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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the October 24, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Taking Time to Smell the Wine
George Staikos, who teaches wine appreciation courses
through his Flemington-based business, TopShelf, opened the first
of a series of eight classes called "Exploring Wines A to Z"
at the Doral Forrestal in Princeton with an ambitious statement.
goal of these classes is for you to come away with a great knowledge
of the finest grape varieties in the world and the winemaking regions
where they are grown in the finest way."
I looked around the room at the group of two men and six women
with me that evening. Some of us, I thought, must be wine neophytes,
or at least have limited knowledge of the field. Others, I surmised,
would be experienced wine drinkers who wanted to increase an already
substantial knowledge base. Could we all come away with a "great
knowledge" of this evening’s subject, which was "The Great
Whites of California, France, and Germany," after only two hours?
Even if some of us (OK, me) would do our best to mask our embarrassing
shortcomings in this regard?
Within minutes Staikos had disarmed even the most reticent of the
group with his relaxed, warm manner and his practical, unintimidating
approach to wine tasting. Spread before each of us were seven empty
wine glasses, along with a water glass and, for each table, plates
of cheese, fruit, and crackers. Each place also held a pocket-size
"Wine Survival Guide," and two take-home packets, one on the
evening’s topic, the other an overall guide to wine appreciation
the basics covered in the eight-part course.
In his class presentation, Staikos explained that he would pour one
wine at a time, which we would first inspect for color (against a
white background, in this case the tablecloth), then swirl to aerate,
then sniff, swirl again, sniff again. Only after that would we taste,
by taking a good gulp, swirling it around in our mouths, and, if we
desired, swallowing. Styrofoam cups were provided for spitting it
out. (No one spit.) That done, we would "savor" the experience
by discussing the main components of fruit, acidity, tannin, and
Pretty standard stuff, it seemed to me. So how, then, did Staikos
manage a short time later to have this diverse group easily
an Old World from a New World style chardonnay, and describing the
difference between a Chablis and a California chardonnay as "like
day and night," despite the fact that both wines are composed
of 100 percent chardonnay grapes?
"It’s the way George sets up the laboratory portion," observed
Neil Proshan, a retired radiologist from Princeton. Proshan, it soon
became evident, was the evening’s most knowledgeable student. "I
can get a lot of wine knowledge from books," he explained,
when it comes to appreciation, it has to be hands-on. This is what
George does so well. He is able to structure the class so that you
can concentrate on the characteristics of a wine." Dr. Proshan
says he can’t imagine having a good meal without wine. "But I
want to know why I think a particular wine is good, and how it marries
with food," he says, noting that he will attend the entire
Despite his confident presentation style, George Staikos
admits that he is "not naturally an outgoing person." Staikos,
a father of three, grew up in Miami, Florida, the younger son of a
father who worked as director of sales and marketing for Pan Am
for 35 years. His mother stayed home to raise her two sons,
working part-time in retail. "My father was a great
he says, and also credits his first work experience, which was with
the Four Seasons chain of hotels and resorts, for developing his
In 1990 Staikos graduated from Florida International University, which
he describes as "a top school for learning the hospitality
he married shortly thereafter. His first job was with the Four Seasons
in Washington, D.C., but he eventually worked at their properties
in New York and Santa Barbara, California, as well. "Working in
the great hotels and restaurants, I just naturally gravitated to
and wine," he says. "I owe it to my experience with the Four
Seasons that I am comfortable in front of groups."
In 1996 Staikos came to New Jersey to work for the Hilton Short Hills,
where, among other things, he built a wine list that won this AAA
Five-Diamond restaurant its first Wine Spectator award. While there,
he was approached by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison to
develop a wine program for their continuing education division.
"I found I really enjoy teaching," he says. "I realized
I get a charge out of it. I thought, hey, I love doing this —
This is my calling." His classes proved so popular that two years
later he decided to strike out on his own, founding TopShelf. Now,
in addition to public classes, TopShelf offers a range of services
to corporate clients as well as restaurants and hotels. Clients
Merrill Lynch, GlaxoWellcome, Novartis, Salomon Smith Barney, Polo
Ralph Lauren, and Make A Wish Foundation.
In a recent project, Staikos led a corporate team-building session
centered around wine for Accenture, the management and technology
consulting firm. "They had been working really hard on a project
for an extended time. They wanted to have an evening where they could
have fun, loosen their ties so to speak, yet learn something,"
he says. "One of the things I did was to break them up into small
groups and give each one a project. One, for instance, was to work
on giving a lesson in food and wine pairing, using real examples.
I told them to pick one white and one red to go with a particular
dish, and tell why they chose them. It was a two-hour session, very
interactive, and they seemed to enjoy it a lot."
It turns out that the six-to-two ratio of females to males in the
class I attended is typical. Staikos isn’t sure why, but conjectures
that "there are, of course, more women in the corporate workplace
these days. I think they want to feel comfortable with ordering and
enjoying wine in both the business and social environments. They are
driven to entertain a little more than men, so I think the merging
of both business and social reasons has something to do with it."
When he teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson, the class size hovers around
28. But for the public classes he holds at restaurants, including
this fall at Tre Vigne in Basking Ridge, and the Grille and the Grape
in Red Bank, 16 to 20 makes for "a very comfortable size"
he states. (The class I attended on September 24 was the first time
he had ventured as far south as Princeton.)
He bridges the gap between experienced, wine-savvy students and wine
neophytes by "leaning on those who know a lot," he says.
usually want to share what they know, so I use them to reinforce my
points, and they usually appreciate this."
Staikos is convinced that anyone can educate his or her wine palate
by following the basic procedure he uses in his classes.
