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Pittsburgh Wine Festival strives to educate

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By William Loeffler
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Life is a cabernet, old chum, says wine expert Marnie Old.

The author, sommelier, consultant and media personality brings her common-sense approach to wine to the eighth annual Pittsburgh Wine Festival, scheduled for Thursday in the Club Lounges at Heinz Field.

Thursday's festival will feature more than 200 wineries from Spain, France, Australia, New Zealand and California. There will be some rare and costly vintages, to be sure. But the event's most important function might to help people forge a long and fruitful relationship with a modestly priced California chardonnay or Australian merlot. Attendees will find hundreds of affordable red, white and sparkling wines.

"We get paralyzed with all this information about vintages and reviews and ... grapes and appellations," Old says.

Old, on the other hand, blends serious credentials -- she is the former director of wine studies at the French Culinary Institute in New York City -- with a gossipy sense of fun.

Wine, she says, is a gift from the sun, the soil and the vine, not a homework assignment.

"My specialty has always been to help communicate complicated wine ideas without being afraid of making some sweeping generalizations," she says.

Old has consulted on wine lists for Morimoto and Buddakan in New York and designed the wine program for Bar Ferdinand in Philadelphia. Her book, "Wine Secrets" (Quirk Books, $19.95), is a down-to-earth compendium of tips from sommeliers, winemakers and connoisseurs.

For the uninitiated, the choices can seem overwhelming. How do you go about finding a wine that suits your taste and budget• Where to begin•

Those folks are encouraged to visit the Chairmen's Selection Table, where Old will provide tips on what makes wines similar but different at the same time. For those who ever have wandered the aisles of their local liquor store, wondering just what the difference is between plain and oaked chardonnay, Old will let them sample one of each.

"It's going to be a neat opportunity to learn a few basic wine lessons before they walk around the room," Old says.

Several dinners are scheduled at restaurants around the city in the days leading to the festival. Tonight, the Carlton Restaurant, Downtown, hosts the second of two winemarker dinners, with guest winemaker Bill Nancarrow from Duckhorn Vineyards. Also this evening, Lidia's Pittsburgh will host a wine dinner with Paolo Benegiamo, owner of Masseria L'Astore Winery.

"It's a great night for the oenophile, but it's also a great night for the novices," says Carlton owner Kevin Joyce. "You can really educate your palate."

Also featured at the festival will be Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards in Napa Valley; Danielle Cyrot, the winemaker at St. Clement Winery and a descendent of a line of French winemakers; and Ken Freeman of Freeman Wines in California's Russian River Valley.

Wandering the wine wonderland

If you plan to attend Thursday's Pittsburgh Wine Festival, begin ahead of time with a plan of attack.

Visit the festival website -- -- to formulate your strategy. The 200-plus wineries will offer some 500 wines. No one has the stamina to sample that many in one evening. Consulting the list will enable wine lovers to narrow the huge field and decide which wines they want to taste.

Oenophiles, for example, might decide to taste wines from just one country, such as France or Italy. Or, they might want to select a single grape, such as the pinot noir, and trace it through all the countries offering it at the festival. Another plan might be the selection of specific wineries, focusing on those wines alone.

These tips will aid those new to wine tasting:

• When you have the wine in hand, study first the color of the wine. Color can give the imbiber plenty of information, such as the age of the wine, the type of grape used, weather during the growing season and hints about the winemaking process.

• Swirl the wine to release the aromas, or nose, of the wine.

• Put your nose into the glass and smell the wine. Aromas account for as much as 90 percent of taste. Try identifying the flavors, such as chocolate, vanilla or buttery.

• Taste the wine, using all the taste buds in your mouth. Be sensitive to the wine as you sip and savor.

Additional Information:

Pittsburgh Wine Festival

Features: More than 200 wineries from California, France and New Zealand

When: VIP Tasting at 5 p.m. Thursday, grand tasting at 7

Admission: $125 for grand tasting, $250 for VIP tasting

Where: Club Lounges, Heinz Field

Details: website

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