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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.

"The

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

assembled

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

outlining

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

alcohol.

Pretty standard stuff, it seemed to me. So how, then, did Staikos

manage a short time later to have this diverse group easily

identifying

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,

"but

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

eight-week

series.

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

airlines

for 35 years. His mother stayed home to raise her two sons,

occasionally

working part-time in retail. "My father was a great

presenter,"

he says, and also credits his first work experience, which was with

the Four Seasons chain of hotels and resorts, for developing his

skills.

In 1990 Staikos graduated from Florida International University, which

he describes as "a top school for learning the hospitality

trade;"

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

service

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

include

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.

"They

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.

Consumers

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

fighting

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

coastal

range, such as Monterrey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Maria."

A check of the TopShelf Pocket Wine Survival Guide explains the

meaning

of appellation: "A legally defined geographic area and/or

vineyard"

Another quick check of recent issues of Wine Spectator magazine

confirms

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

knowledge

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

mind."

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

involved

— 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

different.

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

director

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

knowledge"

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

differences

startling, not subtle. And within chardonnay, we experienced how

amazingly

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

Exploring Wines A-Z, TopShelf, Doral Forrestal

Hotel,

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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