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I didn’t know it at the start, but my day would take on a particularly English hue from morning to night last week. Between my liquid education in the morning and my burger at Ye Olde King’s Head Pub for dinner, everything was hinting at the old country. It wasn’t intentional but it might have been destiny as I was about to audition another highly recommended sandwich.

I started the day on “random,” having The Kinks be the first and last thing I heard as I ended my morning iTunes session before departing for my WSET course. I walked out the door with Preservation Act 1 in my hands, planning to learn the most about sweet wines and spirits. In my car I loaded the disc and not even three songs in I was at the Wine House ready to begin my five-hour class.

The WSET is an internationally recognized course that offers comprehensive education in wine and spirits. English in origin, the program affords participants/students the opportunity to master the finer parts of retailing, history and service while peppering Power Point slides with foreign spellings (flavours, ageing, etc.) and specific information as one works their way up, graduating, eventually, to the level of MW or Master of Wine. 

We sampled Eiswein, then transitioned into different types of Sherry (Fino and Oloroso) and Port as the first half of the course drew to a close. Back from the lunch we began the spirits portion where I became familiar with the different methods of distilling spirits, their origins and base materials. We tasted through Cognac, Scotch and ended on the truly English spirit Gin to feel the gist of the various methods in creating the spirits and recognizing the base ingredients in their taste, as we finished for the day.

With “Cricket” playing in the background, I was off to the English pub in Santa Monica. I was instructed to purchase a Crunchie next door for the barman (Raul), an insider’s tip by a friend before entering Ye Olde King’s Head. I was looking for “Raul” on arrival, but he had left a few hours before. The Crunchie would not be for naught. I met up with three friends at the back bar (“Bulldog Bar”), ordering a pint of Fullers London Pride; I fell in with them rather than having my druthers… wine.

Not too long after working on our brews we ordered. While others were inclined to go English, I avoided the bangers and mash, requesting the burger.

When the food hit the bar, I captured a few shots under dramatic lighting. It looked deceptive, a tad sloppy but I reserved judgment for my first few bites. The burger was also bigger than I’d anticipated. The meat was cooked to a flawless medium, but the texture of the patty was packed too tightly for it to be hand formed. The accompaniment, though disheveled in presentation, rescued the burger. The crunch of the raw red onion and the ripe tomato added a little depth to the under-seasoned patty. It definitely didn’t measure up to what I was hoping for. Serves me right for going domestic at an English pub.

My friends were happier with their selections and we all left full but this was another case of going in with elevated expectations. They weren’t met. I headed home to the sweet tune of “Sitting in the Midday Sun,” capping my average burger experience with a honeycomb treat. The chocolate bar and The Kinks helped me rebound from the unrealistic demands I placed on a pub that might be a better place to take in a traditional meal, a pint of beer, loft a dart or catch a game, rather than find the city’s best burger.

Aside from Yellow Tail acting as an ambassador and the pesky Outback commercials, Australia is on the brain, omnipresent and huge. A little more comes to mind when I think of Australia, like the first girl I ever loved, getting to try a bottle of Sparkling Shiraz—a promise fulfilled, in my blog long ago—and the Kinks classic ode, among other rock bands saluting the land down under.

Tuesday happened to be an eventful day, I interviewed and got the position for wine specialist in a local Whole Foods, made some matzo ball soup and was able to taste eight Aussie wines, winding down the total to taste to 309.

Before we learned anything about Australia, we opened the class with a blind tasting. A straw colored wine was poured and notes were taken. We were asked to identify the wine and after the identifying process, whether or not we liked it.

After deliberation and much discussion we decided that the wine showed well but was nothing too special, and as a class we were not sure what exactly we had tasted.

A Riesling on the nose—with fragrant white flowers wafting out of the glass—but it gave way to a fuller body with less of the razor sharp acidity that is often appended to Rieslings of character. We were undecided. Eventually the wine was revealed and much to our chagrin it was Yellow Tail Chardonnay. Oh well, for a wine that is routinely panned it showed well, definitely exceeding the five dollar price tag.

After the palate shake up, we worked our way through the diverse states of Australia, beginning in Western Australia and moving east, wading through major growing areas like the Limestone Coast to the Barossa Valley. We learned about some major players in the Australian wine world like Penfolds and their highly acclaimed Grange, Leeuwin Estate wines, Two Hands and d’Arenberg. We witnessed the proclivity towards Rhône varietals, especially Shiraz and some of the major white grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling.

Australia follows a typical trajectory in comparison to other New World winemaking nations, steadily reducing yields and achieving higher quality through technology and savvy. With so many quality wines being produced in Australia, it was nice to taste through a decent smattering.  And they were:

09 Yellow Tail Chardonnay

06 Leeuwin Riesling Art Series, Margaret River

09 Torbeck Semilon, Barossa Valley

NV The Black Chook Sparkling Shiraz, McLaren Vale

07 d’Arenberg Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale

07 Penfolds Shiraz Bin 128 Coonawarra

08 Two Hands Grenache Yesterday’s Hero, Barossa Valley

09 Two Hands Shiraz Angel’s Share, McLaren Vale

There were some interesting wines in the mix that night. The Riesling from Leeuwin really reeked of petrol, a heavy funk was tough to fight through but on the palate it dissipated, leaving only grapefruit, lemon and green apple fillips on the tongue. It refreshed my palate with the appropriate amount of acidity and had powerful flavor intensity with a lingering finish.

Some of the reds were interesting and my favorites were definitely the Penfolds Shiraz and the d’Arenberg Cabernet for their structure and mouth feel. However, I would like to focus on the Two Hands wines that were a bit extracted, especially Yesterday’s Hero, with a strong bouquet of raspberry jam and a hint of candied strawberry, it was aggressively sweet. Still dry on the mouth, no RS (residual sugar) but my god it was like a Seder came early and having the compote for dessert before all the other courses. Devoid of structure, the flavors were dictating the wine. Though the Grenache was blown out, their Shiraz was refined by comparison. It had a more complex and layered nose and flavor profile with cocoa, pepper, herbs, tobacco and some dark fruit to round out the concoction. The mouth feel was viscous and sensitive, not overbearing. Interesting to see the range of styles a winemaker can deploy.

Ending the class with the Black Chook was really like the big exclamation point. My formal tasting notes stop there—I can definitely vouch for my first time tasting a sparkling Shiraz; the Black Chook was awesome, but that happens to be my taste. Sparkling Shiraz down, now on to the stickies from Australia’s cellar door.

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