I’ve always felt that each alcoholic beverage has it’s own personality. And while I enjoy the rowdy liquor bunch on the right night and will rarely turn down a chill evening with the beer crowd, wines are my favorite by far. Wines are homey yet still elegant, simple yet nuanced. They’re most often enjoyed in cozy settings with loved ones and always leave me feeling warm from the inside out—something I’m never sure if I should attribute to the alcohol or the whole experience.
But as much as I’ve always enjoyed drinking wine, I’ve never known very much about it. That’s why I’ve embarked on a journey to understand as much as I can about my favorite fermented grapes. And I’d like to take you with me. To get us started on the same foot, I’ve compiled some of my beliefs about tasting, trying, and enjoying wine. A sort of manifesto for the novice wino. So, pop that cork and let’s get drinking!
1. Trust Your Taste
The first time wine felt accessible to me, I was at the beach with my family and their friends, just shy of 21. One of my parents’ college friends—a man who knows how to enjoy the best things life has to offer—had brought a bunch of good wine from his collection to share with us all.
He offered me a glass, showing me how to swirl it, how to properly sniff it, and how to dissect each taste. I hesitantly took a sip, letting it sit in my mouth for a minute to consider all the flavors on my palette. Try as I might, I couldn’t recognize any distinct flavors. I gave in and swallowed the sip. “What is this one supposed to taste like?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “What does it taste like to you?”
That was when I first understood how personal the experience of enjoying wine is. Experts can describe the flavor profiles of a given wine all they want, but if that’s not what you taste, then it doesn’t matter. They’re your taste buds—don’t let someone else dictate what they’re tasting!
Similarly, you are the best judge of the quality of a wine. I once had a friend tell me he wanted to learn how to tell good wine from bad wine. I asked him, “Well, does it taste good to you?” It doesn’t matter if the critics and experts rank it the best wine in the world—if it doesn’t suit your tastes, then it’s not a good wine in your world.
2. Don’t Worry (Too Much) About the Lingo
Sometimes I think when people are just getting started learning about wine, they get a little too caught up in the lingo. Who can blame them? Tannins, body, nose—it can sound like people discussing wine are speaking a different language (and we haven’t even gotten to the French and Italian varietals yet!).
Don’t let your lack of proficiency in the language stop you from understanding more about wine. In fact, I think it’s better that you don’t know professional wine language early on. It forces you to think a little more creatively about your wine and about the flavors in it, rather than just go down the checklist of characteristics to look for.
Next time you drink a glass of wine, push all thoughts of “fruit forward” or “a long finish” to the side. Think about what it tastes like to you, and don’t be afraid to sound a little strange. Describing flavors isn’t something most of us do very often, so it takes practice and a little creativity. Does the wine taste like that pie your grandma made when you were growing up? Or like a crisp apple right after you bite into it?
It doesn’t matter if nobody else can understand your description, it’s a start to pinpointing what you’re experiencing. The lingo will come, but the most important thing at first is really cultivating the ability to taste.
3. Know What You Like—But Always Be Willing to Go Against It
Whenever you ask a waiter for a wine recommendation, he or she will ask you what you like. I usually freeze up at this point, and I’ve often found myself tempted to just say, “Red and good.” Unfortunately, that’s not very helpful. One of the perks of knowing more about wine is understanding what characteristics you prefer in it and being able to describe those to others. You can start with something as simple as knowing whether you prefer red or white, sweet or dry, and on from there. The more you can pinpoint what makes a wine good to you, the easier it will be to find even more good wine.
That being said, if you get too set in your wino ways, you may miss out on some prime pours. I always fancied myself a red girl, turning my nose up at white wines—especially Chardonnays. Thankfully, I’ll rarely turn down a glass of wine that’s put in front of me, so when I ordered a flight at Santa Barbara Winery, I timidly sipped the buttery Chardonnay I was given. And I loved it—along with nearly every other white I was given that night. Turns out, the white wine I had been drinking before was just too, well, cheap.
Lesson learned: Knowing your taste when it comes to wine is great. Always being willing to be proven wrong is even better.
The final rule: Have fun! This is wine after all—unless you’re training to be a sommelier or other wine professional, you shouldn’t be taking it too seriously. So, go pour yourself a hefty glass, cozy up with some friends, and start thinking a little more about your wine today. We’re in for a ride, but don’t worry—it’ll be a tipsy one.