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How I Became a Wine Expert (and You Can, Too)

Gene and Patricia FordWhat’s a nice Irish-Bohemian lad from Iowa’s beer-and-bourbon farm belt doing messing around with elitist wines?

It all started in 1969 after a meeting of the Seattle chapter of the Serra Club, a Catholic organization that promotes priestly vocations. A fellow club member asked me whether I would help him market Christian Brothers wines to grocery stores and restaurants in Washington state. This commerce had only recently become possible. That’s because the then-blossoming “wine boom” had convinced the Washington legislature to abandon its liquor-store monopoly for wine sales.

My career since graduating from the drama department at Catholic University had largely involved spin-meistering. My various employments fell under the rubric of public relations. I yearned to try my hand at representing a tangible product, one a person could touch and taste. Never mind that my knowledge of wine didn’t extend much beyond the gallon jugs of Virginia Dare port or sherry that my dad invariably brought home during the Christmas holidays. Oh, my wife and I would enjoy the occasional glass of Chianti in an Italian restaurant, but “cabs” and “zins” remained dark mysteries.

Not that drinks, in general, held any mystery. As a small lad in the early 1930s, I used to watch my Irish grandfather make beer in our basement, alongside drying mushrooms and vats of fermenting sauerkraut. As I grew up I learned that he had lost his thriving tavern business — Cedar Rapids Public House — to the 18th Amendment of the Constitution, which gave birth to Prohibition. Bolstered by this background and the bravado of a PR specialist, I accepted the challenge and plunged headfirst into the world of wine.

Two things soon became clear. First, that the Brothers of the Christian Schools who pioneered a Napa Valley winery in the pre-Prohibition salad days were among the nicest religious people and the best employers in the world. Second, that California wines embraced a surprising range of tasty, more tasty and absolutely scrumptious sensory delights. I wasn’t in Iowa anymore. I had tumbled into a paradise.

Two challenging responsibilities came with the job: writing wine lists for restaurants and training their wait staff to merchandise wines to novice wine drinkers. You will never experience real fear until you stand before a staff of indifferent and unknowledgeable waiters and waitresses, knowing quite well that you’re a mere step or two more knowledgeable than they.

That’s when my Midwestern farm upbringing gave birth to my “one hour wine expert” dog-and pony show. Marrying my agricultural upbringing with the histrionic skills I mastered in CUA’s drama department, I presented wine as just another crop. Wine as bottled grapes. The concept worked well in restaurant training classes and later in public appearances, videos and a series of books I wrote.

On a farm one learns to trust one’s critical senses by feeling, smelling and tasting the harvest. Personal tastes may vary, but quality will always shine through. I applied farming’s trusty ABC’s to the wine game.

Everyone is familiar with many types of apples, so I began my class by relating cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and chardonnay to Jonathan, Granny Smith and Delicious apples. I pointed out that, like apples, each grape variety possesses unique flavor characteristics. Upon distributing slivers of a tart apple, I’d ask the curious crowd to give the apple slice a shake of salt (on the farm, we carried salt shakers in our overalls to flavor fresh apples and tomatoes in the field). I’d then ask them to bite into the slice, making sure that skin and seeds were crushed in the process. I’d then startle the audience by asserting, “You’ve just tasted ‘virtually’ all the wines in the world!”

This “virtually” was quite true. Humans can distinguish only four true tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Sugar from the apple pulp registers on the tip of the tongue, saltiness and acidity along the sides of the tongue and bitterness from skin and seeds in the back of the palate. All foods present combinations of these four tastes. Of course, tactile sensations — hot, cold, rough, smooth, heavy, light — embellish taste, as does the all-important first smell, which scientists say provides as much as 80 percent of flavor perception.

The apple trick destroyed the mystery surrounding wine. “It’s just another food,” I would suggest. “If I asked you to judge three apples according to better or best, you wouldn’t hesitate. Use the same confidence in tasting wines and you will soon learn to recognize their unique flavor profiles — and to decide confidently which you like best, and why.”

Thirty years later, after leading hundreds of professional tastings and working as a convention entertainer — “The One Hour Wine Expert” — I find that the program still works. Anyone can master the keys to wine expertise in a single sitting.

I am indebted to CUA for a superb education and for leading me to my wife, Patricia, and for the seven children and 14 grandchildren that followed. Father Gilbert Hartke, head of the drama department, frequently entrusted me to ferry his car to and from Chicago over the Christmas and summer breaks. Father would fly to his home in Chicago and I would transport a carload of classmates who hailed from the Midwest. Father got the use of his vehicle over the vacation and we enjoyed transportation for the price of the gas. One fateful summer, I agreed to take a young drama student from my hometown of Cedar Rapids to Catholic University for the summer session. That drama student eventually became my wife. One blissful summer courting on the Washington Mall was all it took.

One serious note about wine: Having known alcoholism in my own family, I was initially concerned, not about drinking wine, but about the propriety of merchandising it. This apprehension led to serious research concerning alcohol use and abuse. What I learned was the inspiration for a side career as a “drink journalist.” Six books and a syndicated newspaper column ensued, as did a decade of teaching a course in alcohol management for Washington State University’s hotel school and nine years publishing a magazine called Healthy Drinking. I learned how serious are the problems of abuse. But I also learned that the 90 percent of all drinkers who do not misuse alcohol have their health enhanced by their moderate intake.

My concentration over the past 15 years has been exploring the health benefits of responsible consumption. My latest book, The Science of Healthy Drinking, quotes research findings about how moderate drinking lowers the risk for 30 common ailments — everything from heart disease and the common cold to Alzheimer’s disease and kidney stones. These data are little recognized in our society because of lingering temperance protocols in public health and medicine that portray all drinking as risk taking. My Web site, healthydrinkingscience.com, also provides quotes from more than 1,600 peer-reviewed, global studies. Drinking is not for everyone, but those who exercise moderation and discretion can reap significant health benefits.

Thirty-five years of being the One Hour Wine Expert, author, wine educator and compiler of health data — all because a friend inquired casually over after-luncheon coffee, “How’d you like to sell some wines?”

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Revised: March 2005

All contents copyright © 2005.
The Catholic University of America,
Office of Public Affairs.