Taking the Mystery Out of Wine


Don't know your Pinot Noir from your Pinot Grigio? Here's how to get started.

How many times have you sat down at a restaurant with guests, perused the menu and left the wine list sitting, unopened, on the table?

Maybe you're worried that you don't have what it takes to select a wine everyone will enjoy. Perhaps you're in the dark about how much to spend -- you don't want to look cheap, but you don't want to be perceived as a snob. On top of that, you feel like you should pair certain wines with certain foods, but you're eating beef, while one guest opts for seafood, another for chicken and the other for salad.

You decide that picking the right wine is an impossible challenge. You're right, but don't worry. There's hope.

I began collecting wine about a decade ago with little experience, and I remember those feelings well. In fact, from time to time, I still have them. And when that feeling gets overwhelming, I remember one simple fact: Wine is just a beverage. (If it makes you feel better, so is Coca-Cola (KO), and that's made a lot of people more money than any wine ever will.)

Essence of Adventure

Yes, there is some mystique to wine, but that should make it fun. Think of a new bottle of wine as an adventure. Whether it's a $5 or $500 bottle, when the cork is pulled (or the cap unscrewed), it's a new experience.

The joy of drinking and appreciating wine is that it is an ever-evolving -- and personal -- process. My first rule in wine tasting and selection is never to be embarrassed about my tastes. After all, why drink it if you don't enjoy it? So, if you want to drink white wine with your prime beef or red wine with your flounder, knock yourself out. Don't let anyone tell you it's wrong. Wines span the color palette of taste.

If you are looking to learn more about wines, whether formally or just through tasting, here are three suggestions:

1. Find a wine-tasting class.

In most major metropolitan areas, local culinary schools and universities often hold classes on wine. In many smaller communities, restaurants and local retail wine stores host more informal tastings.

My advice: Go and imbibe (and have enough money for a cab ride home)! Taste everything offered. Try it slowly -- stick your nose in the glass and enjoy the bouquet. Take a taste and let it roll down your tongue. Try to remember why you like or hate something. Ask questions of your hosts. Find out why they served it, what they like about it, how they drink it and the like. Don't be shy.

2. Treat yourself occasionally to a restaurant with a good sommelier (wine steward) and let him or her pick the wine.

When the wine list comes, don't open it. Instead, choose your meal, tell the sommelier what you are having and let him or her select the wine. Don't worry, your server won't automatically show up with a bottle of Opus One. Give the sommelier a price range, and he or she will be more than happy to accommodate you. In fact, most sommeliers are relentless in their pursuit of value for customers who ask them to choose for them. Spend some time asking the sommelier why the wine was selected and what makes it appealing to him or her. Ask which other wines are similar. If you hit it off, ask the sommelier to join you for a glass if he or she isn't busy. You'll be amazed at what you can learn.

3. Host a wine party.

Invite some people to your house and ask each of them to bring a bottle of wine and a complementary appetizer. Set a price limit so nobody is embarrassed. Set up a big table with the wines and food, and dig in. I'm usually more formal about the tasting and ask participants to provide a brief description of why they chose their wine and what they like about it, but that isn't necessary. It's just an opportunity to try different wines and compare and contrast them. There are millions of variations on the theme.

It's time to remove the mystique from wine. In future columns, I'll aim to provide a common-sense approach to wine that can help you enjoy your favorite bottle.

For now, let's start with the most important rule about enjoying wine: There are no rules. The best wine is the one you most enjoy that's in the glass in front of you. If you're picking the wine, here's to you!

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