Liquid Assets

Good bread will make you a better judge of wine. Honest!

More than 900 years ago, Omar Khayyam had already figured out the joys of a nice bottle of wine and a loaf of bread. And while the picture is a seductive one, what many people don't know is that experienced wine buyers frequently use bread as the food of choice when they are selecting wines for purchase. The saying you hear more often among wine aficionados is "buy with bread, sell with cheese." The reason is simple: A good taste of crusty French bread, or other nonflavored bread, will cleanse your palate and prepare you to taste the next wine with an open mind. Cheese, on the other hand, is a great salesman's tool because it blunts the palate and keeps you from tasting flaws in the wine. Even better, if it is a bleu cheese, it makes even insipid wines taste fruity. Next time you go to a tasting, see what the store is pushing, and you'll get a good idea of the quality of the wine.

So which bread works best? Like so many other things in the world of wine, the French and Italians figured out the whole issue long ago. Nothing reveals the inner secrets of a bottle of wine so well as a crusty, fresh-baked loaf of French or Italian bread. And while white breads have fallen from favor in the world of food Nazis, surely a small bit won't hurt you, especially since you'll be having it with a healthy glass of wine.

Here's how to organize a fun tasting for six people that will teach you a lot about wine, bread, and cheese. Any bread works for a wine tasting as long as it isn't stuffed with myriad flavorings. I'm personally partial to the La Brea bread sold at Grape Vine Market and the Bread Alone bakery at the Schlotzsky's at 218 S. Lamar. The goal is to find three loaves that come without herbs, spices, or any other unnecessary additions. Next, go to a wine shop where you have a trusted salesperson and ask for six bottles of wine made from a single grape – say Cabernet Sauvignon – but all from different growing areas. In the example of Cabernet, I'd choose Napa, Washington, Texas, Australia, Languedoc, and Chile.

Give them a budget: Sixty dollars is plenty, $90 should give you some great wines, and anything above that should make the night a memorable one. Finally, go to a high-end cheese shop – Central Market, Grape Vine Market, or the new Whole Foods – and buy 6-oz. samples of three cheeses. One should be bland and rich like a Camembert, one should be tart like a fresh Pure Luck goat cheese, and one should be a good quality bleu cheese like a Roquefort.

Ask the shopkeeper to put the wines in order for you, with the richest last. Give each person a glass, and each should take a small taste, about two tablespoons, in the order that the shopkeeper placed the wines, talking between each wine about what they are tasting, what they like and don't like. Everyone should score the wines. Then, go back and start from the beginning, but this time, in between each wine, take a bite or two of bread. Everyone will be amazed at how his or her rankings change. Finally, have each person get two glasses and get a sample of their favorite wine and a sample of their least favorite. Try the two wines, but this time, try the Camembert cheese between samples. Do the same thing again substituting the Pure Luck and again with the Roquefort.

By the end, you will have learned four invaluable lessons. First, when it comes to tastings during which someone is trying to sell wines, people who serve bread trust their wine. People who put cheese out at these events either know better and think you don't or don't know better. Either way, it always makes me wonder about the wine. Second, whenever you try a new wine, just in case it might end up being that one wine you fall head over heels in love with, always try to get a bite of bread first. Third, when you are trying to decide about buying several bottles of a wine you fell in love with, say at a restaurant or a friend's house, be sure to try it without cheese, preferably with bread. Make your judgment with a clear palate.

The final lesson, and in some ways the most important: Next time you are at a party where they are serving lousy wine, search for some cheese.

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