Sommelier Cassandra Brown Breaks It Down

sommelier, wine
Sommelier Cassandra Brown, CS, CSW

If you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine only to discover it wasn’t anything you thought it would be based on the label, then you can appreciate what Sommelier Cassandra Brown, CS, CSW, does.

“We are looked to be the authorities on wine,” Brown said. “When people come into a restaurant, the sommelier is to be an authority on wine.”

And when Brown says authority, she’s not talking about the snooty kind of sommelier who curls his lip when you ask for the “wrong” wine. She wants you to be happy with the wine you choose.

“We want to make sure that you guys get a quality product,” she said. “We have the knowledge to determine whether it’s a quality product. That’s all.”

We met Brown at the Los Angeles County Fair last September, where she led us through a tasting of classic wine varieties. The idea was to learn about what a typical sauvignon blanc, or cabernet sauvignon, etc., are “supposed” to taste like. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for, say, a chardonnay to have a bit of the citrusy character normally associated with a sauv blanc. But it can be a downer when you plunk down $30 for a pinot noir, hoping for a rich, balanced but somewhat lighter red wine, only to find that the winemaker went for a heavier cab sauv style.

We were at the fair that day for the fun of it and weren’t expecting to do any interviewing. But Brown was such a great teacher, we couldn’t resist. So we asked her, why do all that finicky wine analysis of the color, smell and taste?

“The thing about it is, it’s that it’s part of our profession. But it’s a learning experience for us,” Brown said about herself and her sommelier colleagues. “The way we become an authority on wine is to learn everything about it, to break it down. We do it for us. We don’t necessarily do it for the masses. It’s an education exercise to heighten our awareness, to heighten our knowledge about wine. That’s how we learn. And that’s really what it’s about. It’s a learning tool so that we can be that authority, we can answer that question, so we can justify why this wine tastes that way based on where it was grown or how it was produced.”

And that’s basically what it’s about. A good sommelier (wine server) will ask you what you like and will be able to make a good recommendation based on her knowledge of what the restaurant has and what the chef is making. Because it really is about making sure the customer has a good experience, and being looked down on is anything but.

 

Pinot Days, They are Almost Here! (And There’s a Coupon)

Courtesy Lisa Rigisich

According to Lisa Rigisich, who with her husband Steve, founded the Pinot Days wine festival, there is nothing worse that a pundit spouting off about what a pinot noir wine should and shouldn’t be.

“I think it’s dangerous when pundits do that,” Rigisich said. “Then the winemaker’s not saying what’s best for the grapes in this year on this land.”

The Los Angeles Pinot Days festival starts on Thursday, Jan. 26, with some smaller events around town. But the big one is the Grand Tasting on Saturday, Jan. 28, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica.

Rigisich wants to make it very clear that just because the festival is all about the pinot noir grape, which comes in for some serious snootiness, the festival is anything but snooty. Geeky, perhaps, but it’s about the joy and the fun of wine.

“Pinot noir has gotten this reputation as being sophisticated and people have gotten intimidated,” Rigisich said. “The wines are very sophisticated… But we’re not about the fancy room and wearing an ascot.”

The whole point of the festival is bring every day people out to try and find which pinot noirs they like and to meet the winemakers, most of whom will be pouring.

The Grand Tasting is $60 per person, but when you consider how much you might spend on tastings, driving all over the Carneros Valley or even the Santa Rita Hills, it’s not so bad, especially considering how many wineries you’ll be able to connect with. Also, you’ll have the rare chance to actually talk to a lot of the winemakers, themselves, which is insanely cool.

If you’ve never done a tasting event like this, or even if you have, here are some things you may want to keep in mind:

  • Dress comfortably – you’ll be on your feet for a long time, and this is not a fancy dress affair. You may want to wear dark clothes, though. Red wine stains are a pain to get out.
  • There will be bread and cheese and water at the event – consume those liberally. In fact, you may want to eat a hearty lunch before you even get there.
  • This is a great opportunity to try something new. If you think you only like red wines and there’s a rosé there, give it a whirl. It’s not going to cost you any more and you might find something you really, really like.
  • It’s okay to spit the wine out after you taste it. In fact, it’s encouraged. The winemakers are not going to think you don’t like their wine. We promise. If you grimace and go blech as you spit, that’s different. But if you’re going to maximize your tasting, you’ll have to spit just to stay standing. There are usually plastic cups around for just this purpose. Nor should you feel obligated to taste all the wine that’s in your glass – that’s what the dump buckets are for. Use them.
  • Have fun. Yes, there’s a lot of geeky talk about clones going on. You can either listen to it and expand your knowledge or blow it off. It’s all about the wine and how it tastes to you.

Seriously, Rigisich doesn’t want people put off by all the fancy schmancy talk. Nor should you be. An event like this is about educating yourself – exploring what you like and don’t like. So give it a whirl.

Better yet, Rigisich gave us a coupon code you can use when you go to the site to order tickets: GRAPESC12. This will get you a 10 percent discount on your tickets to the Grand Tasting, and we’d love it if you used it.