Oenophile and class of ’69 alumnus Gordon Sullivan’s new book spotlights wine trivia, tips, and advice for savoring your next glass
Here’s how Gordon Sullivan ’69 wants you to think about your next glass of wine: It’s alive. It contains thousands of organic compounds, all in flux. So if you want your wine to be its best, says Sullivan, a wine expert and a devotee to the beverage, pour it out of the bottle and let it breathe. Swirl it around the glass. That will allow those compounds to create aromatic changes, enhancing your enjoyment in the process. Last November, Sullivan led a wine education session on Zoom for Williston alumni, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject.
Sullivan has spent nearly half a century in the wine business. But that world may not have opened up to him had he not taken a job on the four-man crew of a 50-foot sloop and sailed from Ogunquit, Maine, to Palm Beach, Florida, the summer after he graduated college. He arrived in 1973 “with only a sailor’s duffel bag to my name,” Sullivan writes in the introduction of his forthcoming book on wine trivia, as yet unnamed and due out this fall from Board and Bench Publishing. “I walked from the marina where the boat was docked, across the Intracoastal Waterway to The Breakers, and was hired on the spot as a banquet bartender.”
From behind the busy bar at The Breakers, Sullivan observed the French sommeliers selling bottles of wine to customers at this world-class hotel restaurant, and, inspired by their glamour, requested a transfer to the wine department. He started off there as a “glass boy,” and worked his way up to sommelier, and eventually, at age 25, chief sommelier (in English, chief wine steward). It was during that period when he tasted his “epiphany wine,” a 1969 Montrachet, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
“Everything clicked—from amazing aromas and mouthfeel to the lingering aftertaste,” he said. “It was pivotal
because I had never tasted anything with that amount of finesse and elegance.”
Over the next half-century, Sullivan went far in the oenophile world: working as a brand manager for a wine distributor, forming a wine consulting and education firm, teaching wine classes, and publishing many articles on the topic. He even invented an in-bottle aerator to make wine, once poured, taste “as the vintner intended.” The device,
to be called AER-8 and marketed to younger buyers as POP!N, is heading to market soon. And, he’s in the final editing process of his wine education and trivia book. Here, we share a sneak peek by condensing some of Sullivan’s best wisdom on enjoying what’s in your glass. Cheers!
Gordon Sullivan’s Wine Wisdom
Choosing a Wine “Wine is personal,” says Sullivan. “There’s a color and a flavor for every taste, and part of the fun is learning what you really like.” If you decide to get a little more serious about raising your wine IQ, Sullivan suggests keeping a wine journal, saving labels, or taking photos of labels of wines that thrill you.
Those who think about wine and food pairings often say, “If it grows together, it goes together.” Alongside a coq au vin, you’ll want a French bottle; ravioli begs for Italian. When preparing for a special multicourse meal, Sullivan suggests beginning with bubbly—a prosecco or Champagne. With appetizers, a white wine pairs nicely, then a red with the entrée. Finish with a dessert wine. “Keep the meal in balance,” he says. “No wine should overwhelm the food, or vice versa.” If you’re the guest, a bottle of wine for the hosts is both a lovely gesture and a practical offering. Sullivan says sparkling wines on these occasions are a “no brainer.” Try a cava (a Spanish sparkling wine) or a California sparkling wine—even Champagne if you can afford it. Sullivan also suggests a New Zealand sauvignon blanc as a gift, or a Chilean cabernet sauvignon or red blend; also Oregon pinot noirs, or Provençal rosé. Red Bordeaux or red Burgundy brighten the table, as do California red blends. Or how about a Sonoma County chardonnay?
Does Your Wine Glass Matter? Sullivan says yes. He’s a fan of Riedel stemware and recommends everyone should own at least one glass for white wine and one for red. Champagne flutes don’t float his boat. “Better, use a white wine glass so you can pick up the nuance and the elegance of the flavor,” he says.
Enjoy What You Pour While it helps to educate yourself on wine, Sullivan insists people should drink what they like. “Ratings are a benchmark,” he says. “Be your own guide.” That said, there are basics on how to get the most out of the wine-drinking experience. Here are five basic steps to slow down the process and immerse yourself in the moment.
1. Pour the wine and look at the color. The different intensities of reds and whites tell a story about the wine, and the more you look, the more you can start to build your visual skills. Is it light red, a Beaujolais, perhaps? Or a darker, richly pigmented Bordeaux? Pinot grigio skews paler than a barrel-aged chardonnay. “Color intensity comes from the skin of the red grape,” Sullivan says, “and how long and under what conditions the skin remains with the liquid.”
2. After your eyes have taken the measure of what’s in your glass, rotate it. “Swirl it. It’s a living thing and likes to be circulated around the glass,” Sullivan explains.
3. Raise the wine to your nose before tasting. “Your nose should tell your brain what the wine should taste like.” Only when you’ve inhaled deeply are you ready to sample the wine.
4. Sip. Note your first impression. Wait a few minutes, and sip again: Does your impression change?
5. Finally, Sullivan suggests, look around and enjoy where you are and who you’re with.
To Decant or Not to Decant As a guy who invented an aerator, Sullivan is a fan of decanting—or exposing red wine to air for a while before you drink it. With an older bottle, decanting helps separate the sediment, but, he warns, if a wine is too dainty, such as a 1929 Château Margaux, decanting could ruin the bottle. However, “this is not a common problem,” Sullivan explains with a smile. “Most wine is purchased and consumed within a day and a half.” If you find you like a particular wine, he suggests buying several bottles and keeping them for a few years, seeing how the drink progresses as it ages. Wine temperature is another consideration. Sullivan’s cellar is kept at 55 degrees and his refrigerator is kept at 34. He recommends setting your wine on the counter for a few minutes before drinking so the wine warms up: if it’s too cold, you mute the aromatics; if it’s too warm, the alcohol becomes pronounced. You can always chill it back down if it gets too close to room temperature.
Old World vs. New World “You start learning about wine by learning geography,” Sullivan says. Old World wineries dot the countryside of Europe, many made up of grapevines that were planted in Roman times—think France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Vintners have established New World wines, on the other hand, in countries that Europeans colonized—the U.S., South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and nations in South America. In general, Old World wines are earthier and more rustic in style, and thus Sullivan’s personal favorites, in particular the wines of Burgundy. Their New World cousins, meanwhile, “are what most people are drinking in America today, because it’s bright fruit, it’s clean, it’s very aromatically driven, very balanced,” he says. “The sunshine in a lot of parts of New World countries ripens the grape, with higher alcohol content to match the bigger, bolder styles.”
As wine tasters explore geography more deeply, they will find that in a region rich with winemaking tradition, such as Burgundy, the quality of the grapes will vary from one village to the next, with factors such as climate and mineral composition of the soil playing into the flavor profile. Sullivan singles out the village of Vosne-Romanée, in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits wine region, as the “jewel in the necklace.”