How to (Sniff) Be a Wine Snob


Let's begin by coming to grips with a few of life's simple facts. A person who knows wine, and demonstrates his acumen at the dinner table in front of you and your friends, is one of the most intimidating people you'll ever meet. Admit it. This joker is right up there with that kind patrol officer at the Department of Motor Vehicles who rode along with you on your driving test.

And who can blame you for hating The Wine Snob (T.W.S). Isn't it amazing how T.W.S. always commandeers the wine list from the sommelier -- the wine steward to those who don't know this preferred term -- and then holds you hostage for the next half-hour while he makes comments about every bottle listed on every page? Well, I have some news for you. The only way to upend T.W.S. is to become one yourself. And you know what? Becoming one is a lot easier than you think.

My Friend, the Sommelier

OK, you say, "Why would I want to become one of these jerks?" Well, being T.W.S. has some decided advantages. For one, wine snobs know enough about wine that they can select an excellent bottle without paying a fortune for it. And wine snobs tend to be noticed at their favorite restaurants. In one of my SoHo haunts, the sommelier recognizes me and usually suggests a rare bottle with dinner. And believe it or not, more than once I've gotten it for free -- so I would come back and bring more of my deep-pocketed pals. (T.W.S. rarely picks up the tab.) Best yet, your local wine retailer likely will give you a special T.W.S. discount on some of his best bottles.

Now that you're sold on the benefits of wine snobbery, let's begin by ridding ourselves of all novice mistakes. The biggest is drinking wine at the wrong temperature, an especially hostile mistake if you have ordered a bottle at a restaurant and are now forcing your pals to guzzle this foul vino along with you.

Most people serve red wine too warm or white wine too cold. Most experts agree that reds should be served between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Whites should be served a little colder, usually around 50 degrees. A top-notch T.W.S. won't be able to tell you the wine's exact temperature, but anyone can tell the difference between warm and cool, and in the case of white wine, chilled and damn-near freezing. Adjusting the wine's temperature is easy, especially for a waiter who's embarrassed that you busted him serving a bottle that wasn't adequately prepared.

A Sublime Wine -- at $23 a Bottle

Another misperception that you should exorcise from your psyche is that the best wines are always the most expensive. When T.W.S. has someone to his home for a sip, it's natural for the guest to assume that the wine in question is a very pricey bottle, when in fact, it's probably quite inexpensive. A friend of mine invited me to her birthday celebration a few years ago at Le Bernardin, one of Manhattan's most expensive restaurants. We all ordered the tasting menu, where you're served a different glass of wine for every dish. On the final entree, we were treated to a delightful pinot noir that I loved so much I asked the sommelier for the name of it. It turned out to be Caparoso Pinot Noir ( that retails for about $23 a bottle.

One of T.W.S.' handy tricks is to sound like he knows what he's talking about and render his knowledge with a zeal usually reserved for a sailor lamenting over the girlfriend he left in a faraway port. You can practice your own authoritative, zealous lament in front of a mirror, but it's crucial to display your acumen over the right bottle or glass of wine. I'm here to tell you, friends, that whatever it is, the color must be red. It's true that T.W.S. enjoys white wine and drinks it often, but his heart and high-brow vocabulary are reserved for the reds of the world. To become T.W.S., repeat after me: "A fabulous glass of red wine is a joy of life, right up there with $1 million in cash, great sex and early retirement."

Soon, you'll mean every syllable when you say that. It's crucial that you learn what tastes you like and stick with them. Here, I have some suggestions that won't dent your wallet. A friend of mine -- an ultra wine snob -- believes we should always drink a red wine from the Rhone Valley of France. In her words, "Why ignore perfection?" Rhone wines are easy to find and a sound place to start building your wine horde. (T.W.S. always has a stash of wine that's so prominent in his home that his guests practically trip over it when they walk in the door.)

In the Rhone Zone

Rhone wines are some of my favorites because I like how they taste. (And to T.W.S., this is all that matters.) Let's start out with Rhones from two different areas, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which means "new castle of the Pope." Wines from both areas are similar in that they are a combination of grape varietals -- two of the most common are Grenache and Syrah -- that taste spicy yet smooth. Two wines I recommend are the Domaine du Pesquier Gigondas 2001 and the Elisabeth Chambellan Chateauneuf-du-Pape, either a 1999, 2000 or 2001. Both are inexpensive: the Gigondas retails for about $27 a bottle and the Elisabeth Chambellan is around $23.

Remember, what you want to do here, is see if you like the taste. And if you like red wine at all, you will. The wines are spicy and what you should taste are flavors similar to blackberries, coffee, plums and licorice. When you bring these gems home, be sure to serve them at the right temperature in a wine glass with a big bulb. Swish around the wine in the glass and take a sip, and another and another. Smile as you do it. (T.W.S., a true hedonist, also enjoys every drop of wine in his glass and makes sure everyone on his block knows that he's at it again.)

It's crucial, at some point, to learn the wine lingo, but T.W.S. would rather concentrate on taste and discover wines that he enjoys. And since our goal here is to make you a T.W.S., let's continue with taste and send you to the wine store for some more bottles. I like California reds, but many of them are so expensive that you had best buy a bottle from France. However, my favorite California wine is the one I picked up at Le Bernardin, the Caparoso Pinot Noir. It's velvety smooth with a warm cinnamon taste, and at $23 a bottle, it's worth every cent.

Red Is King but Don't Slight White

Even though T.W.S. prefers reds, I've never known one -- including me -- to turn down a good white, especially during the summer. I have a combination that I'd like you to try. If this summer you find yourself eating lobster or some other shell fish, go out and buy a Gewurztraminer from the Alsace region of France. You can find one for under $30. These should be served cold, but not freezing, and their sweet taste will compliment the shellfish so well that you won't believe that you haven't tried this before.

OK, so you may not know as much as some wine snobs, but you have a good start as to what taste you like and some types of wine to order the next time you're at the restaurant. Who knows, you may be bold enough to grab the wine list from T.W.S. before he has a chance. And when you do, know that you're a wine snob for sure, and enjoy this added benefit: Like it or not, T.W.S. controls the beverage selection at dinner, and what he likes and chooses is what you drink. And you might as well be drinking a wine that you love. Better yet, you can tell all your friends about it later. (T.W.S. never misses a chance to tell his pals what great wine they missed.)

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