"Pick the top six most popular and predominant wine grapes —
three whites and three reds. Whites would be chardonnay, riesling,
and sauvignon blanc; reds would be pinot noir, merlot, and cabernet
sauvignon. Wines from these six grape varieties are produced around
the world. Experiment with one white grape and one red grape each
week, each month, or whatever frequency you’re comfortable with. For
each session, focus on three countries, say, California, France, and
Germany. Eventually you’ll want to broaden it to five or six. What
this will show is the power of soil and climate on the grape, as well
as the effect of style," he says. By style, he means, decisions
made by the winemaker, for example, whether the wine is aged in oak,
and for how long. "Soon, you’ll come to know the profile of each
grape. Sauvignon blanc, for example, is recognizable for its green
apple, light, acidic qualities."
Staikos also believes that price is no indication of quality.
can, he says, find good examples of well-made wines in the $8 to $12
range. Mostly these will be varietals (that is, wines made from only
one type of grape, not a blend of grapes) from the countries where
the grape grows best. He practices what he preaches in his classes.
Five of the seven wines he brought to the white wine class sell for
$15 or under. These included: Mason Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley
(1999), Schleret Herrenweg Pinot Blanc (1999) from Alsace, Domaine
Michel Brock Sancerre Le Coteau (2000) from the Loire Valley, and
a 1999 riesling from Germany’s Rheingau.
This price/value ratio holds true, he says, among California wines
in addition to the sauvignon blanc above. "Wines in the $7 to
$13 price range are getting much, much better. We call them `the
varietals.’ It is a misconception that you must pay over $20 to get
a quality wine," he explains. "Now, for a Napa Valley wine,
you won’t pay under $10 to $12, probably more. I suggest you look
for other appellations, especially those in California’s central
range, such as Monterrey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Maria."
A check of the TopShelf Pocket Wine Survival Guide explains the
of appellation: "A legally defined geographic area and/or
Another quick check of recent issues of Wine Spectator magazine
Staikos’s "fighting varietals" price range. Among the picks
are the 1999 Bogle California Merlot ($10) and Indigo Hills 1997 North
Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($13). The best bargains overall right now,
in his experience, are in South American wines, particularly those
from Chile and Argentina.
Much attention is paid in the class to pairing wine and food. Mary
Miller of Menlo Park, one of the students in the white wine session
at the Doral, had already attended two of Staikos’s food and wine
matching classes in Westfield. She had read about him in a magazine
article, signed up, and found his class to be fun. A corporate trainer
who buys a bottle of wine a week, on average, Miller says that she
often finds herself ordering wine at business meetings. "Because
of these wine tastings I have broadened my selection. I used to not
like riesling, for example. Now it’s one of my favorites," she
says. Like Dr. Proshan, she wanted to enhance her already strong
base. "I have probably had all these wines at one time or another,
but now I can begin to pull them apart, to organize them in my
Staikos himself says, "I think we have moved past
the `red-wine-with-meat, white-with-fish’ stage. Now we’ve graduated
to chardonnay with salmon, cabernet sauvignon with filet. We do this
because these have become enormously popular, mainstream wines. The
mistake comes in when you do not consider other things, like the style
of the wine and the cooking method of the food. For example, some
chardonnays are light, while others are buttery, creamy, and rich.
Think of the difference between pan-seared salmon and grilled salmon:
two different flavors are imparted by those methods."
At a recent wine dinner at the Metuchen Inn, Staikos was asked to
choose a wine for what he calls an "aggressively" grilled
pork tenderloin with dried fruit. "There were heavy grill marks;
this was a good grilling." He chose a wine with an earthy flavor:
a Franciscan (Napa Valley) merlot-cabernet blend (10 percent cab),
that had aged 16 months in French oak. (Oak adds "complexity,"
such things as notes of vanilla, as well as "toasting.")
The "weight" of the food is another factor, as is the acidity
level of the wine. "Body is the biggest thing you want to think
about when matching food and wine," Staikos says. In the Great
Whites class, this resulted in a discussion of how riesling is light
in body, which makes it a good choice as a summer sipping wine or
with light (not oily) fish. "It’s acidity stimulates the palate,
literally," he offers.
What does Staikos drink as his everyday wines? "It’s all about
the food I’m enjoying them with, and the weather. If it’s warm, I’m
not up for a big-bodied red. If I’m just drinking — no food
— I’ll likely have a cocktail."
The recent burst of the dot-com bubble has affected how people are
choosing wines, Staikos says. "I think people are still looking
for the same styles of wines they like, but now the price tag is
Before, someone who thought of buying a $30 bottle as a no-brainer
will now be looking for something for $15, but just as good. I’ve
seen this not only with consumers, but with professional wine buyers
as well." In addition to his TopShelf activities, Staikos is
of the restaurant group and wine education for R&R Marketing, a major
wine wholesaler in the state.
So did Staikos meet his class goal of imparting "great
of the white wines of three major countries in just two hours? Apart
from the satisfaction voiced by everyone in the group, I would say
yes. We sampled seven wines, but only three grapes varieties —
riesling, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. Wines made from 100 percent
of any of those grapes became clearly recognizable to us; the
startling, not subtle. And within chardonnay, we experienced how
varied that grape can taste depending on the geography, soil, and
climate of the place it was grown (the terroir, as the French
say). That’s a heck of lot in one sitting, not to mention learning
the basics of reading wine labels, pairing wine with food, and having
a lot of fun sipping excellent wines, the majority of which sell for
about $15 a bottle.
— Pat Tanner
973-699-2199. Www.TopShelfUncorked.com $60-$70 per class.
Fridays at 6:30 p.m. October 26, November 2, and November 9.
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