Years ago we had a neighbor who worked for a wine importer. I wish I had thought to grill him about wine, but this was back in our beer days (A History of Marriage in 6 Glasses) and I don’t think I ever knew what his certification was exactly. The story goes that he flunked out of college and somehow convinced his hard-line Marine dad to pay for him to go to France to learn to drink wine. Alas, despite what I feel is very persuasive reasoning, I have been unable to convince my family to give me a leave of absence to go to wine school so I’m going to share how I’m working to increase my knowledge of wine. First, I’d recommend not being the only person in your family that knows how to work a washer and dryer so that you can go to wine school in France.
I’ll start with the easiest step—drink a lot of wine! Experiment with varietals, price points, new world vs old world. Comparing three wines at once is my favorite set-up. As infantile oenophile, my taste buds can get overwhelmed from too many wines and then I can’t discern anything. It’s usually just me and my husband, so if we start on Friday night, we can (easily) finish three bottles by Sunday night, because wine is a terrible thing to waste. Look at the color, swirl, check out the legs on the side of your glass—if the wine sort of drips slowly, it shows a fuller body and higher alcohol content. The intensity of the pleasant burning sensation is also an indicator of alcohol content. Lighter color (think of ruby compared to garnet) generally correlates to a lighter-bodied wine (think of Pinot Noir to Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon.) Catalog in your mind how the wine looks, and then taste it.
Pay close attention to descriptions whether they are in Wine Spectator, the menu, the tasting notes at Total Wine, or on the back of the wine label. Try to pick out the flavors and start noticing what you like or don’t like. When I had a wine that I didn’t like, I couldn’t taste it and say, “oh, I don’t care for the cocoa undernotes.” But now, after reading tasting notes wherever I can find them and then drinking the wine, I’m now pretty confident that I won’t care for anything that has chocolate or cocoa in the description.
Price points—another great way to compare wines is to purchase three similar wines at three price points. Larger wineries can have several levels of the same varietal or blend, or you can choose a varietal or style from different makers at different costs. I’ve done this with Bordeaux—choosing a bottle at $30, $60, and $150. While it is a no-brainer that I liked the $150 the best, the $60 bottle did not outdo the bottle at half its cost. I’ve repeated this tasting with different makers and I found this result very typical for Bordeaux. My very unscientific conclusion has been for me, the bottles in the $60 range underperform and I should save my money and go with the less expensive bottle or splurge. I feel this shows that purchasing large amounts of wine is actually saving us money in the long run.
The other thing I do—I sort of hate myself for doing it because I’m painfully aware of how pretentious it looks–is to bring a notebook to wine tastings. If the representative is sent by the winery, they know so much about what gives the wine you are sampling its flavors, and I’m willing to look like a poser to catalog all the nuggets of wine wisdom they share. I need to write it all down because, well, wine and information retention do not go together like wine and cheese. I’m slowly starting to learn about how terroir influences the grape and how it grows, which then characterizes the wine. While I’m not quite ready for the Somm party trick of tasting a wine and discerning its varietal and the geographic location of the vineyard, I can look at a wine list full of unfamiliar wines and zero in on a Howell Mountain wine because I’ve liked other Howell Mountain wines.