The Homework Is Optional

Don't know a first growth from an ingrown toenail? Intimidated by high-priced wine lists and snooty sommeliers?

Give yourself a wine education.

You don't need expensive classes taught by pretentious wine geeks. All you need is a few bucks--and a designated driver to get you home from the Broadway Deli on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Greenblatt's Delicatessen Restaurant & Fine Wine Shop on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

"You can learn a lot about wine sitting at this bar," says Broadway Deli manager Jon Stevenson. He offers a changing list of 10 by-the-glass selections (using a vacuum system to prevent spoilage), putting together an international group of wines that allows educational comparisons of the same grapes made in different countries or by various wineries in the same region. Seven-ounce glasses cost $4.50 to $15, while 1-ounce tastes are available for $1.

"The wine bar provides an opportunity for people to taste wines they might not otherwise be able to try," Stevenson says. "These bottles may be on some wine lists around town, but they're rarely offered by the glass."

Customers who take this self-education seriously can flip through a binder that Stevenson keeps of notes from each vineyard on its wines. And regulars discuss their wines with one another and the knowledgeable staff.

I tried a French 1995 Chateau La Grande Maye ($6), a classic Bordeaux blend made with a majority of cabernet sauvignon, next to a smooth 1994 Berringer Knights Valley cabernet sauvignon ($7.50) and a very tannic 1992 Mayacamas cabernet ($12), both from Napa. It's a good contrast of old world and new world realizations of the same grape: There's more fruit in the California bottles, more earthiness and wood in the French--and all are quite good.

At Greenblatt's, you'll find nearly 30 wines on tap in a Cruvinet (which pumps in nitrogen to keep the wine fresh). Owner Jeff Kavin chooses the wines to feature new and interesting selections--"something we want to taste, or something of unusual quality or value," he explains. Six-ounce glasses range from $3.95 to $12.95 (2-ounce tastes are also available). You compare Sonoma versus Napa cabernets, or taste merlot versus zinfandel and begin to learn the key characteristics of each grape.

You may not immediately develop the James Bond-like ability to ascertain the vintage and vineyard of a wine after a single sip, but you'll have fun trying.

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