The Basics of Enjoying Wine 101.4

(This is the last installment of a four-part question and answer series about wine. To read part III, click here.)

by Jeff Siegel*

OK, tell me about sweet wine. Every time I order a glass of white zinfandel at a restaurant, people make fun of me.

That’s because wine snobs like to make fun of people. The most important rule of wine – the only rule of wine – is that the best wine is the wine you like. Josh Wesson, the founder of the Best Cellars wine chain, put it best: “Would you eat vanilla ice cream, even if you didn’t like it, because I told you to eat vanilla ice cream? Of course not. You’d eat chocolate. Why should wine be any different?”

That’s easy enough to say. But how do I find out what I like?

Drink a glass, of course. If you like it, then buy something similar. If you don’t like it, pour it down the drain and try something else. Wine is not rocket science. You don’t have to go to school to learn how to like it. If it tastes good to you, that’s enough. Start with inexpensive wines, and work your way up. And don’t be afraid to try different wines. Just because you like white zinfandel doesn’t mean that’s the only wine you can drink. Try a rose or a German riesling. They are similar to white zinfandel, but more sophisticated.

Well, I suppose. But there are so many wines to choose from. How do I get started?
Walk into a wine store, or a grocery store with a good wine department, and ask for help. Do you want to learn about reds? Whites? About a region? About wine for picnics? About inexpensive wines? Don’t try to learn everything in one day. It can’t be done, for one thing, and it’s not any fun either.

Tell the staff how much you want to spend, if you have any preferences (dry vs. sweet, red vs. white, and the like), and ask them to recommend something. In addition, ask if they offer classes or tastings. These days, as wine becomes more popular, more and more stores do those things. They’re cheap and easy ways to taste even more wine.

How can you tell if your retailer is any good? If they don’t tell you what wine you should drink, but ask you what you want to drink. It’s your money – don’t let a snooty retailer with inventory to move make you buy something you don’t want to buy. And if you buy something you don’t like on a retailer’s recommendation, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell them the next time you’re in the store.

That makes sense. But aren’t there some simple rules of thumb, just to start with?
Sure. Remember these, and you’ll always be able to come up with a decent bottle in a pinch. First, all wine doesn’t have to be a varietal like chardonnay or cabernet. The best values, especially for inexpensive wine, will be blended from several different grapes. It’s very difficult to find a terrific cabernet for less than $10, but there are a dozen red blends that will do the same thing the cabernet does for one-third less. Second, younger is better, since less expensive wines were not made to last as long as their more expensive cousins. Stay away from red wines older than 3 and white wines older than 2. It’s better to have a wine that’s a little too young than a little too old.

That should you get you started. The rest is up to you. The most fun part about wine is the journey – so much wine to taste, and so little time to do it.

*Jeff Siegel is the wine columnist for the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, and Advocate magazines in Dallas.

(To read this series from the beginning, please click here.)

(Photo by tore urnes of Oslo, Norway via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Anonymous said...

it really helps if you find a small family restaurant where the owner is knowledgeable about wines and has reasonable prices.

We had a corner restaurant near where we live who had a small wine list she changed over time.

We used to just ask her (the owner was a lady) which wine she would drink with dinner and over the course of a year or two of going to dinner every sunday night at this place I managed to acquire a feeling for wines and which ones i enjoyed the most.

it helped a lot that this lady did not kill her customers on price..

Jeff Siegel said...

Periodically, when I want my head to hurt, I'll argue with restaurant people about their wine prices, which are usually too high by at least a third. Most restaurants in the States charge $24 for an $8 bottle of grocery store wine. This isn't criminal, but it's pretty close.

Restaurants do this because they can. They like the 3-1 markup, not understanding that they might sell 2 bottles if the markup was 1 1/2 or 2 to 1. But try as I might, I never win this argument.

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