WINE-TASTING WOMEN

We’ve seen the future of wine, and she’s called Bridget Jones

by Victoria James

Was it really only 1995 when Bridget Jones chainsmoked her way through the first of many glasses of Chardonnay?

These days, instead of knocking back her booze, Bridget would be more likely to swirl it round her mouth, before spitting neatly and remarking on its “pronounced oaky flavors, with . . . mmmm . . . peach and mango notes.” The ciggies will have been swapped for a bottle of Evian, sipped between tastes.

In the brave new world of wine connoisseurship everyone, it seems, could be the next Robert Parker. Even Bridget.

There are, of course, still those who closely follow the recommendations of Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic. But increasingly, wine lovers are thinking — and drinking — for themselves, and Bridget-style young professional women are leading the pack. I should know. I’m one of them.

Wising up

After bungling a few orders in posh restaurants — including getting a bottle of white when I’d been expecting red — I’d realized it was time to wise up on wine. One look at my e-mail inbox, stuffed with invitations to wine tastings, made it clear there were plenty of people eager to help me.

There was a charity fundraiser with wines from Washington State importers Orca; an early Valentine’s Day tasting dinner was offered by Hotei Wines, a high end California wine import company run by this paper’s wine columnist, William Campbell; and a friend was organizing a sampling of no less than eight Champagnes.

Well, everyone wants to help a good cause, and though I had no Valentine, an evening of fine wines might just help me forget that fact, and . . . ahh . . . what girl can resist Champagne? I signed up. For all of ‘em!

Saved from snobbery

“Much of the snobbery surrounding wine has diminished,” said Jan Nelson of Orca, busily pouring wines for members of nature charity Kurile Island Network, who had gathered for a fundraiser at a private home in Shirokanedai in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. “Making wine-tasting events less expensive and more casual has made learning about wine more approachable.

“Consumers are trying things more readily. Many wine drinkers are now in their 20s and 30s, have sufficient pocket money and like fine dining.”

Later that afternoon, as KIN chairperson Lucy Craft delivered a short talk on the threatened ecology of the Kuriles, the eyes of the guests shone happily. The event was all-you-can-drink, and so was clearly meant for swiggers rather than spitters. Donations were made and wine orders placed. Success all round.

I, though, headed over to Azabu Juban, home of my friend R, a dapper Scottish accountant who moonlights as a wine maven. I’d been looking forward to his Champagne-tasting all week — for purely educational reasons, of course.

“I fell in love with wine during a short homestay in the Loire valley,” R told me. “The chef de famille enjoyed his wines and lured me into his cave to show off his collections. I was hooked. Later, I began holding wine tastings as a way of meeting like-minded people and drinking fabulous and expensive wines on the cheap.”

Most of the “like-minded people” at R’s smart bachelor pad were attractive young Japanese women. I liked to think this proved my theory about female wine drinkers, but wasn’t entirely convinced.

And then there were those “fabulous and expensive” Champagnes, among them a Krug Grande Cuvee and a 1995 Dom Perignon. R had wrapped these up in brown paper, along with some less distinguished bottles, with the aim of getting us to judge with our palate rather than our eyes.

The results proved enlightening. “Fresh, applely, creamy bubbles — very nice!” we called out for No. 3, which was stripped of its paper to reveal . . . 1 yen,000-a-bottle Freixnet Cava. There were groans of dismay, which R answered with a cheerful, “Never mind, think of all the money you’ve saved!” (Ironically enough, the pricey Dom Perignon got a thumbs-down.)

And yes, I really did learn something. My socks were knocked off by a beverage I’d never dreamed existed — Ratafia de Champagne, which combines all the fizz of Champagne with the kick of a fortified wine. Ratafia contains brandy and is a mean 18 percent alcohol. Heaven — until the next morning.

In the classroom

At the beginning of the year I’d enrolled in a Wine Master Class held weekly at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. The instructor is Sandra Shoji, holder of a diploma from London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust, the world’s foremost wine educator.

Shoji thinks the wine trade is lagging behind current, female-led wine-drinking trends. “Most wine consumption in Japan — and America — is by women. If this was really noticed by importers I think it would result in another boom, like that of 1997/98, but most importers and their staff are men, and they seem to buy for men.

“When I do educational tastings for my city, or NPOs, etc., most of the attendees are middle-aged women. They immediately say ‘Oh, I like this wine, it goes with food.’ Something like a top German Riesling or a Pinot Noir.”

Statistics on the Japanese wine trade, Shoji told me, concluded that the typical Japanese wine drinker was a woman in her 50s. At TUJ, usually 80 percent of her students are women.

Shoji senses a worldwide trend toward “interest in food and wine as a lifestyle option; people are consuming less, but supposedly of better quality. Even in France, there’s a decline in the number of bottles consumed over lunch by men, but more wine is being drunk by the glass by women.”

Certainly, plenty of wine is drunk by the glass in our weekly classes, at which between six and nine different wines are sampled. We sniff, swirl and spit with panache, though Shoji frequently looks horrified at the adjectives we come up with. “The winemaker will be crying” she says, as a Chardonnay from a top cha^teau in Meursault, in France’s premium Bordeaux region, is described as tasting “like cheap sherry” with an odor “like a dank cave.” Apparently it should have been vanilla, honey and pineapple, and so the following week, Shoji gave us a smell test — a blindfold sniffing of mystery foodstuffs and substances that was much harder than it sounds.

Ahead by a nose

I looked forward to testing my newly honed “nose” at the Hotei event, at which Hotei owner Campbell would guide us through seven of the company’s wines. To assuage the shame of having no date at a Valentine’s dinner, I took along R and another dishy male friend.

Without romance to distract me, I could focus on the wine. The opening sparkler was delicious. The followup, a Viognier, was splendid: aromatic, slightly sweet, yet crisp. A late-bottled Chardonnay was a revelation.

But by the fourth (yummy) glass, a Pinot Noir from Oregon, I was feeling dismayed. So much for my pretensions to connoisseurship — it seemed pretty obvious I’d drink anything put in front of me and love it.

Concentrating anxiously, I sipped the fifth (superb) glass. It was then that I noticed R had a flushed, excited look. And the friend on my right had stopped textmessaging his girlfriend under the table and was studying his wineglass. Incredible.

“These are . . . rather good, aren’t they?” I said, daring to voice my suspicions.

“You know,” said R, “a few more like this and I might consider changing my mind about Californian wine.” It was a response that said more than a 99-point rating from Robert Parker ever could.

We waved Campbell over to our table, eager for him to spill the secrets of his expertise.

“I go to California four or five times a year, and each time taste between 100 and 300 different wines,” he said. “Certain wines stand head and shoulders above others, and these I buy. Often the same wines later receive stellar reviews and instantly sell out in the U.S., but I’ve already got my warehouse stocked here.

“Instead of competing against Suntory’s thousands of salesmen, I’d rather have a portfolio of wine that is so compelling it sells itself. But to build this requires tasting thousands of wines a year — a job that is tougher than it sounds, but not without its merits.”

As tough jobs go, it would beat working 20-hour days in a sweatshop (or a newspaper office, for that matter). But I relaxed as I reached for the sixth glass. Perhaps, I mused, this wine-tasting lark — even for professionals — was simply a matter of trusting your tastebuds.

And it’s women wine amateurs, it seems, who have been quickest to catch on to this simple truth.

“Male drinkers slavishly follow the numbers,” said TUJ instructor Shoji. “Women? They drink what they like.”

Cheers to that.