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Nashville Scene Bottled Up

Easing into oenophilia

By Kay West

AUGUST 10, 1998:  The whole time Mary Ewing-Mulligan was growing up, she never saw a bottle of wine in her parents' home. Later, while in college, she and her then-fiancé went to a restaurant where they were considering having their wedding reception. They ordered dinner and then thought it might be a good idea to sample some wine. They ordered a bottle of Mateus rosé. Ewing-Mulligan doesn't recall what wine they eventually selected for the reception, but she's confident "It was probably something awful."

Ewing-Mulligan has come a long way. She is co-owner and director of the International Wine Center, a wine school in Manhattan. In 1993, after five years of study, she became the first American woman to be named a master of wine by London's Institute of Masters of Wine. She is in exclusive company there are only 195 masters of wine in the world and only 13 in the United States. To help those unfortunate souls who can't find the business end of a corkscrew, she and her second husband, Ed McCarthy, have written Wine For Dummies "the fun and easy way to become a savvy wine drinker!"

Ewing-Mulligan was recently in Nashville to moderate The Vintner's Tasting, one of the numerous events surrounding the 19th annual Eté du Vin, held July 25 to benefit the American Cancer Society.

Wine became central to Ewing-Mulligan's life right after college, when she applied for a job with the Italian Trade Commission. Since she didn't speak Italian, and knew next to nothing about Italy, she figures it was her college journalism classes that helped her get the job. At least she knew how to sound knowledgeable on virtually any subject.

At the Commission, Ewing-Mulligan's job was to help promote Italian products in America. It was the '70s, a time when interest in Italian wines was expanding rapidly. By 1975, the Commission had opened the Italian Wine Center in Manhattan.

"I learned about wines through the door of Italian wines," Ewing-Mulligan says. "That's one method I would recommend to people who want to educate themselves about wine. Choose a country or a region Italy or France or the Napa Valley. Learn all you can about those wines, then branch out."

In 1981, Ewing-Mulligan met Ed McCarthy, an educator and wine collector, at an Italian wine tasting in Chinatown; they married in 1983. The next year, Ewing-Mulligan took a job as director of education at the Wine School of New York. Now the International Wine Center, the school offers classes for people in the wine business. The curriculum is modeled on courses taught at the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in England. At the Center, students can earn a certificate of wine, a higher certificate of wine and, after completing an intensive two-year course, a diploma of wine. It takes four days to complete the examination to become a master of wine.

To illustrate how far women have come in the wine industry, the theme of this year's Eté du Vin was "Women in Wine," with six of the industry's most influential women as honored guests and speakers. Zelma Long of Simi Winery, renowned Burgundy exporter Becky Wasserman-Hone, Beth Novak Millikan and Lindy Novak of Spottswoode Vineyard and Winery in Napa Valley, Caroline Krug of Champagne Krug, and Heidi Peterson Barrett, an acclaimed winemaker for several vineyards in Napa Valley, shared their thoughts on wine, as well as samples of their products, at the Vintner's Tasting. Wine dummies will be encouraged to know that several of the women admitted that, when they first fell in love with wines, they were every bit as naive as Ewing-Mulligan was.

The question is, how much does one need to know about wine in order to enjoy it? Ewing-Mulligan and McCarthy suggest that there are two types of wine lovers: the hedonists, who just want to enjoy wine and find more and more wines they like, and the thinkers, who are fascinated by the process that creates the wine. In their family, the couple says, Ewing-Mulligan is the thinker, while McCarthy is the hedonist. But it doesn't hurt either type of wine lover to listen to the other. Hedonists, in particular, will benefit from the knowledge that helps them discover more wines they will enjoy.

Ewing-Mulligan notes that, while the industry has seen a definite increase in the number of women interested in wine, both professionally and personally, the majority of wine collectors are still men. That doesn't mean men have a greater affinity for the subject; it just means that women's energies have traditionally been focused in different ways. She also notes that, in America, wine collecting is a sign of status, one that men are more enamored of than women are.

In Europe, Ewing-Mulligan says, everyone drinks wine from a young age. At a restaurant in the French or Italian countryside or a casual neighborhood restaurant in Paris, you probably won't be handed a wine list. The server will simply ask if you'd prefer red or white; then a bottle or carafe is placed on your table with a couple of glasses. "If the guests talk about the wine at all," she says, "they use fancy words like 'good' to describe it."

If what you really like about wine is the sheer pleasure of drinking it, Ewing-Mulligan predicts, at some point, you will probably be motivated to learn more about it. You may do this in several ways: You may read about wine in general, or you may pick a particular wine to learn about. Or you can organize your own tasting, getting together with a couple of friends to open three or four bottles of wine. But don't choose four chardonnays, Ewing-Mulligan cautions. Instead, pick a sauvignon blanc, a chardonnay, an Italian white and a Riesling. Taste them before eating a meal and try to understand the individuality of each wine. "You will develop a language along the way," she promises. For a confirmed hedonist, it looks as if the journey could be as much fun as the destination.

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