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Vivo Vino

L'Amante chef Kevin Cleary launches the Vermont Wine School


Published July 20, 2011 at 6:21 a.m.

A class at Vermont Wine School
  • A class at Vermont Wine School

On an average evening you might expect chef Kevin Cleary to be laboring in the kitchen of his Burlington restaurant, L’Amante, turning out fried zucchini blossoms, potato-crusted sea bass, risotto and more for his customers. One recent Monday night, however, the dark wooden tables in his dining room are empty, save for a horseshoe-shaped one where seven students are taking their places. Six empty wine glasses shimmer in front of each. Bottles of Acqua Panna and bowls of grapes dot the table. And, instead of chef’s whites, Cleary is clad in street clothes, balancing his class notes on an empty wooden wine crate.

It’s the second session of Cleary’s debut wine course. He tells his students this lesson is a dense one to get through, so they’d better get started.

Several local wine shops hold classes — one-day lessons in pinot noir or Australian grapes, say — but Cleary’s newly minted Vermont Wine School is a more ambitious endeavor. Behind its deceptively simple name is his own 14-year odyssey with wine, one that transformed him from a new chef — and beer drinker — into a full-blown Italian wine aficionado. And now an educator affiliated with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a London-based school that has trained wine professionals since 1969. In the wine world, it’s a given that aspiring sommeliers head for the Court of Master Sommeliers, while those who want to work in the industry or teach or write about wine seek out the WSET.

Cleary’s journey involved a little bit of serendipity, a lot of travel and years of study through the WSET. After countless hours of reading assignments, papers, essays and blind tastings, Cleary, 45, earned his diploma last year.

Once he did, he set about becoming a teacher himself. Most of the students in this summerlong, intermediate course work in the trade; one is a serious collector of wine hoping to boost his knowledge. They’ve each paid $660 for eight two-hour sessions that will run the gamut of topics, from winemaking to judging wine’s quality.

Before Cleary begins his lecture, he passes around three “defective” glasses of wine. The students take deep whiffs of one that smells moldy, a telltale sign of cork taint. “I’ve heard that one in 12 bottles is corked. Is that true?” someone asks. Faulty corks sully 5 to 10 percent of the wines he comes across, Cleary says glumly.

He projects the title of the evening’s lecture, “Factors Influencing the Style of Wine and Understanding the Label,” on a screen. It sounds dry, but Cleary embarks on a fast-moving, engrossing romp through grape growing and winemaking that would dizzy the most serious wine buff. He displays a cross-section of a grape on the screen and breaks down what each part ultimately lends to a wine: skins for tannin, color and flavor; stalks for tannins; pips (seeds) for bitter oils; pulp for sugars, water and proteins. “It’s the most important part of the grape,” he says of the pulp.

Sunlight, water, warmth and nutrients can all affect a vintage, Cleary notes, as can weather perils such as hail and frost. “No other agricultural product is affected as much by climate [as] grapes,” he asserts. The facts packed away in Cleary’s mind seem to percolate faster than he can release them, and you get the impression he could talk for days on the thousands of imponderables that go into making wine.

Cleary attended the New England Culinary Institute and interned in 1995 at Boston restaurant Pignoli. There, Chef de cuisine Daniele Baliani convinced him to stay and not return to NECI; in return, Baliani set Cleary up with two internships in Italy the following year. At one of those restaurants, Osteria di Rendola in Tuscany, “you could get lost in the wine cellar,” Cleary says. “They treated it like it was sacred.” He laments that, at the time, he couldn’t fully appreciate what he calls “the mystery” behind some of the greatest wines in the world.

Upon his return to the states in 1997, Cleary landed a job at Il Capriccio Ristorante e Bar in Waltham, Mass. There, as fate would have it, he fell under the tutelage of then-owner and wine director Jeannie Rogers, an expert in (and now importer of) Italian wines. “She was so into it,” Cleary says, describing how Rogers shared a range of Italian wines, including legendary Barbarescos from Angelo Gaja more than two decades old. “These were special wines,” says Cleary. “They were exploding out of the glass.” Eventually, instead of grabbing an after-work beer, he was reaching for a glass of Italian wine.

Cleary left Il Capriccio two years later to start L’Amante in Gloucester, Mass., with his wife, Kathi. He continued his study of Italian wines by sampling those that distributors brought by every week. When the Clearys moved L’Amante to Burlington in 2003, Kevin still possessed an intense thirst for knowledge. “But there was nothing up here, nowhere to learn about wine,” he says. While researching wine courses, he came across the WSET. Luckily for him, the school offered its classes virtually.

