How Dyson DeMara Orders Wine
Everyone has people who help them along their own personal journeys. Often there are many people. Luke had Obi Wan and Yoda. One of the guides I encountered at an early stage of my wine education was Dyson DeMara.
At the time Dyson was in charge of wine education at Robert Mondavi. Through a long a convoluted chain of events I was lucky enough to get to tag along on a private tour and tasting led by Mr. DeMara.
I learned more in a few hours with that man than in years of reading and experimentation with my friends.
He walked us through the fields and showed us how the vines were planted and spaced. And explained how they have to fight each other for every drop of water. The harder the vines have to work, the tastier their fruit.
We were brought into the winery where we saw wine aging in barrels and in tanks. There I learned about the craft of cooperage or barrel-making, and how the French oak growers and coopers are much like winegrowers in that what they create is heavily influenced by soil, sun and geography.
There I also got my first sense of the economics of using oak barrels. In a way, they are like chewing gum. Very expensive chewing gum. They give off a lot of flavor at first, and they will continue to provide flavor for a long long time. It’s just that the flavor diminishes substantially in the short term. That’s my metaphor, not his. But it brings a better understanding as to why wine “aged in new oak” will likely be pricier than wine “aged in oak barrels.”
Eventually we made it into our private tasting room.
And the learning kept on getting better. We sat down to a panoply of wine glasses. Dyson explained the wide array of shapes of wine glasses, and which shapes are used for which wines. But this was not about rules or tradition. It was not about snobbery. It was about taste.
To demonstrate, he poured the same wine into differently shaped glasses. Everyone agreed that the same wine tasted different in different glasses. The explanation was relatively simple. The shape of the glass positions your nose and tongue differently. For example, a large-bowled Burgundy glass will envelop your entire nose, forcing it into the glass. A narrow Champagne flute, on the other hand, will force the wine over the tip of your tongue, capturing whatever minuscule sweetness the dry wine has to offer.
The highlight of the tasting came when we were poured a glass each of the 1993 and 1995 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. At about $100 a bottle retail it was the most expensive wine I had ever tasted.
Dyson demanded that we did not swallow every taste we had, that we needed to do some spitting, lest we descend into a less critical place. And he also had us note that the wine does taste different when you spit versus swallow. In fact, when spitting the alcohol doesn’t touch the back of your throat which makes it easier to pick out some of the layers of flavor.
Still, to this day it kills me that I was spitting out such fine wine.
I drank plenty of it to be sure. And having a horizontal tasting like this, across vintages of the same wine, is really an amazing thing. Because you can taste the effects of the weather on what’s in the bottle. On one level the wines are similar. They have the same house style. But Mrs. Fussy and I preferred the ’93 which was more concentrated with a touch of anise. The ’95 was lighter and possibly a bit more balanced. Dyson explained that in 1993 the growing season was hotter, and in 1995 the growing season was cooler.
At the end of the day, I walked away invigorated with a newfound understanding of wine. And even a deeper understanding that there was so much more to learn.
No amount of reading can replace the value of tasting and experiencing wine firsthand. And I was lucky to catch Dyson DeMara before he went on to his next gig. Apparently he has his own winery now. I am very happy for him, but I do hope he still gets to spend time with enthusiastic learners and to expose them to his world.
I will never forget what I learned from him. But what sticks with me most is his explaining what he does in a restaurant. The first thing he reaches for is the wine list. He finds the wine he wants to drink, and only then does he pick up the menu to figure out what food will go best with the wine.
That, my friends, is a true wine lover. And this is the impact two hours with him almost ten years ago has had on my journey.