So, you're out at a casual restaurant or low-key bar with some friends. There's a new guy – a friend of a friend – who's sitting at the end of the table. You can faintly hear him rambling some nonsense about politics or art but you can't bring yourself to pay attention. He's deliberately styled, wearing thin little glasses despite his 20/20 vision and sporting a t-shirt/leisure suit/jacket combo and sipping some dark, burgundy-colored wine.
Then it happens.
Someone who is drinking that same wine says, "This is good." He retorts with a parking lot full of garbage about its flat bouquet, its poor year and the uninspiring aromas. He might say that it's "flabby" or unrefined. Then he starts talking about the most amazing cabernet he had while studying in Paris. And you're like, "This guy sucks."
If I seem as though I'm drawing this scenario from a specific personal experience, I'm not. But, you get the point.
If you've never seen the movie "Sideways," first of all, you should, and second of all, most people's appreciation for wine can be summed up by one phrase uttered by Thomas Hayden Church's character Jack: "I don't know, tastes pretty good to me."
The fact is, while the process of making wine is highly scientific and infinitely nuanced, we drinkers of it do not necessarily need to know all that much about it in order to say, "Dang, that's some good wine."
Given the life cycle of wine and the natural, un-manufactured way in which it comes to fruition, it is quite fun to talk about it. But, in doing so, it's beneficial to know a couple of things and to not try and impress anyone because, odds are, they probably won't much care.
Step No. 1: Decide what you like and don't apologize for it. I'm not talking about grapes or regions or years. Just as simple as red, white, rose, sweet, bitter, fruity, dry. Focusing on a couple of these categories will help you to discover, in time, what really pleases your palate. It'll probably change several times as you try different things.
I used to only drink white wine. I hated reds. I thought they were too dry, too heavy and too bitter. Now, I've really shifted toward them. The worst thing you can do is carry on with some dry cabernet or sickly sweet riesling that you hate just because you're in the company of wine bon vivants and you feel like you're supposed to think it's great. If you don't like it, by all means, speak up.
Step No. 2: Many wine aficionados will often talk about the importance of reading labels. This doesn't do much if you have no idea what you're reading. If aging makes a difference to you and you happen to know that 2006 was a good year for pinot noir in California then, by all means, search out those wines. But, most people that read wine labels in the store look like they're broke down on the side of the highway staring under the hood of their car.
I know a lot of people (who wouldn't want me to reveal them) who buy wine based on how cool the label looks. As far as I'm concerned, this is a perfectly acceptable strategy. Another friend has stated that she avoids wines with pictures of animals on the label. Whatever works. After all, this method categorically validates or rebukes the efforts of a vineyard's marketing team.
Whatever you glean from a wine label will depend on Step One. What do you want? What are you looking for? One of the first things I look for is alcohol content. "How impaired will I be after consuming this wine?" You shouldn't be ashamed to admit this either. If you want some guidance in pedantic label reading in the effort to ascertain nifty information to later dispense upon friends, you've come to the wrong place.
Having said that, if you've become a fan of a grape, regions do become important. Obviously certain areas are known for certain grapes. For your information, here's a nuts-and-bolts crash course on wine regions.
The best pinot noir is going to come from the Burgundy region of France or from California. Chardonnay is a neutral and resilient grape that grows everywhere; however, it originated also in the Burgundy region. In recent years, however, it has become more identified with California. Even the most novice wine drinker knows that riesling is German – specifically, from the Rhine. Merlot, another flourisher like chardonnay, will be at its best from Napa or Sonoma, the Bordeaux region, Chile, or Australia. Cabernet sauvignon is another Bordeaux grape that grows well in California, Tuscany and Australia. Finally, to round out the big six, sauvignon blanc is best associated with New Zealand but can also be grown in California, Bordeaux or the Loire Valley.
This is not the "end all," but it may help you to decide when choosing between a handful of wines.
Step No. 3: You don't need to break the bank. Most people, whether they'd readily admit it or not, believe that the higher the price tag, the better the wine. Not true. I refuse to buy a wine for more than $20 and even that's high. Usually, I hang around the $11.99 rack, and if something is on special for $6, I'm all over it. In the words of my wife, "Some of the best wines are $5."
Wine prices are based on availability, age and exclusivity. To wit, a cheap wine is not a bad wine.
Economic pricing equals greater supply. Now, don't sell your soul. You still want something good. The wine in a box or the big jug – unless you're cooking with it – should probably just stay on the shelf continuing to collect dust as it has for the last year.
If you really get into wine, you can research vineyards that are small and produce great wines that price their wines reasonably in order to move them. Let's face it, a $60 bottle of wine is more of a status symbol than anything. I defy you to tell the difference between it and something comparable that was a quarter of the price.
Step No. 4: You know that whole swirl, smell, sip, swish, spit thing? Don't ever do that in the company of honest, hardworking folk unless you are actually looking to get eye rolls. That process is reserved either for grape growers that are trying to pinpoint what their wine is and how to adjust their planting, growing and harvesting or a sommelier who is hired specifically to know everything possible about wine and pair said wine with food for the world's finest chefs and restaurants.
As for you and me, three words: "down the hatch." It may take a couple gulps but once the tannins and the acid give way to that tingle in your mouth, you'll be able to pick up all those flavors, the fruit and the body, and you will be no worse off for it (save for the next morning).
Step No. 5: Definitely eat food with your wine. This is truthfully where good wine shows its worth. Great food with the right wine can really take each other to another level. If you don't believe me, go to the store and buy a $7-$10 bottle of pinot noir and some simple button mushrooms. Saute the mushrooms in a bit of butter with salt and pepper until they brown. Make sure to space the mushrooms out; if you crowd the pan they won't get any color. Then hit the pan with just a tablespoon or so of brandy. Eat those with intermittent sips of the pinot. You'll think you died and went to heaven.
The next time you order Chinese take out, run to the store and get a bottle of Gewürztraminer, which is a sweet white wine from the Alsace region of France, located on the west bank of the upper Rhine adjacent to Germany and Switzerland. Trust me, the marriage is harmonious.
This is where a wine seller can really help you out, too. Engage them. They love talking about their wines. We've all heard that white wine goes with fish and red wine goes with meat, but there are some exceptions to that rule. For example, salmon actually pairs better with merlot because it has a high fat content. And while you'd typically pair most shellfish with a riesling or sauvignon blanc, cabernet pairs really well with steamed mussels that have been drenched in butter and garlic. If you're ordering chicken in a restaurant you'll probably go straight for the chardonnay, and if it's a chicken breast you're about to dig into I'd say your instincts are right on. On the other hand, if it's a chicken leg or game bird, you might consider a pinot noir.
Of course, the whole point of this guide is that these are not hard and fast rules. Really, it's more of a one-step guide – that one step being, know what you like.
As a chef, I do find it important to respect the process of wine making. It's a wonderful institution. Wines can be incredibly layered and alive. For this reason, they deserve just the briefest moment of hesitation after uncorking while you say, "Hey there, little guy." You don't have to let anyone hear that, mind you.
Recently, a friend was telling me that he didn't understand why you couldn't combine different wines the way you would mix a cocktail. I was appalled by this notion and went on to explain the life of wine and the development of flavors over time and the weather and the fruit and so on and so forth.
His response was wonderfully pithy and became the inspiration for this article. He looked at me and said,
"Yes, but what I'm saying is, bloobity, blah, blah, blah."