It was definitely love, this weekly rendezvous down a quiet road where hardly anyone traveled at night - except for the 50 or so people in this Tuesday evening wine class at the National Distributing Co. Inc. in Jessup.
Each moment was heavenly in the brightly lighted sales room where we sniffed, swirled and sipped lovely wines from around the world. Finally, I was scratching an itch that had driven me crazy for a long time.
Most evenings at home, I would drink a glass of wine. But my experience was ruled by a limited wine vocabulary and scant knowledge of oenology, the science of wine.
One problem was that I didn't understand my own criteria. Red or white? Sweet or dry? I could handle that. But French or Californian? Bold or delicate? Pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon? This was shaky ground. I wanted to be a smarter consumer.
Each of the wine classes at National Distributing was an imaginary field trip through a different part of the world. We passed around samples of rocks from different vineyards and learned how the ripening of the grapes is affected by heat absorbed by the rocks during the day and reflected back in the cool evenings.
We examined the influence of the German wine culture on the Alsace region of France and the appeal of white wine coupled with fish. We compared up to six wines each evening, and it became obvious to our palates how different wines match up with different foods.
In one class about French wines from the Burgundy region, for example, we drank a pleasant Beaujolais followed by a robust pinot noir and could taste how the first would be ideal with a hamburger and the other with a good steak. For the first time I tasted a chardonnay I truly liked, and understood why the price of a bottle of wine can definitely affect the experience.
It wasn't easy finding a wine school in Baltimore. I discovered a registration form for this one while attending a wine tasting at Woodhall Winery in Parkton. Woodhall holds tastings throughout the winter and pairs each with a different food theme.
I phoned instructor Barry Green, who is vice president and director of wines at National Distributing, and signed up. The class was 10 weeks, cost $225, and took us from a basic introduction of the four categories of wine (table, dessert, sparkling, specialty), bottle shapes, per-capita consumption, through soil types, climates, grapes, wine laws, and wines of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia and California.
Most people in the class were in the food industry. About 10 of us were there for personal gratification.
Each class began with a lecture, followed by the sampling, replete with a personal supply of bottled water, crackers and even a spittoon. In addition to educating our palates through the tastings, we learned the differences between a village, vineyard, varietal, vintage, region, appellation and producer.
I can now select a wine I expect to like. And maybe I can even describe the wine's nose and appearance, taste, aftertaste and general quality - all those characteristics that go into rating a wine.
Green has been holding classes since 1974, teaching more than 2,000 students. He was born into the liquor business - his family owned Green's Liquors in downtown Baltimore - and his experience shows. His lectures are sprinkled with vignettes about travels to wine regions, tours of vineyards, tastings, meals and fine wines. I could picture the vineyards on mountainsides and along rivers, and longed to sample the wild boar stew he told of eating at Castello Banfi, accompanied by a 1997 Brunello di Montalcino, perhaps one of the greatest of all Italian wines.
With his help, the mystery of wines is fading for me, but the mystique never will.