Those classes are structured in progressive levels and incorporate what is known as the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. Students learn to assess a plethora of factors, including color, clarity, aroma, acidity and finish. The intermediate and advanced levels entail exams, for which Cleary traveled to New York. “I had to teach myself how to taste,” he says of his independent study. He did it well: Cleary passed the blind-tasting portion of his advanced exam on the first try. He immediately signed up for diploma study, WSET’s exhaustive, three-year course, and a stepping stone for those wishing to earn a Master of Wine certificate.

For a time, life and work took Cleary away from his studies, which he’d started in 2004 and didn’t finish until the summer of 2010, when he sat through more hours-long exams and successive blind tastings. “I had to go back three times to pass all three units,” he says. “You get to the point that you hate wine. Every time I had a glass of wine, I was analyzing it. You just want a beer.” Even so, Cleary collected his diploma in London last summer.

That’s when Cleary realized he had caught the bug of wanting to share his new knowledge, as Rogers had shared hers with him at Il Capriccio. He decided to start a WSET-affiliated school in northern Vermont, a decision that may have been influenced by his own isolation during his wine education. “Nobody guides you through it,” he says of the virtual coursework, and internalizing the principles of tasting can be a challenge.

Cleary’s teaching style impels students to hustle to keep up. Discussing grape growing, he quickly but deftly explains how planting on a slope increases drainage and sun exposure; how a grower can offset a cold microclimate by planting in rocky soil, which holds its heat into the evening; and how less fertile soil strengthens vines by forcing their roots to dig deep for water and nutrients. After Cleary segues into how weather can affect a vintage, how hand harvesting can improve quality and how wine can be aged, students begin to comprehend why bottles bear wildly different prices. “There are so many factors!” exclaims one.

Cleary also wades through the fine print on a wine label. While this can confuse consumers, he explains, it can also tell them a great deal if they know how to read it — whether they should embrace vin de pays, for example.

This is all in lesson two.

Once the lecture is over, it’s time for tasting. Cleary breaks out a chilled muscadet, aged sur lie, meaning the juice is allowed to mingle with the yeast particles that fall to the bottom of a wine as it ages. The practice can lend more roundness or body to a wine — especially useful with a dry, acidic white such as muscadet.

The students pour, swirl and inhale. Cleary urges them to assess clarity as well as color. Next, by smelling the wine, they judge whether the nose is clean or unclean and whether its intensity is weak or pronounced, and name the quality of its aromas — floral, for instance, or spicy. “I smell citrus,” says one student. Those flavor profiles are then broken into even smaller nuances. One can call a wine “fruity,” for instance, but does one taste blackberries or prunes? If a wine tastes “oaky,” is that actually cedar, smoke or vanilla?

“Anybody get salinity?” asks Cleary of the muscadet, and his suggestion makes the taste immediately apparent. The hint of salt is one of muscadet’s signatures, and it speaks to the mysteries of wine — the grape melon de Bourgogne is grown on the coast of northern France, near the ocean.

And so it goes through five more wines — a Vouvray; a Provençal rosé; two from Beaujolais (“Sometimes you might get a little banana,” says Cleary as he uncorks one); a Jacob’s Creek shiraz/cabernet from southeastern Australia; and a sublime zinfandel from California’s Turley Wine Cellars.

Cleary, who has chosen the wines, opens each quickly and passes it around. The students swirl, sniff, sip, gurgle and spit into white plastic buckets, judging nose, acidity and finish. Tentative at first, they begin to gain confidence in voicing their impressions. “I smell nori,” someone says of the Jacob’s Creek. Cleary, sitting now, searches his own glass for the aroma.

Manon Eiker, the business manager at Vermont Wine Merchants, says she always wanted to have a better knowledge of the wines her company sells. “It’s all coming together,” she says as she sips something red.

As the class ends, Cleary encourages students to linger and sample some more. Ever the chef, he brings out plates of watermelon, creamy potato salad, roasted asparagus and broccoli rabe, bresaola, and shrimp and artichokes in a mustard sauce, all for pairing.

The serious Cleary looks almost pleased as students load up tiny plates and settle into nibbling and sipping, trying the shrimp with the muscadet, the bresaola with the Beaujolais Village. The watermelon and the rosé are perfect partners, as Cleary thought they might be. So are the zinfandel and the broccoli rabe.

It’s doubtful a weekly feast is part of the WSET’s regular curriculum. But when a chef leads a wine course, he probably can’t help himself, even if it eats into his bottom line.