By Mac McCarthy, Zenergo
We’ll do this tutorial mostly in bullet-list format — You’re busy, we’re busy, right?
Wine is a complicated subject so it’s no wonder it’s baffling if you haven’t made a study of it. After all:
- Wine is made from living fruit, so hard to predict exactly how it will taste.
- It’s made from various grapes with different flavors.
- It’s grown in a variety of soils, countries, climates, and weather conditions–and the weather changes from year to year.
- Wine growers have choice of various methods of growing, tricky decisions about when to pick the grapes.
- Winemaker has many choices as to exactly when and how to crush, how long to leave the skins in contact with the juice.
- Many choices as to type of yeast, type of barrels, how long to ferment, how long to age, how much sugar vs alcohol to allow.
- Blending different wines produces still more variety.
So no surprise when there are so many different wines, flavors, styles, so it seems you’ll never catch up.
You won’t ever catch up, but it sure can be fun trying!
And then there are the pompous twits, who try to intimidate you.
Don’t be intimidated! It’s a beverage!
Don’t know much about wine? Most people don’t!
The great thing is: Learn a little, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it. You will be surprised how many people know less than you’ve learned!
So just follow the THREE SACRED RULES OF WINE TASTING which I just made up:
Rule 1: Like What You Like
Don’t like wine? Alcohol, tannins the usual cause for young people. You still have taste buds! Don’t be embarrassed. Eventually your taste buds will die like everybody else’s, and you can tolerate that harshness.
Anyway, if you find something you like, drink it; if you find something you don’t like, don’t drink it. Don’t force yourself to drink more than you like of what you don’t like.
Rule 2: Learn More by Tasting, Tasting, Tasting! Try, try, try. You will never run out of new things to learn. (This is the most fun rule, isn’t it!)
Rule 3: Don’t become a Pompous Twit. Be nice! Remember when you were a wine novice!
Bonus Rule: Don’t be a wine bore, either; not everyone is as interested as you are.
WINE SELECTION: HOW TO CHOOSE A WINE IN A RESTAURANT
When you get stuck ordering wine for the table, just keep it simple:
1. If you don’t know anything about wine, get someone else to choose.
“Hey, Bob over there knows everything about wine — Let him choose.” Bob can deny it but he’ll be stuck. Heh heh.
2. If you get stuck, ask what everyone else likes. Let them argue among themselves.
3. When in doubt, get a White. It has no tannins, often less alcohol, so it’s easier on everyone.
You can order Chardonnay, but try a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Gris/Grigio.
4. When in doubt, ask the waiter “what do people like?”
5. Don’t order White Zinfandel, so you don’t get laughed at. White Zin tastes fine, but it’s a cheaply made wine that more knowledgeable people disdain, so skip it. On the other hand, “Rose” is a newly hip wine now, so ordering one of the pinks can be a good outflanking move.
What’s a Rose? It’s a light-duty Red: The skins on red-skinned grapes give the juice its red color during the crush–the longer it soaks in the skins, the redder the wine. Just take the skins out sooner than usual, and you have a Rose. Less skin contact=less red color, less tannins, and uh less flavor but easier drinking. Most Roses are drier than White Zin is.
6. Rule: If you don’t know much about wines, don’t get experimental! Not in a business dinner, anyway; with your newbie wine friends, go ahead, though!
7. Rule: When in doubt, buy it BY THE GLASS. Reduces your losses if you don’t like it. (Sometimes the waiter will even replace the glass with something else if you don’t like that one. Don’t abuse this privilege.) Besides, bottles of wines are wildly overpriced in all restaurants.
8. Rule: If someone else pays, or you’re splitting the tab, don’t over-buy! Get something from the middle of the list.
9. Rule: At a restaurant or bar, don’t buy the most expensive wine. It’s stupidly overpriced and not worth it!
10a. HOW TO PRONOUNCE FRENCH WINES:
Don’t bother. They skip half the letters, and use this accent.
10b. HOW TO PRONOUNCE GERMAN WHITE WINES
You can’t. Even though they pronounce all the letters, it turns out they’ve got letters you never heard of.
11. How to Ask for Wines in a Wine Store (or bar)
“Hello there, I want to buy a wine and I don’t know much about them, so I could use your guidance. Here’s what I like:
“I like reds.”/”I like whites.”
“I like heavy-bodied (big) wines.”/”I like light-bodied wines.”
“I don’t like it too alcoholic (“hot”).”
“I do/don’t like sweet wines/dry wines.”
“I don’t like too much tannin (‘pucker’).”
“I don’t like too much acid (‘tang’).” More acid is excellent for food wines, by the way, because it’s “palate-cleansing.”
A typical beginning wine taster would likely be happiest asking for this: “I’d like an inexpensive (‘$10,’ or ‘$10 to $20′) red/white wine that’s ‘approachable,’ (easy to drink for someone still learning about wines), not too heavy or tannic, please.”
Main rule is: Reds with red meat; whites with white meat/fish
Red meat is beef, steak, pork chops, any barbecued or heavily sauced meat.
White meat is chicken, fish, pork chops (swings both ways).
Reason: Tannins in red wine match tannins in red meat.
Delicate flavors of chicken, fish aren’t overwhelmed by white wines.
EVEN BETTER: Have European-style red wines with meals:
–Lighter red wines like Burgundy, Italian reds.
–Reason: IT’S A BEVERAGE!
By contrast, American-style wines are COCKTAILS. Because we don’t drink wine with all our meals, we drink them at cocktail parties in place of mixed drinks….
So don’t try to hard to match American reds with foods. Remember my mantra: “What goes best with a Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel? Why, another bottle of Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel, of course!”
