Bonne Soirée 

Just south of downtown, wine, beer, spirits and education flow at Soirée

In front of me sit six empty wine glasses and small plates of cheese crackers, popcorn, coconut cookies and raspberries.

It's unusual for a class at Soirée to not have the tasting beverages ready to go, but as I'll learn within minutes, pouring bubbly ahead of time just releases all those precious bubbles into the air, instead of into your mouth.

And we can't have that.

Today we'll be trying out French Champagne, a Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine, a Cremant de Limoux Brut Rosé, Cava, Blanquette de Limoux, and a Riesling Sekt. Our trainer, Valerie Caruso, will delve into the differences among ratings, sugar content and sweetness level so we know how to read a label.

"What's in the glass should not intimidate you," she tells us.

Nor should the cork, even though it can shoot out at 60 mph if not properly removed, according to Caruso. So she'll teach us how to use a towel and turn the bottle slowly in order to ease the cork out. And we'll dig into my favorite part of any tasting: food pairing. Until you've tasted a sip of an acidic white wine by itself, then after it a bit of lemon, you have no idea how much food can affect — positively and negatively — what you're drinking.

Michaela Hightower opened Soirée, her event center, three years ago this month in a strip-mall storefront on South Tejon Street, across from the 56-year-old Luigi's Italian Restaurant. It was the culmination of a five-year plan to marry her three big passions: "arts, celebrating life with people in lots of different ways, and — it started off mostly in the wine industry, but — wine, beer and spirits."

On top of acting as an event space for up to 60 people, Soirée hosts regular events including quarterly art exhibits, tasting sessions, and Wine and Spirits Education Trust trainings for those interested in professional certification.

It's the tastings that have seen the most growth. When I first attended soon after Soirée opened, Hightower was holding one per month. Now she offers a "Curious Palate" spirit-based tasting every second Wednesday, a beer-based tasting every third Wednesday, and a wine-based tasting every fourth Wednesday.

The "Bubbles" class I'm attending this Saturday afternoon in January is the first in a new monthly tasting series, called "The Serious Palate." It is, in ways, a step up from the more social and varietal-focused Curious Palate, which also teaches you the technicalities of how to taste. Serious Palate, says Caruso, gives participants a chance to "dive deeper" — think five different rums, or IPAs, or Pinot Noirs — and typically into a heavier regional focus.

For example, in February, Serious Palate will focus on French Burgundy and Bordeaux — and how to tell the difference between the two reds people often confuse, Hightower says.

Hightower first designed The Curious Palate simply to allow people to explore and pick up enough of the fundamentals to not be intimidated. "It's about being comfortable about what you're tasting," she says, "so that you can use your words and your tongue and your smell and all those things to enjoy what you're doing."

Small plates of sweet and savory foods to be tasted in tandem with the beverages of the evening are a big part of helping folks understand how acids and sugars balance, and what types of flavor profiles are likely to go better with certain dishes.

"It's amazing how you can figure out what people are liking when you watch their faces," Hightower says. If they pucker, it's too high in acid; if they clean their teeth with red wine, it's too much tannin; if they grimace with tasting a spirit, they've sucked in too much air while sipping, and they're just getting straight alcohol.

"I explain that to people so they, too, can use that information. If you're watching your guests and they're all sort of puckering — and it sounds very counterintuitive, but ... give them something a little citrusy, and it makes it kind of a creamier concept. Then it makes it more approachable." (Remember that lemon I mentioned earlier?)

"If it's too tannic for you, if you're doing that teeth-cleaning thing and it feels like you've got hair growing on your chest, add in a little bit more salt," Hightower continues. "And you're not trying to rim the glass — it doesn't turn into a shot — but add something a little bit saltier in there. You know, grab a potato chip or whatever if that's the simplest thing you've got. Or if you're at a restaurant, put a little salt on your food."

As she says, it's not just a matter of whether or not you like what's in the bottle before you, but learning how to "play with your food as an adult. ... As you learn to trust more in your curiosity about finding what's right, the more it actually just starts to make sense."


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