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Book Review: Educating Peter by Lettie Teague

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Are you curious to learn more about wine but afraid to ask? You are not alone. A few decades ago, many Americans who didn’t know their Burgundy from their Bordeaux felt intimidated by scary, middle-aged, male sommeliers who approached tables at fine dining restaurants with a silver tastevin (a small, very shallow silver cup or saucer traditionally used by sommeliers to taste wine) hanging menacingly from their neck.

Today, the situation has reversed itself, with knowledgeable, fresh-faced sommeliers and wine directors, many of them women, assisting guests in a friendly, approachable way with their wine selection. Even so, many Americans remain intimidated by the hundreds of varieties, regions, and producers to be found on restaurant lists. Busy with their own professional and personal lives, many people realize the importance of understanding wine for social reasons, but feel they do not have the time, patience, or intelligence to learn.

Enter Lettie Teague, executive wine editor of Food & Wine magazine, who has written an absolutely first rate book on the topic titled Educating Peter: How I Taught a Famous Movie Critic the Difference between Cabernet and Merlot or How Anybody Can Become an (Almost) Instant Wine Expert.

What is great about this book is how easily and effortlessly Teague gives you key, first rate information about the various wine varietals, regions, and methods of vinification in lively, conversational sound bites. Teague accomplishes this through her conversations with her friend Peter Travers, the film critic for Rolling Stone magazine, who, with Teague’s help, slowly develops a curiosity and palate for fine wine. The movie critic asks the wine writer simple questions most of us yearn to ask an expert – if we dared! As one reads the book, readers get questions answered without the risk of posing a potentially “stupid question.”

Beyond Teague’s lively writing style, what is really fun about this book is reading Traver’s observations as he explores different wines and regions. As a film critic, Travers sees wine through the eyes of one trained in visual storytelling. In his colorful commentary, his “aha” moments are so brilliantly and visually described that even without tasting the wine he holds in his glass, we get a vivid sense of the wine, the style, the region, and what food it might pair well with.

If you have ever personally tried to describe a movie to a friend, you might have resorted to descriptions such as “it’s like Pretty Woman meets Must Love Dogs." Writers in the film business do this too, as a “short cut” way of getting the producer they are pitching a quick sense of the kind of story they hope to write.

Describing taste is somewhat more difficult. This is where Teague’s brilliance — and Travers’ descriptive, visual mind — come into play. One of my favorite passages is when Teague gives her student a bottle of eight-year-old white Sancerre (a Sauvignon Blanc from the region of Sancerre in the Loire Valley) to prove that most wines are meant to drink in a year or two after release, and not meant to age. “This smells like a basement!” Travers says, after sniffing in disgust. When Teague gives him a fresh bottle of the same wine from a recent vintage, he can hardly believe it is the same wine. “The aroma is so bright!” he exclaims. Teague notes that Travers tends to describe scents in visual terms, adding “which makes him sound a bit like Barry Manilow, particularly when he describes a Sauvignon Blanc as having a 'lemon feeling'.”

If you’ve ever been confused when someone describes a wine as being “closed” or “extracted” you will be pleased to find a comprehensive tasting vocabulary on pages 22 through 27. And you will also find sections on “Old World Wine” and “New World Wine” listing everything you have to know about important regions and wines in these areas.

In the subtitle of her book, Teague promises that anyone can become an “almost” instant wine expert. Here’s my promise to you: read this book cover to cover, get friendly with your local wine store clerk and tell this individual you want to explore (affordable within your means) wines representative of the various regions Teague discusses, taste and discuss the wines and their regions with a friend, and within a month, you will possibly know more than ninety-five percent of the American population.

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