A friend recently asked me about wine courses, having made a New Year's resolution to learn more about the stuff. I answered, as I always do, that my first choice is WineWise. The man behind WineWise is Michael Schuster, a world-class authority who has written the best introduction to tasting, among other distinguished books. He runs the courses from his home in London, and I don't know anyone who's come away from them feeling they'd had anything less than their money's worth.
I'd been thinking about Schuster even before my friend asked about wine courses, because he had recently sent out a list of upcoming courses for 2006. The ones that caught my eye were the specialised, single-evening sessions focusing on one or two French appellations (eg, Côte-Rôtie or Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet), or a single producer (eg, Trimbach or J J Prüm), or a theme (eg, 1995 and 1996 "second" wines from several Bordeaux communes). These tastings all deal with wines of considerable rarity and expense; they're the sort of stuff you'd have a hard time finding - and an even harder time paying for. Chez Schuster, you get a small taste of each one (nine to 14 wines per session) for prices ranging from £49 to £85.
The most impressive thing about these courses is that the wines all come from Schuster's own cellar. By buying and holding top wines, Schuster ensures the breadth and depth needed to supply, for instance, vertical tastings of those Burgundies from vintages beginning in 1979 and finishing in 1995.
The storage of wine in individual cellars becomes all the more important when you read about the sorry fate that met a wine warehouse in California last year. A deliberately started fire at the Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, between Napa and San Francisco, destroyed thousands of bottles stored there both by wineries and by private collectors. The fire was centred on the sections of the warehouse housing the costliest wine. What's worse, the bottles destroyed, which had an estimated value of around £60m, represented the entire stocks from some wineries' recent production.
For example: the excellent Viader winery in Napa lost all of its 2003 production as well as her "library" of the two preceding vintages; while the Saintsbury winery in Carneros, maker of some of California's best Pinot Noir, lost its entire library of a quarter-century's production. Its owner, Richard Ward, told the San Francisco Chronicle: "It's the history of what we've done at Saintsbury over the last 25 years. We're losing the ability to do vertical tastings. We're losing the ability to show how our wines age. There's not one particular bottle we'll miss. It's more the cumulative effect of all those wines that we no longer have."
Many of the wineries were insured, though some were not. Sean Thackrey, maker of tiny quantities of wine in Napa, lost all his marketable wine and then discovered that he hadn't renewed his insurance policy. But even for those who were insured, financial compensation alone won't make up for the losses. A bottle of wine is more akin to an individually made antique than to other insurables. When it's gone, it's gone forever. Age, the popping of the cork, fire - all these enemies do away with wine in the long run. All the more reason to seize opportunities such as WineWise, which give a glimpse of the great wines before they disappear. Contact them on 020 7254 9734, or visit www.michaelschusterwine.com.
Three from Morrisons
Brindisi DOC 2001 (£4.99, Morrisons) Rich, dense flavours from the very modern Cantine Due Palme cooperative..
Canto de Flora Carmenère 2004 (£2.99, Morrisons) This Chilean bargainissimo offers amazingly expressive fruit for a tiny amount of money.
Castillo de Molina Shiraz 2003 (£5.99, Morrisons) Shiraz (or Syrah) is an up-and-coming star in Chile, and this is a good example.