People often ask me how they can learn about wine. They usually do so nervously and with some self-deprecation, as if they believe there’s a secret door behind which we wine experts meet to sniff corks and wave monogrammed hankies at each other. That belief is, of course, entirely correct. “Filthy peasants,” I think, as I direct them to the nearest grocery store where they can find a nice White Zinfandel in which to drown their sorrows.
I kid. Here’s what I actually tell people when they ask that question: Pay attention to what you’re drinking. Ninety percent of what you need to know about wine can be found on the bottle, and that knowledge can be winnowed down to four facts: the winery, the grapes, the vintage and the region. Or who, what, when and where. If you have to add why to that list, then there’s just no helping you.
Who is not drastically important to the beginner, but it does help to be able to properly identify a wine. Think of it like a person’s name. If you meet a “Mr. John Q. Smith,” you would do well not to refer to him as “the guy with the nose and lips” or just “Mr.” Similarly, a bottle of wine called “Chateau Haut-Brion” would be hard to locate in the wine shop if you asked for “the one with a cork and label” or called it “Chateau whatever.” Don’t worry about mispronouncing the name; most of us experts don’t speak French all that well, either.
What is arguably the most important fact about a wine. With American wines, the grape varietals are most likely printed on the label. European wines will take more work, as the varietals are usually not listed; you have to know (or research) the grapes that are commonly grown in that region. Avoid knocking it back while screaming, in a witty reference to Sideways, “Look at me! I’m drinking some fucking Merlot!” Temper your excitement and consider what that particular Merlot is like. One bottle of Burgundy will not make you an expert on Pinot Noir, but taking time to examine how that particular grape tastes, smells, and feels, and how those characteristics remain constant from bottle to bottle, is a very good start.
All you need to know about Where wine is grown is that Australian wines aren’t very good. Ha, ha! I am clearly kidding once again. But with a little effort, you can reach a basic understanding of the different wine- producing countries. Some countries, like the United States, grow pretty much every grape there is, but most others stick to a few that they’ve perfected. Although there are countless variables like soil, climate and topography that determine which grapes are grown where, knowing the basic grapes and wine styles of a country or region can make navigating a wine list much easier.
Last, and perhaps least, we have When. Don’t get me wrong: Vintage matters. Some years are excrementally bad, like 2002 in France’s Southern Rhone, or 2003 in Virginia. When you’re starting out, however, it’s not necessary to obsess about good or bad vintages. Modern winemaking techniques have made truly bad vintages less common. Nor is it necessary to worry too much about the age of a wine. There is an exquisite joy to drinking older wines, but the fact is, unless you’re spending a lot of money per bottle, most wines today are meant to be poured upon release.
It’s just that easy! Well, maybe not that easy. The world of wine is a treasure trove of esoteric geekery the likes of which your average Trekkie cannot fathom. But anyone can learn about wine, and it doesn’t require gob-smacking amounts of money or fancy clothes. It does necessitate using the word “fruity” disturbingly often, however, but we’ve all got to make sacrifices. Welcome to the Wine Club. Now grab a hankie and start sniffin’!