It’s tough to place a dollar value on imparted wine knowledge. One could memorize all the Grand Cru vineyard names in the Côte-de-Nuits, learn the advantages of pigeage vs. remontage, and still be no closer to understanding what makes a good Burgundy. There’s simply no better way to learn about wine than to taste it, and if possible, with someone who knows their stuff.
That’s why we’re happy to report that the CRAVE Wine Academy (herein, CWA) is not only a good chance to taste and learn about wines, but also a value at $55 a head.
CWA is a series of wine dinners, offered three times per month — one each at CRAVE’s locations in the Galleria, Mall of America, and Shops at West End. The six wines from each class are selected and presented by CRAVE Sommelier Tim Edmunds and center around a different theme each month. Monday was the final CWA on the wines of Tuscany. June’s classes will feature BBQ-friendly wines from California. July’s will focus on the Pacific Northwest. (Hint: You may want to attend the final dinner of each month, as Edmunds refines the selections between each class.)
“This is a little looser than some of the stuffy wine dinners people put on,” says Edmunds, recently having flexed his Italian wine skills putting together the list at Sopranos Italian Kitchen. His six bottles for the night were spot-on examples of important Tuscan sub-regions, all from big-name, respected producers.
Edmunds’ speaking style made the subject matter very approachable. We discussed the commonality between the Vermentino grape and Talisker scotch, pondered the Sideways effect while drinking Merlot-heavy Super Tuscans (and learned what both of those terms mean), and, for Simpsons fans, learned what the Sangiovese grape has in common with tomacco.
But on the serious-knowledge side, Edmunds presented critical facts for wine drinkers of varying experience levels. During Monday’s class, beginners would learn the basics of wine fermentation, characteristics of the individual grapes, the geography of Tuscany, and names of its most trusted producers. More intermediate topics, like the nuances of Italian appellation law (DOCG vs. DOC, etc.), and the difference between Slovenian oak barrels and French oak barriques, were helpful and thorough without being pretentious.
Calling CWA a class isn’t quite right. Nor is it a wine tasting, either. It’s a multi-course wine dinner amidst an educational presentation. In this respect, it looks as if CRAVE has severely under-branded this series. Their website and promotional materials express that CWA will “present regional cuisine,” as if there will be a few bites here and there. We were pleasantly shocked to sit down and see a four-course menu. Just know that if you go, do not eat beforehand.
“Italian food is about using the best ingredients available,” explained CRAVE Executive Chef Mike Agan, who is well-versed in the cuisine from his time with the D’Amico group. “There’s not so much an ideal, like with French cooking. It’s more, ‘What’s your best interpretation of the dish?’” Both he and Edmunds spoke of CWA as their creative outlet, and it certainly showed. His menu Monday night attempted to feature local ingredients and its flavors were classically Tuscan.
Agan began with simple pea shoot and pickled ramp salad, followed by a beef carpaccio served with a delicious olive emulsion. The entrée juxtaposed pieces of Redfish and pork belly over a white bean puree, which was spectacular with the Gaja Ca’Marcanda Promis (a stunning, velvety Merlot-Syrah blend that retails for around $50). This pairing led us into another good practical topic: red wines with fish? The short answer is yes, with a dense fish and a light wine (think salmon and Pinot Noir). Finally, a cinnamon cannoli and pistachio torrone dessert pairing was nice, except for the want of a dedicated dessert wine. Though after six (plus) decent-sized pours of wine, we really didn’t care.
The evening’s wines were not only representative of Tuscany, but were also somewhat pricey. So wine novices, or anyone who rarely purchases a bottle over $20, certainly tasted something new. The value of the wine alone for each participant at Monday’s CWA would be about $35 at most restaurants (a conservative estimate). Throw in four courses and a two hour wine presentation for $20 more? Not a bad deal. Participants also receive a 15% off coupon for Surdyk’s to “continue their education.”
Two slight negatives: The truly seasoned wine drinker won’t learn much at CWA. Also, you’d better be careful with your educational intake, or come prepared with a taxi or designated driver. Otherwise, we found CWA to be a versatile, non-threatening approach to a complicated subject. The couple at our table (on their third dinner in the series) corroborated our assessment of its value. CWA intends to expose you to new wines and hopefully make you a more confident shopper.
Or, if you’re just there to eat and “knock back some juice,” as Edmunds puts it, that’s worth it as well.
Disclaimer: Both the writer and photographer attended CRAVE Wine Academy free of charge.
The Evening’s Six Wines: Rocca Delle Macie Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Antinori Guado al Tosso Vermentino, Ruffino Chianti Classico, Casa Brancaia Tre, Tenuta di Arceno Primavoce, Gaja Ca’Marcanda Promis.