Wednesday afternoons at 4:30 were special at my college. We’d gather in an auditorium and spit in buckets.
Well, that’s not all there is to the story.
It starts back when I graduated high school and was old enough to drink. I discovered wine. Really bad wine. Not quite as bad as Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Not quite as bad as my mother’s Mogen David, but pretty bad. Pink champagne on New Year’s Eve bad.
Candy wine. (This was before distillers started putting marshmallow fluff in vodka, you understand.)
My tastes developed over the years. I graduated (as it were) to Yago Sangria. The only cheap wine that was too disgusting for me, besides the Mogen David, was Carlo Rossi Grenâche Rosé. So I added orange juice and seltzer water and called it a spritzer.
Then, in my junior year of college, I had an epiphany. It was called Wine Tasting 101 for Non-Majors. The class met on Wednesday afternoons in the aforementioned auditorium and sampled various wines. Good wines. Bad wines. Wines from France and Italy and California and New York. We passed bottles of wine and small plastic cups down the row like we were in church, only without the collection baskets. There was a spit bucket at the end of each row of the auditorium seating for those who didn’t drink (very few) or those who hated a particular wine.
There was lots to hate, as well as lots to love. We sampled the candy wines (I was actually fond of Pear Ripple, which I don’t think you can get nowadays). We sampled wines that had gone bad in various ways so that we knew what to say to snooty wine stewards: “This wine is foxy,” for example. (Or “musty” or “oxidized.” Those were ones for the spit bucket.
Every week we tackled wines from a different part of the world. We learned to tell a Bordeaux from a Beaujolais, a Sauvignon from a Sauterne, and which ones we liked better. We learned why you swirl the wine in the glass before you drink it and what information you can get from that.
But this, as I mentioned, was the course for non-majors. Cornell had, in addition to the usual schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture, and the like, a Hotel School, which ran an actual hotel on campus, much beloved of alumni and visiting parents. Hotel majors had a very different wine class, the sort in which you took a sip and had to identify the country, the variety, the grape, and the name of the woman who stomped it. It was not pass/fail, the way the course for non-majors was. It was not a jolly passing of bottles. It did not enliven Wednesday afternoons.
I never took the class for majors, though I once thought about transferring to the Hotel School. But over the years, my taste in wine has changed. I now like dry red wines, and I no longer drink them chilled. I ask for Brut or Extra Brut champagne at New Year’s Eve. I can tell when a wine is oaky or has undertones of cherry. Oh, I still drink Three-Buck Chuck when I’m down on my luck. And I will indulge in the sweeter, fruitier wines like Pinot Grigio that my husband prefers, when I’d rather have a Pinot Noir.
The only gap in my education is German wines. I still can’t tell a Riesling from a Liebfraumilch. I was absent that Wednesday.
Every other Wednesday I would roll home to my sorority house, bathed in a grape-y glow, satisfied with the knowledge that I had just furthered my education – and with something that would be useful in years to come.