Tried and Tasted

“Call out things, don’t be bashful!” Chris Fiore insists. 

A dozen of us are seated around the wood-planked table that dominates the center of Wine 101, the Whitneyville wine shop owned by Fiore and business partner Carol Cyr. We could be at someone’s dining room table. “If you ever go to Carol’s house, [there’s] just one table, and everybody’s around this table. It’s very communal,” Fiore says. “That’s the way we wanted this to be. We wanted it to be friendly, welcoming. We want people to come in and ask questions.”

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As its name suggests, Wine 101 is focused on teaching its customers about wine—especially bottles from small vineyards they might not find elsewhere. Tonight’s class, Cru Class: Wines of Oregon, is co-led by Fiore and salesman Geoff Troup of Eder Bros., a distributor in West Haven. Troup is just back from a tour of Oregon vineyards, and he’s picked some favorites to share with the group. Customers have paid $30 a head to follow Troup and Fiore through the tasting of six wines, ranging in value from $17 to $60 per bottle (the “event price”), plus a bonus pour of sparkling wine to get the evening going and a sideboard of several cheeses and crackers.

“Cru” is a term used in France to designate vineyards reputed for producing high-quality wines. Fiore and Cyr use it to distinguish the class as a step up from their more introductory classes, which teach the basics: pouring wine into a glass, understanding color, reading labels, smelling the wine, noticing tannin and acid and oak flavors, recognizing regional flavors. Fiore wants people to have these skills, but he also wants them to be comfortable asserting their own thoughts about the wine they’re drinking. “People sometimes get intimidated because they think, ‘Well, I don’t speak [in] those terms,’” Fiore says. “[So] speak in terms you understand.”

His invitation is accepted. People use words like “white flowers,” “broccoli” and “dirty wood” to describe what they’re smelling when they swirl their glasses and hold them to their noses. Fiore himself thinks one wine smells like pepperoni. The first taste, a pinot gris with a “pretty generous funk” on the nose, turns out to be a crowd-pleaser.

Sharing photos and information from his trip, Troup takes everyone from the pinot gris to a chardonnay, then to four pinot noirs, made from Oregon’s most prevalent grape. Three of them are made by the vintner Ken Wright, whom Troup calls the “godfather of Oregon wine.” His Latchkey label ultimately carries the night. The wine’s aroma reminds the class of crème brulee, a balsamic reduction, chocolate-covered cherries. Its taste is “sexy” and “elegant.” “I just want to stop! How can they get any better?” exclaims Debbie Hill of Wallingford, and others around the table agree.

This was Hill’s fourth Wine 101 class. “I always ask stupid questions,” she says later, “but they make me feel like they’re not stupid questions.” Samantha MacAvoy of Bethany, who has been to six or seven classes so far, agrees. “Carol and Chris are the kindest, coolest, most down-to-earth wine ‘snobs,’ but they’re not snobs,” she says. “They’re really humble about it.”

Teaching people about wine has been Fiore’s passion since 2010, when he started doing it as a fundraiser for his son’s school, Saint Bernadette in Morris Cove. He was already trained in the culinary arts and had worked in wine and cheese retail jobs. Since then, he’s begun teaching beverage operations in the hospitality department at Mitchell College in New London, and he’s earned a certification from the Society of Wine Educators.

Cyr sees herself as more of a wine consumer with a lot of retail experience. Her touch can be found everywhere in the shop, from a whimsical 101 sign made of corks to a sparkling pink window display of rosé bottles, paper flower chains and twinkling lights. But Fiore compliments her palate, too, and her ability to tailor recommendations to people’s desires. Her other job, they joke, is to reel Fiore in when he “geeks out” on wine during classes. “She stands behind with a gong, ready to pull me offstage if I’m going off the road,” he says.

The two met up because Cyr’s kids were at Saint Bernadette, too. Later, when a job opened up at the wine shop where Fiore worked, he was able to bring her in. They found themselves brainstorming about how they would do things differently and started keeping a file of ideas. So when both were laid off in 2016, “It was kind of the kick in the pants we needed,” Cyr says. “‘Either we’re going to do it now, or we’re never going to do it.’” Wine 101 opened in November of 2016 and, in addition to wine, carries cheese, craft beers and artisan spirits.

Fiore and Cyr run several classes every month—six were scheduled for June—and topics vary, including blind tastings, cheese and wine pairings, wines from a particular country, summer wines, holiday wines and the wildly popular “Yes Way Rosé,” the next of which happens on Thursday, July 26. “That’s our least well-behaved class,” Cyr says. “In a good way,” Fiore adds.

If you don’t want to shell out the cash for a full class, you can stop in at Wine 101 every Friday from 5 to 7 for TGIF (“Thank God It’s Free”) casual tastings. “The more you taste, the more educated your palate gets,” Fiore says. He and Cyr taste almost 100 wines a week. Even so, they sometimes learn from their customers. Salesman and co-teacher Troup agrees. For example, when someone says a wine is sweet, Troup says, “I could say something really snobby… like, ‘Well, the residual sugar is point-zero-whatever, so it’s not sweet.’ But I’m trying to relate to them, and what’s the connection they’re making?” he says. “When people call out those things, they’re going back on their [sensory] memories, and it’s really fun for us to try and relate to them.”

“Residual sugar” may not be in your vocabulary, but “pepperoni” surely is. At Wine 101, that’s a language you can speak.

Wine 101
1220 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Store hours: Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun noon-5pm
(475) 202-6657 | vino@wineschool101.com
Website | Class Schedule

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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