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Drinking with class

The class is billed as “Introduction to Wines,” and yet the 20 or so students assembled in a room at Sierra College last week had to wait almost two hours before any vino touched their lips.

And when they did imbibe, instructor and wine aficionado Rod Byers told them simply to sip, swirl and spit.

This is, Byers later intoned, the essence of appreciating and understanding the nectar of the gods. Enjoying wine is a contemplative process, he said, incorporating one’s sense of taste and smell, not to be wasted by gulping or swilling.



Identifying just what you taste and smell is the hard part. It is also the essence of what makes drinking wine a social event, said Byers, whose experiences with wine began at 17 when he picked his first grapes at a vineyard near Geneva, Switzerland.

Byers, director of sales and marketing for Nevada City Winery, has enjoyed a career that would make the mythical Greek god Dionysus proud. He’s been in the business for 30 years – pouring and selling wines to restaurants up and down Northern California – and he is a certified wine judge for the state of California.




“I like the product,” Byers said matter-of-factly in the tasting room at Nevada City Winery recently. “As a wine merchant, I like the connection that wine has with people. It’s invoking good feelings, the good life and good times,” he said.

“The best thing about wine is what’s outside the bottle, and being with friends.”

His job, he said, makes people happy. “Nobody dreads us coming.”

This is Byers’ second semester of teaching the class.

This class, Byers said, isn’t for the snooty folk who sniff their zinfandel for five minutes or have Robert Mondavi on their speed dial. Mostly, it’s for people who like their discount-store wine as much as the estate stuff sold at the toniest Napa Valley vineyards.

Byers’ first class included a motley crew of wine connoisseurs, a few of whom admitted enjoying the $2 bottles found in the aisles of the local Grocery Outlet.

Some, like Grass Valley resident Mark Epperly, 26, had never even tried wine.

“It never really interested me,” said Epperly, who said he prefers beer and hard liquor to the taste of long-fermented grapes.

Asked why he enrolled in this class, Epperly shrugged.

“I never wanted to branch out, I guess,” he said, “but if I ever describe a wine, I don’t want to look like a jackass doing it. I don’t want to be a wine snob, but I want to know what I’m talking about.”

During the first class, Byers gave his students plenty of help. He introduced them to an “aroma wheel,” to help them describe the taste of wine, and showed them the proper way to spit out a sample of both a white sauvignon blanc and a red zinfandel.

Like Epperly, student Will Shaarrand cq, 21, of Colfax, said he’d like to learn more about wine because he’s studying to be a bartender.

“I need some basic knowledge to be able to help a customer out,” he said. “When you’re a bartender, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about.”

Before Wednesday, Shaarrand hadn’t really tried wine, either, preferring mixed drinks and dark pale ales, instead.

By the end of the evening, Byers had given his students rudimentary knowledge of how to discern what they taste and of wine etiquette, including how to spit.

When tasting wine – not drinking it, Byers noted – “it’s absolutely not an insult to spit the wine out in front of the person who made it,” he said. Tasters should look at spitting as a badge of honor and conviction that they were there to taste wine.

And then, the students spat – discreetly, into foam cups, first with water, then with wine.

“I’m the worst spitter that I know of,” said Elizabeth Loving of Grass Valley, herself a former Nevada City Winery employee.

But even that doesn’t really matter, Byers said. What does matter is enjoying the experience.

“The only thing that’s required,” he said, “is a willingness to participate and listen.”

For more information on the Introduction to Wines class, call Byers at 265-6470.


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