The Accidental Oenophile

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010

Recently friends invited my husband Ronny and me and another couple to dinner at their upscale tennis club. Upon our arrival we were informed that the five-course gourmet dinner was also going to be a friendly wine-tasting "competition" for the approximately 30 or so guests in the cozy dining room. There would be 10 different wines to be tasted with the meal. Whoever could connect the greatest number of wines (1,2,3) with their respective countries of origin (A, B, C) would win a bottle of fine Champagne.

Normally I eschew this kind of game. My entire life has been in one way or another attached to acquiring or disseminating "knowledge," so no matter how friendly a knowledge-based competition is, a teeny weeny little knot of tension forms inside me at the not unlikely prospect of ending up in the dunce's chair. I especially dislike trivia games, as they reward people with eclectic knowledge and good memories, while people like me with narrow interests and lousy memories look dumb.

Wine-knowledge games are the exception to the rule. I am a bibliophile, not a bibulosoph. When it comes to wine, I am already in the dunce's chair. I like it and drink a glass or two at dinner, but I harbour no aspirations to become what my father jokingly called a "commonsewer."

As vinously uncouth as I am, though, my husband Ronny's knowledge about wine makes me look like Robert M. Parker, grape maven to the world's wealthiest oenophiles. Ronny doesn't drink wine at all, since no vintage can meet his litmus test for a satisfied palate -- that is to say, the little explosion of happiness he feels when a rush of Diet Pepsi (hold the caffeine) meets his taste buds -- so our aggregate knowledge about wines barely approaches the bottom band of the proverbial barrel.

Ronny is incredulous at the price people will pay for wine when Caffeine-Free Diet Pepsi is so reasonable and the taste so consistent. I believe he is secretly convinced that all wine is interchangeable, a notion I suppose I encourage by the uncritical ecumenism I practise nightly in my prandial tipple.

Ronny is the self-appointed wine-buyer for the house, because he likes finding bargains in all things. The United States provides fertile terrain for these hunts. The last time we were in Maine, for example, Ronny stopped in at the local wine and cheese store and presented me with what the owner assured him was a fantastic bottle at the price -- $4 for a Francis Ford Coppola import from Spain called Encyclopedia Tempranillo. Nothing on the novel screwtop bottle, in shape rather off-puttingly suggestive of a popular brand of soya sauce, offered any written clue as to exactly what genre of grape was contained therein. But I found Tempranillo to be a perfectly adequate foil to our takeout pizza. I suppose in matters vinous we are what psychologists would call "co-enablers."

As to the tennis club dinner, I thought that if anyone was going to win at our table, it might well be either partner of the third couple. He was worldly and tossed off words like "tannic" and "oaky" without self-consciousness. She was French and gave every sip stern, respectful attention.

And so for two hours we all (except Ronny, who thankfully did not order a Diet Pepsi, but made do with lemon water) sipped and swirled and swished and commented and filled out our little ballots, as one by one the courses appeared and were whisked away.

I had one good moment in the discussion. The husband of the French woman was struggling to encapsulate the properties of a Chardonnay from either France, South Africa or California that he liked, but wasn't thrilled with, and said, "It's complex, but ..." and hesitated, and then I blurted out, "Yes, complex, but not sophisticated." "Yes, exactly!" he agreed. That made the evening for me.

At the end of the meal, the manager removed the paper bags from the wine bottles and revealed the names of the wines and their origins. We all looked at our ballots. Uh oh. I had two out of ten right. The French woman had four. Her husband had three. Guess who was the only one in the room who got ten out of ten. My husband, of course, who hadn't tasted a drop of wine but just for kicks filled out the ballot on the basis of mathematical probabilities.

Our hosts refused to accept the bottle of Champagne. I have never seen anyone so mortified at winning a prize in my life. In vino veritas? Apparently not.