Drink Deeply of Knowledge Beaujolais Festival and Other Tastings Offer Excuse to Soak Up Some Wine Wisdom

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Malolactic fermentation and phenols. Vinification and extended lees contact. Who can comprehend it, this lexicon of wine?

"It's only grape juice," comforted John Nash, part owner of The Wine Merchant in Clayton and someone who understands the complex terminology that swirls among aficionados.

"Wine is very intimidating, mainly because, in the past, elitists established a hoity-toity aura around it," Nash said. Like most of the finer wine shops in the area, The Wine Merchant plays host to regular tastings. Pat rons can sample from several varieties, all free. "At our tastings, we take a more Euro pean approach to drinking wine, em phasizing that it's a beverage that can be consumed with your average meal," Nash said. Employees are on hand to answer questions and make suggestions. But Nash said there's only one way to really know wine. "You can take lots of classes and read all about it, but the only way you really learn about wine is by drinking wine." On a recent Saturday, a half-dozen shoppers sampled char donnays and nibbled on cheese and marinated green beans. A stocky, wiry-haired man on crutches hobbled into the shop. A couple of paces behind him strolled a young woman carrying the tattered blue case that holds the Strad ivarius w hich never leaves Itzhak Perlman's side. The world-famous violinist tasted a chardonnay and then pointed to a bottle of red behind the counter. "How much for that one?" At the reply of $699, Perlman's right hand jerked up and clutched his neck as he mock-choked. Perlman settled for a `92 Chateau de Beaucastel at $46.99. Today, Nash joins wine-shop owners around the world in celebrating Beaujolais Nouveau Day. "It's a commemoration of the new wine from the province of Beaujolais in France. It's wine that's bottled and ready to be drunk just three to four weeks after the grapes are picked," Nash said. The Wine Merchant has ordered 75 cases of the new wine and ex pects them to last but a week. Free samples of Beaujolais Nouveau are available at the shop at 20 S. Hanley Rd. in Clayton from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today. The shop's regular wine tastings are from noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday. Here are a few other shops in the area that offer regular wine tastings: Brandt's, 6525 Delmar, plans an all-day party today to celebrate the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau with tastings of three French and two California varieties. …