Growing up, wine had a kind of magic glow around it. My parents didn’t drink, so the only time I was ever exposed to it (other than a swig or two at communion every Sunday) was when I would read through books about Italy and France or see cashmere-clad socialites on television order bottles from tuxedoed sommeliers. It was almost mystical, unattainable, accessed only by the elite and educated. Despite learning much more and gaining more experience over the years, I’m still intimidated by wine people. I prefer to let someone more knowledgeable pick a bottle, and I shrink back from conversation when the enthusiasts start throwing around words like “mouth-feel” and “malolactic fermentation.” So even though I was excited when we decided to attend a wine class at Carrera Wine Cellar, I knew well in advance that I would take a backseat whenever anyone asked, “What aromas are you picking up?” I certainly wasn’t prepared for how the team at Carrera approaches wine.
A shop and tasting bar, Carrera Wine Cellar is owned by a group of tight-knit family and friends – Joe and Carol Ziller, Jessica and Joshua Harrison, Danielle Cook, and certified Sommelier Tony Porcellini – with Jessica handling the operating and managing duties of the shop. After an extended wine education with Tony, Carrera Wine Cellar opened its doors in 2016 with a straightforward philosophy – wine should be simple, fun, and shared.
Carrera’s classes are led primarily by Joe Ziller and by Bob Peters and can range from simple wine education classes to paint and sip nights to any type of private event. Joe was our host for the night, and his intention was to remove that commonly-felt inaccessibility from wine. He wanted to make things simple, to help us understand wine not necessarily from a technical standpoint but from a practical and personal one. Joe told us of a time in college when he and a friend took a Wine 101 class (to impress girls, naturally). The master somm. practically spoke in a foreign language, despite this being a class for beginners. When he asked the group what flavors they were picking up in a certain glass, the answers were widely varied – one said it reminded them of their grandmother’s fur coat, another said barbeque. Joe said that all he could think of was pencil shavings. It turns out that grandmother’s fur coat was stored in a cedar chest, that barbeque was cooked over cedar chips, and those pencils were made of cedar wood. And though this was one class and one glass, it taught Joe something – flavors of wine are personal.
For our class, we had six glasses of wine in front of us that Carrera calls “The Big Six” – Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz. In both white and red, there were two light-bodied wines, two medium-bodied, and two full-bodied. If you’re familiar with these six, they say, you’ll get along fine just about anywhere.
Joe says that you should start with taste and texture, or – as he calls them – TNT (“If you get that, it’s dynamite!). So with the help of each of the wines, Joe demystified common wine terms like fruit-forward, tannins, body, and minerality and translated them into words and sensations with which we were much more familiar. He explained some of the differences between wine regions that will help you when you’re picking out a bottle – like, for instance, that the cooler the climate, the more acidic the wine will be. He also took much of the guesswork out of pairing wine with food, saying that in most cases, you can’t go wrong, but “some pairings are a handshake, some are a warm embrace.” This, too, depends largely on personal taste. Joe is big on contrast – where the food hits the tongue, the wine hits somewhere else, like pairing sweet champagne with salty popcorn.
All the while, we peppered Joe with questions, and his answers showed that even though his approach to wine is simple, he has the education to back it up. It’s difficult to fit everything we learned that night into one article, so you’ll just have to go take the class for yourself. Never again will you have to stare vacantly at a wine menu or stand overwhelmed in front of a sprawling shelf of bottles. Carrera’s approach to wine is inviting and unintimidating. “Our purpose is to try to demystify wine,” says Jessica. “Wine can quite often seem an intimidating beverage, but it doesn’t have to be drunk for analysis. One of our favorite expressions is ‘Don’t think – drink.’”
Learn more about Carrera Wine Cellar by visiting www.carrerawinecellar.com. Photography by Kate Gardiner.