Bluffer's Guide to Dinner Parties (October 3, 2005)
You've been invited to a dinner party thrown by an avid wine collector who considers himself a knowledgeable connoisseur. He's the kind of guy who serves all his wines blind and insists that everyone at the table guess the grape variety, region, producer and vintage. He gives helpful clues with a smile on his face: "As you can see, it's a red wine," and, gloatingly, "Don't be fooled by its depth of colour, it can only come either from the Old World or the New World." Thanks a lot.
Strategy: Immediately you arrive at his house, tell the host you have just come from a malt whisky tasting and you're afraid your palate is shot. To authenticate your story, sprinkle a little Glenmorangie on your lapels before leaving home (remember to leave the jacket in the trunk on the drive there and back). If that ploy does not work, recount the legend of the late André Simon, founder of the International Wine & Food Society, who had an extraordinary palate. At the end of one of his wine courses his students took a bottle of Château Lafite 1928 and a Lafite 1929, mixed them together in a decanter and poured him a glass, asking him to identify what was in it. Simon sniffed the wine and swirled it around on his palate. He thought for a moment, pointed to his left cheek and said, "Lafite 1928." Then he pointed at his right cheek, "Lafite 1929." Tell the host that you were in such awe of André Simon's tasting abilities that you have given up even trying.
Or you can quote the English wine writer Harry Waugh, who was once asked if he had ever mistaken a claret for a red Burgundy. His reply: "Not since lunch."
But if you want to sound like a committed oenophile, you can hold up your end of the conversation by answering his question with a question of your own. Example:
Your host: "What do you think the grape varieties are in this wine?"
You (loudly): "Did you realise that Retsina is an anagram of nastier?"
Your host: "Would you say the winemaker used any new Vosges oak barrels in this Château Haut Mortgage?"
You (more loudly): "And Episcopal is an anagram for Pepsi Cola. The Church, of course, has been behind every technological advancement in the history of beverage alcohol."
That should shut him up. Temporarily.
If you really want to irritate the host who has been raving on about the virtues of the 1982 Pétrus in his cellar, tell him, "Well, that's a coincidence! I had a bottle with lunch on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was corked."
To avoid having to answer questions that may show up your woeful lack of wine knowledge, come armed with wine trivia. Ask your host which wine has the longest corks. This kind of question will have him running upstairs to his library. In the meantime, you can confer with your fellow guests about the correct answers as to the provenance of the wines. (The host has cunningly decanted them all so that you can't even get an idea of their origin from the shape of the bottle.) Or, better still, make a beeline for the kitchen and try to get a peek at the labels in the blue box (one look at the label is worth a lifetime of experience). If the host does not come down within five minutes, shout the cork length answer up the stairwell: "I'll give you a clue. The producer's initials are Angelo Gaja. The corks for his single-vineyard Barbarescos are 60 millimeters long." Then throw in the gratuitous remark: "You can only remove them with an Ah-so." (Please understand, you are not being rude. An Ah-so is a two-pronged metal corkscrew. Carry one on your person at all times and produce it whenever you see a bottle that needs opening. But under no circumstances try to use it. You will only succeed in pushing the cork into the bottle and staining your shirt and the ceiling.)
When the host returns from his extensive wine library, having consulted every issue of Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines since 1998 and Googled the Internet to try to prove you wrong, confound him with your knowledge of champagne corks. Ask him a double whammy: At what speed does an unfettered cork leave a bottle of champagne? And what is the longest recorded flight of a cork from a bottle of sparkling wine? Before he can answer, throw in a zinger: What is the average number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine? This should keep him out of the room for at least twenty minutes, during which time you can finish your meal in peace.
Next time you're invited, turn the tables on the host by bringing a Bulgarian red spiked with ruby port in a crystal decanter and have him guess what the wine is.
Oh, by the way. I imagine you'd like to know the answers to the three questions above. 1. A champagne cork will leave the bottle at approximately 65 kilometres an hour. 2. The longest recorded champagne cork flight was 177 feet and 9 inches, accomplished at Woodbury Vineyards in New York State which was about half the distance of New Zealander Richard Pearse's first powered flight in 1902. 3. It takes an average of 600 grapes to make a bottle of wine. Now you're an expert.
P.S. I happen to like Retsina.