecurity. And if someone in the wine industry ever makes you feel that way, just tell them to stop being a big meanie.

tahbilk, wine cellar, underground, first wine tasting

One of best things about doing tastings is being able to purchase wine that you can be confident about giving as a gift or sharing with friends over dinner. Often when you chat to the cellar door staff you might collect a story about something funny that happened the year it was made or the weather they had and how that affected the wine (good or bad). Wine with context is so much more than just a drink. Wine is an evolving thing, each year the wine from the same vines can express different characters and that is what I find fascinating.

*I still haven’t been back to Coldstream Hills but it is definitely on my list of places to visit. Please don’t let me put you off, they have some stunning wines and all my discomfort was self-generated.

Sometimes it helps to reflect on where you have come from, doesn’t it 🙂

Do you remember your first wine tasting?

21 Comments on My First Wine Tasting

  1. Nothing in this life that is worth doing is easy – in fact, if you don’t stumble a few times, you are probably not challenging yourself properly.
    Fall down seven times, get up eight. That is what it is all about.
    You can only do the best you can, and it will probably be more than sufficient.
    It is great that you have a passion that can potentially be turned into a career. x

    • You do really have a way of putting it into perspective. Sometimes I look at other people and wonder why I can’t have a nice simple life. But then I’d probably be bored.

  2. Yes, you can! Nobody said it would be easy, but it will definitely be worth it. You’re juggling lots of balls in the air right now, so just be kind to yourself OK?

    • Very good advice. I was so buzzy I couldn’t actually taste my first wine properly. I had to take a break, do a spot of the theory questions and come back. Intense.

  3. This reminds me of the documentary Somm where they basically had to devote their entire lives to studying for an exam that seemed nearly impossible to pass. I admire that you are doing this! I think I’ve learned a lot more about wine in the last year simply because I now actually live in an area that produces a lot of great wines. I have actually never been to a tasting, but it’s on my list this year! I might even do a few! Good luck 🙂

    • It is not entirely unlike Somm. We do have desperately serious group tastings and the stress levels are huge. I have also pretty much given up a social life for a month leading up to the exam.
      Do definitely go to cellar door tastings. They are fantastic.

  4. It sounds so intense, just keep looking at the next thing in front of you and try to not get too overwhelmed. I have never really done a proper wine tasting, but it is on my to-do list 🙂

  5. This is why I love having a blog – it’s a flag in the ground of how we are feeling at a particular point in time and the reactions of others at that time. It’s so good to be able to return to it.

    I really like your wine philosophy – I’ve met some very haughty sommeliers in my time and it always gave wine a ridiculously snobbish taint that i’m certain the wine grower never intended!! x

    • You’ve summed it up perfectly 🙂 It’s like a really awesome interactive journal with pictures.
      Snobby somms are my pet hate. One of the nice side effects of the amount of study I’ve done is that, in most cases, my wine knowledge is better than theirs. I take a little guilty delight in throwing in something to show off a touch and bring them back to earth very quickly 😉

  6. Completely agree Nicole, there should be no scariness when tasting wine. I see it at cellar doors all the time, and I stand back just hoping the staff will pick up on it and do their best to make the customers relaxed and enjoy the experience. Also I have so much respect for you doing the WSET Diploma, it sounds highly stressful but hang in there – it’ll all be worth it in the end 🙂

  7. Great article and beautiful photos.
    Keep calm about your exams, i’ve been there and it was scary but it was totally worth it.
    You just know what you know….deep breath!

    • Thank you.
      I’ve just had to defer my spirits exam which is a bummer- new jobs and WSET exams don’t mix. I’m really glad that you consider it worth it with your wealth of experience- sometimes I wonder.

  8. Such a great article. I sooo wish I could remember my first tasting, but I feel like I’ve loved and appreciated wine in my life at an early age. Kudos on the WSET diploma. I only made it through level 2. It’s not easy, but look forward to hearing about your learnings!

    • I love that you appreciated wine at a young age. I remember being about 20 and starting to really tell the difference between varieties and styles. I really enjoyed WSET level 3 too, worth thinking about, it does give a lot of wine knowledge confidence.

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