With Chinese food: Try German white wines: Rieslings are the classic. French Beaujolais work well too. Any wine that’s light and crispy.
Thanksgiving: No hope, too many tastes; bring what you like, pretend you know what you’re doing. Remember! Nobody else knows much about wine either!
WINE ETIQUETTE AT A DINNER
Much rigmarole. Here’s what to do at a fancy or business dinner if you’re stuck being the one ordering the wine:
1. If you order by the glass, it will just be served to all of you.
2. If you order a bottle of wine, by the bottle, the waiter will first show you the bottle. Nod wisely, as if you know what that means.
He will then open the bottle. If he offers you the cork (very rare these days), wave it off.
He will then pour YOU a little. Give it a swirl, a sniff, a taste. Then nod approvingly. He will serve the rest.
OR, if you’re gutsy, just wave your hand and say, “It’s fine, serve everyone.” This makes it seem like you are so beyond all that.
THE REASON they offer it to you to taste before serving the rest of the table: a.) To ensure it’s what you ordered (but how would you know?) b.) To ensure it’s ok (but how would you know?) c.) To ensure it’s not “corked” – actually, you WILL know this! If it seems to smell odd (for a wine), frown – then ask the waiter “Would you check this please?” and hand him the glass. If it’s corked, the waiter will know and replace the bottle immediately. If not, he’ll say it seems fine. Say OK and let him pour.
3. When it’s time to drink:
a. Hold glass by stem so it doesn’t get warmed up.
b. Swirl to air it out. This releases some of the alcohol and some bad aromas. (That’s why you serve yourself less than half a glass.)
c. Sniff. You may learn to enjoy what you smell, over time. SOME wines smell WONDERFUL! Many don’t smell like anything. Oh well.
d. Sip. Just a bit. See if you like it.
e. If so, continue to sip. DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH. This is a SIN anytime, but especially at a business dinner.
f. If you don’t like it, just put down the glass and ignore it for the rest of the evening, or from time to time pick up the glass and take a tiny sip.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WINE GLASSES,
1. Lots of mumbo jumbo, mostly b.s.
2. But not completely: The bottom line: Thin-walled glasses make wine taste better than thick-walled, like beer glasses, jugs, or water glasses (also better than paper/plastic cups).
3. BUT! Wine in anything is better than no wine!
4. FOR YOURSELF, go to BevMo and buy wine glasses.
Riedel is most famous, also expensive — $10 a glass!
But there are competitors at much lower prices.
Don’t worry about special glasses for each wine type (Bordeaux, Pinot, Cabernet, Zinfandel, etc., etc . !!) — Note that the glasses aren’t MARKED so you won’t remember which glass goes with what.
BETTER IDEA! Go to IKEA to the section where they sell glasses
Get a DOZEN pretty decent glasses for $10-12!! Get two cases and you can throw a party!
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ABOUT.COM – LOOK UP “WINE”
Guides for beginners, even how to pronounce French wine labels
Also Dummies books on French Wine, Red Wine, White Wine, Italian Wine, and Champagne. Author McCarthy (no relation) has also written other wine guidebooks.
SAVVYTASTE.COM – Slogan is “Find the Wines You Like!”
JOIN A GROUP — See for example:
Us! ZENERGO.COM has groups in your area, and people you can friend as wine-tasting buddies, also events. And if you don’t see one near you — start one and invite people in your area to join!
VISITING WINERIES IN CALIFORNIA
–SKIP NAPA, it’s so touristy that they are overwhelmed, overpriced, and don’t serve the good stuff (too many young tourists just trying to get drunk; it must be depressing).
–TRY SONOMA, the next valley to the West — just as many wineries, just as tasty, less expensive, less crowded, and less rude. The old town of Sonoma is very pleasant too.
–EVEN BETTER: TRY LIVERMORE, about 45 minutes east of San Francisco, out 580 towards the Central Valley; has some of the oldest vineyards in California. More than 40 wineries, under-discovered, unbelievably tasty wines, not overpriced, and glad to see you.
–EVEN *MORE* BETTER–TRY THE (San Francisco) EAST BAY URBAN WINE TRAIL! Believe it or not, there are a dozen “urban wineries” in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and San Leandro — in former warehouses and airplane hangers. The wines are wonderful, some you’ll never see anywhere else, prices are reasonable, and they love tourists! Check http://eastbayvintners.com/ for winery locations and hours.
And the two dozen Santa Cruz Mountains Wineries (see http://www.scmwa.com/index.htm for maps and details) produce some of the best wines in the country! Worth the drive, it’s about an hour south of San Francisco.
This hardly scratches the surface! California has famous wineries in Santa Barbara County (“Sideways” anybody?), down in San Diego County, and up in the Sierra Foothills. Just think: Every time you come to California, you can visit another wine-country area, with completely different wines and different vibes! That’s why your California friends are smiling all the time — it’s not the weather, it’s the wine!
VISIT WINERIES IN OTHER STATES!
That’s an order, not a headline!
There are commercial (=real) wineries in every state in the United States. Even Alaska.
Most are pretty doggone good. Some are, uh, not doggone good. But it’s fun to visit and try! Make your own list of good/not good! (And send it to us. We’ll post it. Or post it yourself, on your wine group that you create on Zenergo! Maybe we’ll put it on the Wine Page for everybody else to read too!
Just remember: Learning about wine will take you the rest of your life. That’s the good news! And your life will probably be longer because of it!
See the other three posts in this series:
Copyright Michael “Mac” McCarthy 2011, all rights reserved. The four posts in this Wine 101 series are now available combined as an Amazon Single for your Kindle. Click the link for more info.