Cooking with Jason

Friday, November 10, 2006

So close!

Admit it. You're dying to know -- did Jason ace the Wines final?

Yes and no. I correctly answered 69 of the 70 questions, so technically no. However, way back on the first test, everyone in the class received a free correct answer because Professor Weiss felt bad about not being in class the day before the test. Having aced the first three tests, I cashed in my freebie on the final and thus my grade will show up as 70 out of 70, so sort of yes.

Sadly, I lost one point on my food and wine paring paper (from Monday's lunch), leaving my final grade in the class at 99%. And it wasn't even that my pairing was wrong, either. I picked a port and a madeira as my alternate pairings for the dessert course, but those are both fortified wines. I needed to pick a fortified and then a late harvest, ice wine, or botrytis wine. Bummer.

In other related news, I'm starting at Arlington Wine & Liquor on Tuesday afternoon. I dropped by today both to pick up a bottle of port and to introduce myself to Bob, the fine wines manager. He informed me that because I'm coming in with more knowledge than most new hires, they're going to start me off in France/Spain/Italy rather than the boring new world. Yikes! I'd better study.

I'm also starting a wine log to track everything I taste. I have detailed notes from the ~100 wines we tasted in class, so I'll start there, plus two reds and two ports I've bought myself in the last month. I think I'm officially a nerd.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Three in a row!

Italy, Portugal, and Spain were by far the hardest areas to study, at least for me. They're not nearly as organized and compartmentalized as France (or even the US), and they use all sorts of different grapes that they rest of the world doesn't use. As of 10pm last night I wasn't feeling very good about this at all, but less than 12 hours later I was completing another perfect test. This performance trumps my previous best "I don't know this stuff!" to doing well on a test effort, which you may recall was in meat class way back in June of 2005.

But alas, no rest for the weary. Tomorrow is the cumulative wine final, covering everything we've done so far plus some new information on wine storage that we went over today. We get 75 minutes to 70 questions, and while this test (unlike the first three) is open-book, you'd better know your stuff because there's no way you have enough time to track down every detail.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Big Tuesday

All sorts of happenings today.

I started my day at the career fair, where I only had about half an hour to spend thanks to a special lunch I was invited to (more later). As a result I only talked with a representative from one company, but it was the company I was the most excited about. They're a small (~45 restaurants) company, privately owned, with restaurants all over the country. They're not fine dining, but they're definitely upscale and would be a great place to get started. They have an intensive manager training program, are growing, and offer really good compensation. I had a nice talk with the recruiter, and will sit down for a formal interview with him tomorrow before class. I'm really, really excited about this one.

I then trekked from the career fair on over to St. Andrew's Cafe, where we had our class wine lunch on Monday. This time it was a more exclusive affair -- just me, one other student, Professor Weiss, and the co-owner of Cave Spring Cellars (our guest speaker later in the afternoon). The other student and I had been invited because we have the top grades in the class. We had a really nice lunch, starting with a pizza, then a special treat from the chef, then soup, then an appetizer, and then an entree. Two bottles of wine -- from Professor Weiss' personal cellar -- went along with all of this. Yum.

Class today was on the fortified wines of Spain and Portugal, so Port, Sherry, and Madeira. We then had a lecture and tasting with Tom Pennachetti from Cave Spring, who brought with him five of their wines: three Reislings, a Pinot Noir, and an Icewine Riesling. The three Reislings, despite all being semi-dry and 2005, were quite different thanks to which vineyards they came from and the yields of these vineyards (lower yields = better wines). The Pinot Noir was good but not what I was expecting; it was extremely smoky without much in the way of fruit. The ice wine, however, was the best dessert wine I've ever had.

Ice wine, if you're not familiar, is a risky proposition in which the winery leaves the grapes on the vine well past harvest time (generally September). Cave Spring won't pick grapes for ice wine until it's -8*C, and more likely will wait until it's a degree or two colder than that. For them this means December or January. They then pick the frozen grapes at night, when the weather is the coldest, and, moving quickly as not to thaw them, press them while they're still frozen. They discard the ice cube that shoots out and keep the super-sweet, syrupy stuff that's left. Because most of the water is lost, there's a great deal of natural sugar. At this point they add yeast and begin fermentation (sugar is converted into alcohol) but there's too much sugar for the yeast to handle -- once the alcohol reaches around 15-16%, the yeast dies and all the residual sugar is left over. You get a very sweet, very full-bodied, wine.

What made this wine so good is that it was more than just sweet -- there was a wonderful acid to it, and it also had spice and dried fruit (apricot, raisin) flavors to it. It was so good on its own that you would want to serve it with a very simple dessert, as not to overpower the wine. And as in most things, you get what you pay for. A half bottle (375ml, pretty standard for dessert wines) runs around $60 in a store and might be $30 a glass in a restaurant. Amazing, amazing stuff, though. As much as I complain about certain things about school (well, maybe not publicly), this is something that wouldn't have happened at another culinary school.

I'm off to write my paper on Monday's wine lunch.

Oh, almost forgot! Arlington Wine and Liquor officially hired me to work in their fine wines department. I'm still waiting to hear about my schedule from the department manager, but I'm in.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Week in Wine

Friday's wine test (everything France) went very well; another perfect score for this blogger.

This got me thinking that I don't want to lose this knowledge after class is over, since it would certainly serve me well in the future. I'm also planning to take the Court of Master Sommeliers Level I Certification at some point, probably shortly after graduation. But other than some limited wine service while I'm working in the restaurants, how will I stay sharp in my wine knowledge?

Yesterday while at my favorite liquor store, Arlington Wine and Liquor, I asked one of the owners if they'd be hiring for the holidays. Sure enough, they need extra help since they're incredibly busy from Thanksgiving through the New Year. Next thing I know, I'm filling out an application, taking their wine "pop quiz" (no problem, other than Spain and Italy which we haven't covered in class yet), and talking about my availability. Nothing's certain yet, but I think it's going to work out. They have a couple other culinary students already working there, even. Should be a good deal all around -- I can keep learning, keep my existing knowledge sharp, and make a few bucks to boot. Stay tuned!

Tomorrow, the class will dine at St. Andrew's Cafe. We'll have a three-course lunch and two wines with each course. The on Wednesday, I'll turn in a paper about the experience -- which wine I liked best with each course and why, as well as two other (specific) wines I thought would have worked instead.

Tuesday, we have a guest speaker from Cave Spring Cellars in Canada (Niagra Peninsula, to be exact) coming to speak about the winery. Also Tuesday, the CIA is having its career fair, with employers from all over the country in one place to see and be seen. I haven't attended a career fair before, but with graduation less than four months away (woo!), I'll be there.

Wednesay is interview day for the career fair, when the majority of companies stick around to conduct, you guessed it, interviews. I actually already have one lined up (you were required to apply on-line in advance of the fair), with a major hotel chain you've certainly heard of.

Thursday I'll have another wine test (Italy, Spain, Portugal), then the final on Friday (cumulative, plus storage). This is one of the quickest blocks I can remember, and I'll be bummed when it's over.