I used to sell wine for a living. This does not make me a wine expert. Wine has been around for thousands of years, and very few people are experts at it. The few who are experts are called sommeliers and make a metric buttload (1 metric buttload = 2.2 American buttloads) of money because of the rarity of their knowledge. That being said, here are a few things I have picked up in my time dealing with wine:
- WINE IS FUN! A lot of people are afraid of trying wine or experimenting with wine because there is a mystique surrounding it that it is the drink of rich people, it's too complicated, etc. Now that wine is sold everywhere from bait shops (I'm not kidding) to grocery stores to plant nurseries (still not kidding), everyone has access to wine, and, given the huge variety of wine and number of winemakers, you can find a wine you love in your price range (more on what your price range should be in the next bit). As for being complicated, I'm going to help you with that. Don’t worry, I’ll speak slowly and avoid big, wine-y words like vinification, malolactic fermentation, oenology, etc. (etc. is the abbreviation for the Latin phrase et cetera which translates as “and a bunch of other stuff”). I’m not dumbing anything down because I have low expectations of my audience; it’s just that the wine world has remained exclusive by adding a lot of pomp (but no circumstance) to its terminology. As Johnny Carson once said, “Never use a great big word when a little dirty one will do.”
- WHAT EXACTLY IS WINE? One of the best, yet most round-about ways to answer this question is by telling you what ISN’T wine. Things like wine coolers, Boone’s Farm, Mad Dog, etc. are NOT wine in the true sense of the word. They have some kind of grape product in them, but that’s like calling antifreeze Kool Aid because they both have fun colors and contain water. Most of them are malt beverages or unholy concoctions involving, at best, 3 grapes getting chemically raped by “distilled spirits.” Nobody likes rape and/or the science of chemistry, so do yourself a favor and skip the whole lot of them. They’re fun if you want to re-live your high school prom and/or subsequent embarrassing loss of virginity, but they are not wine. Wine is the product of fermented (aged) grape juice, sugar (sometimes), yeast, and water. If other ingredients are added in heavy quantities, it becomes a “wine product”. Interestingly enough, sake (Japanese rice wine) is NOT a true wine. It has no grapes in it, and it is produced by brewing – just like beer. While sake has its place as an adult beverage, I usually keep it in my garage in case I have a carburetor that needs cleaning. (Handy fact that I haven’t bothered to look up: Japanese people do not bow to each other as a courtesy. They do it because they are retching after downing some sake. That’s also why they talk as if they have the dry-heaves.)
- WHAT IS A GOOD PRICE RANGE FOR WINE? Now that we’ve excluded sake and liquid roofies (industry term for stuff like Wild Irish Rose and Boone’s) from your shopping list, let’s talk about money. A reasonable price range that will include a lot of good (and some great) wines is $5-12. Wine trade magazines such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Guns & Ammo & Wine, Wino of Fortune (I may be making some of those titles up) will have you believe that a $50 bottle of wine is “reasonable”. If you consider that reasonable, then you have more money than brains and probably had something to do with this recession we find ourselves in. Conversely, anything under $5 is generally not worth drinking on a long-term basis. Yes, you’ve probably heard people praising stuff like “Two-Buck Chuck” (Charles Shaw Chardonnay, available only at Trader Joe’s, and it actually retails for $3.25 now), and the various store brands carried by Wal-Mart and Target, but you will hate yourself if you start buying it by the case. (BTW, a case of wine is universally considered to be 12 bottles. And the standard bottle size is 750ml, or a little over 25 ounces.) Some of my favorite wines are right around $7 or $8. You can find at least one or two good wines in just about every category for that price.
- WHAT IS THE BEST WINE? There are wines that are generally regarded in the wine world as being superior to other wines, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to like them...especially not the casual wine drinker. There is only one firm rule as to which wine is the best: Whatever your favorite wine is, it is the best wine on the market. Period. Actually, make that an exclamation mark.
- OKAY...SO WHICH WINE IS THE BEST FOR ME? If you know absolutely nothing about wine, and have not had the benefit of being able to try different wines on someone else's dime, here are a few things you can do to get started:
- Try wine on someone else's dime. Almost every wine shop and store that sells wine and has a wine consultant/steward on staff has weekly wine tastings. This includes grocery stores, Fresh Market, Whole Foods, World Market, Trader Joe's, Wegman's, etc. Friday afternoons/evenings are the most popular times to do these, so keep an eye open for them. Most tastings are done by at least one person who knows something about wine and can answer your questions. Also, there are usually several wines available to try, so you can get a feel for a variety of wines at once. (Special Note: Forget what you have seen about the "proper" way to taste wine. Leave the sniffing, swirling, sipping, chewing, holding it up to the light, gargling, etc. at home. You won't drink the wine this way at home, so why taste it out this way?) And even if you think you only like red wine or only like white wine, TRY THEM ALL. It also helps if you keep notes about what you have tasted: brand, vintage, type of wine, what country/region it's from, what you liked about it, etc. (We'll explore this habit later…right now, actually.
- It also helps to keep notes about what you have tasted: brand, vintage (the year printed on the bottle, which is actually the year in which the grapes were picked and not necessarily when the wine was bottled), type of wine, what country/region it's from, what you liked about it, etc. There are hundreds of wine "varietals" (types of grapes: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc.), DOC's (specific geographic areas used to define a type of wine), wine makers, etc. Once you do enough tasting, you will realize that not all wines of similar type taste the same. For example, chardonnay is one of the most popular wines in the world. Despite its global popularity, it has a broad range of flavors. California and French chardonnays are aged in oak barrels and usually have a creamy/buttery taste with a wood taste in the background. Southern Hemisphere chards (South America, South Africa. Antarctica, Australia, etc.) are usually fermented in stainless steel and have a crisper, more citrus taste to them. That's why it's important to note where a wine is from when you taste it. By international agreement, the wine’s country of origin HAS to be printed on the bottle. Usually, the bottle will also tell you in which specific region the grapes were grown. Once you get more advanced in the world of wine, you will actually be able to tell the difference between a Sonoma chardonnay and one from Napa (two counties in California that border each other). It’s not a necessary skill to be able to do so, but it impresses the hell out of people. (On a side note: If you are pretty new to wine, I can almost guarantee that you will prefer sweeter wines. Aside from generally having a lower alcohol content, sweet wines are perfectly OK. I encourage you to start moving to drier wines as you progress. If you find that you don’t like them at all, then try to go for the sweet wines that are naturally sweet and don’t just have a bunch of sugar thrown in before bottling. Moscato and riesling are good, naturally sweet wines.)
- Once you find the type of wine you like, start cheap (no less than $5!) in that category and experiment. If you discover that you like California cabernet sauvignon (a red wine), go to the section in your store of choice, find the cheapest one you can find and try it. If you don't like it, you can dump it and not feel bad…or you can cook with it (Allrecipes.com has thousands of recipes involving wine). Keep experimenting with the cheaper ones. If you want something a little more expensive, feel free to ask the wine steward/consultant/sommelier, etc. to help you. I can almost guarantee you that you will find your favorite in no time at all and for less than you thought you would have to spend. Oh, it also helps to find several types of wine you like. You can seriously blow out your taste buds if you keep drinking the same thing over and over. Wine and women are pretty similar: Even the best ones get boring if they’re the only ones you try. At least sampling different wines won’t end up in divorce…usually.
~Jon the Wineaux