by Louise E. Wright
Well might Rodney Chonka agree with the hero of Homer’s “Odyssey”: “It is the wine that leads me on.” Unlike Odysseus, whose travels lasted a mere 10 years, the Germantown oenophile has been pursuing the grape for more than 30. This month he pours “Sparkling Wines of California” for the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, where he has hosted over a dozen tastings.
Chonka began his affiliation with MALT teaching French, in which he holds two degrees. Knowing his passion for the grape, however, Jonna Naylor, the organization’s recently departed director, suggested a wine class. In winter 2009, he offered “Wines of Bordeaux.” “It was a likely place to start,” he explained, “as so much wine culture emanates from” that region.
In fact, Bordeaux served as Chonka’s introduction to that culture. Thanks to a program at the University of California-Santa Barbara, from which he earned an M.A. in French literature, Chonka spent a year in the early 1980s teaching English at the University of Bordeaux. “It was a great honor, a great position,” he recalled.
Declaring Bordeaux “the mother lode of wine culture,” Chonka said, “It is the pre-eminent wine region. It touts the most expensive, most recognized wines in the world.”Certainly it produced the “most prestigious wine” Chonka has ever enjoyed: a 1973 Château Latour, purchased during his year-long stay in France. “I shared the bottle with friends. I bought it in 1983, and we drank it a year or two later, so it had 12 years of cellaring. It cost $40-50 a bottle. These days, you can’t get a Château Latour of any vintage for less than $1000.”
The self-educated wine enthusiast has acquired his expertise through what he refers to as “experiential investigation” and characterized himself as “always learning.” He devoted four days of a recent vacation, for example, to exploring the central Loire. In addition to sampling the region’s cabernet francs and crémants — the generic for French sparkling wines produced outside Champagne — Chonka toured the maze of deep, intricate cellars carved into the area’s porous soil. Used throughout history for different purposes, including hiding from Nazis, they now store wine.
Far from limiting himself to France or even to Europe, Chonka has studied wines from around the world. He speaks knowledgeably of the difference between old world wines — “minerally” and “made to pair with foods” — and those of the new world, which are “fruit forward” and enjoyable “without the need for anything else.”
Tastings at MALT reflect the breadth of his expertise and have included bottles from Spain, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand. Chonka has offered introductory surveys of a country’s wines but likes to follow up with classes focused on specific regions. After presenting an overview of Italy, for example, he devoted separate classes to Tuscany, the Piedmont and the Veneto. “Usually I select one particular region and concentrate on it.”
Although “Sparkling Wines of California” will not focus on a particular region, Chonka plans to showcase those wineries with ties to French Champagne houses, such as Napa’s Domaine Chandon, established in 1973 by Moët et Chandon.
A typical tasting includes six or seven bottles, depending on cost and class size. While some of the wines may be dry, the instruction definitely isn’t. “I ask people to bring hors d’oeuvres and foods to nosh on,” Chonka says. “We try to make it a social affair as well as a learning experience.”
Classes attract both newbies and knowledgeable enthusiasts. “I welcome all levels,” Chonka declared. “Everyone is a neophyte at some time.” That definitely includes Chonka himself. “I didn’t grow up in a family that drank wine,” the Chester County native admitted. Reluctantly he identified a New York State pink catawba as the first wine he remembers tasting. “My brother got hold of a bottle. It was in the fridge. I took a swig and thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t too bad. Kinda sweet and light. A little stronger than beer.'”
Another embarrassing incident from his teen years involved “going to a party and chilling the red wine, which basically killed the experience. It was a good French wine, but we didn’t know how to drink it properly. We thought you drank everything cold.”
One of Chonka’s aims is to provide students with a grounding in different styles and regions so as to minimize the stress of ordering wine in a restaurant. Wine anxiety, he acknowledges, is “very real.” Even those conversant in the field can feel overwhelmed by an extensive wine list. “You don’t need to know vintages, châteaux and so forth.”
By day, Chonka, 56, evaluates and selects journals in the physical, chemical and earth sciences for inclusion in data bases produced by Thomson Reuters. The sciences offered “better opportunities, more responsibility and more of a future.” Having double-majored in chemistry and French at Beloit College, he was able to make the switch.
Looking ahead, the enthusiast plans to make his own wine sometime in the next year. At The Wine Room of Cherry Hill, he explained, “You make it from scratch; they get the grapes in. I’m also considering doing a blog.”
Rodney’s next MALT class is “Sparkling Wines of California” on Tuesday, June 18, 7 to 9 p.m., at Cliveden Carriage House, 6401 Germantown Ave. More information at 215-843-6333 or www.mtairylearningtree.org