Enjoying Wine – for Beginners

I’m fortunate enough to live in Northern California’s “Wine Country”, where vineyards are the major agricultural crop, and wineries seem to be everywhere. To many of us, enjoying good wine is a basic pleasure. But most people don’t have the luxury of attending wine tasting classes at the local Junior College, or simply visiting local wineries to sample the latest vintage. What is such an unfortunate person to do?

Well, for those of you who think a Merlot is some type of mammal, I’m here to help! Don’t worry though, I won’t force you to memorize the names of the wine varietals, or even remember which are reds which are whites. In fact, my philosophy is to throw out all those old rules about red wine going with red meats, white wines going with fish or chicken. These may be good guidelines, but there is nothing that says you have to follow them. The number one rule to enjoying wine is to drink what you think tastes good!

But here are a few tips that I hope will make drinking wine an easier, more enjoyable endeavor. Let’s use the restaurant scenario. Most restaurants that serve wine also provide a wine list. The wine list will often describe the wines, and usually offer prices by the glass and by the bottle. If you are really lucky, the dinner menu will include wine pairing suggestions. Be aware of two things. The wine is always cheaper by the bottle than the glass, and price does not always reflect quality. Restaurants generally avoid buying really nasty, repulsive wines to offer their customers. So I suggest shopping with your wallet. What can you afford? If this is a first date, you may want to splurge. If it is just a nice night on the town, you may want to tone it down a bit. If your date orders chicken and prefers Chardonnay, great! Order an affordable bottle of Chardonnay and enjoy it with your steak. So what if the steak is a red meat that would probably go better with red wine? You’re there to enjoy your date, not just the wine. Or if you prefer, order by the glass. At least that way you can experiment a bit. Even better, order a bottle each of red and white.

Now to the important stuff. Carefully check your wine glasses before any wine is poured into them. Return any glass that has lipstick, a chipped edge, or soap residue. You want a nice, clean, crystal clear glass. Your waiter or waitress will normally show you the bottle of wine prior to opening it. What they are doing is offering the label for you to review to ensure that you are getting exactly what you ordered. Once you have developed more experience with wine, this step can be very important as there is a big difference in a XXwine, from XXwinery, vintage 1997 and vintage 2005. The two bottles may look exactly the same except for the year of the vintage, but there is a huge difference in the price and quality of the two. Even a one year difference in vintage can make a difference. Once you have approved the wine, the wine will be opened and sometimes the cork will be offered for your examination. No, you do not want to lick the wet end of the cork. In the old days, you would take a quick sniff of the cork to make sure the wine hasn’t gone bad. I still see some people sniff their corks, I generally just set it aside on the off chance I don’t finish my bottle and need to re-cork it before smuggling it out in a paper bag. If the wine has gone bad, you just tell your waiter and it will be replaced. Taking turns smelling the cork is not necessary. Next your waiter will pour just a small amount of wine into the glass of the person who ordered it. This is to give you a chance to sample the wine before forcing your guest to join you. Swirl it around just a bit, stick your nose in the glass, and take a whiff. Take a small sip, swish it around your mouth gently (don’t gargle). Now to be honest, this doesn’t do much more than tell you if the wine is bad or not. A bottle of wine, when first opened, hasn’t had time to “breathe” yet, so it won’t be at its best. Again, another ancient formality. If you approve, you can simply say “Thanks, this will be fine” and the waiter will pour your glasses. A sure sign of an inexperienced waiter/waitress is when they fill your glass to the top. This is a serious no-no as you will splash that wonderful wine all over the place if you attempt to swirl it. Traditionally, the glass should only be filled about half way.

So what is the swirling, sniffing, and tasting all about? Each wine has it’s own distinct smell or “bouquet”, color, and taste. Swirling the wine in your glass helps it to mix with the air. This makes it easier to smell, and opens the wine up for tasting. I’m here to tell you that smell doesn’t always make a huge difference. I have had wines that smelled great, but were disappointing when tasted, and wines that smelled like skunk weed that tasted wonderful. So what is all this nonsense about wines having a “trace of raspberry and a hint of chocolate” on the tongue? In fact, when you start looking for it, you too will find that the wines will have odors and flavors that remind you of other foods, fruits, and spices. It doesn’t mean that these ingredients were added to the wine, it is just one of those odd things about wine that people have come to notice and use as a way of describing the wine to others. It is also a great way to look and sound like a total wine snob and jerk. It can be fun when you are tasting a new wine with someone and you compare sensations to see how close the two of you are in terms of taste buds. But otherwise, who cares?

Finally, here is where this is all going. If you find a wine that just knocks your socks off, be sure to write down the name of the winery, the type of wine, and the vintage. Jot down the restaurant price. Then go to your local wine barn, liquor store, or whatever, and ask for that wine. You may or may not find it, but if you do, the price will probably be about half what the restaurant charges. Buy a case of it if you can. I can’t tell you how many times I have found a great, inexpensive wine, bought another bottle or two, then go back for more and find it is sold out. But – don’t get into the habit of buying only certain wines over and over again. Most of the fun is experimenting and finding new and different wines. Buy those you like, stock up your home supply to share with friends, and have fun!

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