‘We teach a number of wine tasting classes here, and people always come up afterward and say, ‘I’d like to be able to go to a restaurant and select a wine with confidence, to be able to choose wines based on food but also for value,’” says Christine Carroll, co-owner and director of marketing and public relations of Crossing Vineyards and Winery in Washington Crossing, PA. “So we tailored a course around those requests.”
Taught by Crossings sommelier Eric Cavatore, Wine List Survival Guide, a one-hour class on Thursday, May 22, is designed to take the mystery out of choosing wine in restaurants and help participants answer those questions that might swim in their head when they see a wine list: I’ve never heard of that producer, I wonder if it’s good? Maybe it’s a fine vineyard, but is that a decent vintage? How come none of these selections say what grape is in the bottle? Am I paying too much for this wine?
Cavatore has been teaching wine education classes at Crossing Vineyards since the fall of 2004. Born in Provence, Cavatore earned his bachelor’s degree in restaurant management and culinary arts from the Thonon-les-Bains School, located on the French shores of Lake Geneva. After working for many years in fine restaurants in both France and the United States, Cavatore taught at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, where he served as dining room manager and an instructor in wine and table service.
Carroll says that Cavatore landed the job of vineyard sommelier somewhat accidentally. “We put an ad in the paper for some extra help in our tasting room and Eric responded. We interviewed him and the more we talked, the more impressed we were — he just knows so much about wine. So we said, forget about a part-time job in our tasting room, why don’t you work for us full-time as our sommelier.”
For Cavatore, the golden rule of wine selection is simple: “The best wine is the wine that you like best.” That’s really the best advice any sommelier could offer. After all, no matter who else is at the table, it’s your palate and your wallet.
But sometimes wine lists don’t cooperate. What if your favorite wine isn’t listed? Or what if there is a wine on the list that drinks just like your favorite, but it’s “disguised?” Say you enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon. You’re used to buying Cabernet from the West Coast (where the labels actually say “Cabernet Sauvignon”), but tonight you don’t see any on the wine list. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know that many wines from Bordeaux, such as Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe, and Margaux, are made predominantly from Cabernet? However, those particular wines can be pricey. It would be even more helpful to know about Malbec. Malbec is a blending grape in Bordeaux, but in other parts of France, such as Cahors, as well as in Argentina and Chile, they make wonderfully inexpensive wines from 100% Malbec that have all the robust qualities of a good Cab.
European wines are often labeled not by what grape is in the bottle but by where the grapes were grown. So, even a little familiarity with the major European wine regions can open up many more possibilities when it comes to choosing a bottle at a restaurant. But true to his French background, Cavatore promotes drinking local. “Good wine can come from anywhere,” Cavatore says. “And wine should be drunk where it’s born.”
No one agrees more with that philosophy than Cavatore’s employers, the Carroll family. Tom, Christine, and their son, Tom Jr., moved from Yardley to the 20-acre former dairy farm when Tom Jr. was 10 years old. Christine Carroll says, “the vineyard was actually Tom Jr.’s idea. Shortly after we moved here, he looked out the window at the land and said, ‘You know, I think this would make a good vineyard.’”
It may have been a precocious declaration of childhood but the younger Carroll followed through with it, going to California after college and self-educating himself on winemaking. “But keep in mind, we had moved out of the burbs just to get into the country, that’s all,” says Christine. “Starting a vineyard was Tom Jr.’s idea and we had to seriously consider it — after all, it’s a major business undertaking.”
The 10-year-old’s vision has come to literal fruition. Crossing Vineyard and Winery’s 15 acres yield about 10,000 cases annually. “We incorporated in 2000, planted our first vines in 2002, and opened our doors in 2003,” Carroll proudly says. “We grow Chambercin, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier, as well as several native varietals. And yes, our wines are distributed in New Jersey.”
In France, Italy, Germany, and Spain, wine is made in almost every section of those countries, from the foothills of the Alps to the Mediterranean. European vintners pride themselves on making wines that reflect the soil and climate from which they originate — the terroir, as the French call it. When it comes to American wines, though, many consumers have a California-centric prejudice, eschewing any wine that doesn’t hail from a few well-known plots in the Golden State. “We have a real struggle on the East Coast,” says Carroll, in regards to getting people to try Pennsylvania wines. “Education is the key to dispelling prejudice, and that’s why we’re big on wine education classes.” Referring to this difference between American and European wine sensibilities, Carroll says, “wine isn’t in our cultural DNA . . . yet.”
The Carroll family takes a pride in both their land and winemaking that any European vintner would appreciate. “Going back to William Penn, this area has been earmarked as premier agricultural land,” says Carroll. “We’re all about understanding our soil and weather. In fact, where we’re located is part of a recognized appellation, or AVA, known as the Central Delaware Valley.” Somewhat along the lines of European appellation systems, an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a designated wine-grape growing region differentiated by geographic features. The boundaries of each AVA are defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
“We have to make hard decisions every day in the vineyard in order to make a wine that we’re proud to put our label on. You know, there’s a real philosophy behind winemaking.” That same philosophy drives the wine education classes that Cavatore teaches. “We try to dispel the snobbery, the stuffiness around wine.” As Cavatore describes it, the goal of the Wine List Survival Guide class is to “learn how to navigate those intimidating restaurant wine lists and choose a great, reasonably priced bottle.” What could be more down-to-earth than that?
Wine List Survival Guide, presented by Eric Cavatore, sommelier, Thursday, May 22, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Crossing Vineyards and Winery, 1853 Wrightstown Road, Washington Crossing, PA. $20, includes instruction, wine tasting, and learning materials. Call for reservations at 215-493-6500, extension 19 or visit www.crossingvineyards.com.