Saturday, July 9, 2011

Things Wine Newbies SHOULD DO.

This is a companion piece to a post i wrote previously on Things a Wine Newbie SHOULD NOT do. Come to find out, writing about what NOT to do was easier, for some reason. Giving positive advice is more difficult, and as a result my list is shorter. I will update if I think of anything else. The generalities about what I assume make a “newbie” are listed in my previous post, which again is here.

Things Wine Newbies SHOULD DO

1. DO taste wine blind, especially with people who know more and are better tasters than you. But why blind? Because once you get a basic feel for varietal or regional characteristics, you can get lazy. Having to taste wine without knowing certain details forces you to pay attention to the minutia, making you a better taster, able to notice (and appreciate) the subtleties in the wine you drink. It's also a fun thing to do with small groups of people who are interested in wine. While a lot has been written about wine tasting (this is an example), it is a thing best learned, I think, by apprenticeship.

1a. While you do this, DO take notes. Physical sensations like taste can be difficult to remember, and words can help. Plus, standardizing the language you use can help you to figure out which wines you prefer to others.

2. DO decant. Especially those young, ageable reds you buy off the shelves, and normally pop and pour. Most good wine improves with decanting, especially young red wine, as it takes the edge off of the harsh and overly astringent tannins, and usually results in a fuller, more balanced, and more complex nose. If you don’t believe me, next time you open a bottle, plan a bit in advance and do an experiment (decanter not required). Pour a glass, cork the bottle, and wait an hour. Then pour another, recork, and wait another hour. Repeat a third time, then wait again and pour a final glass, and taste all four glasses against each other. You’ll be amazed at the differences between the glasses - blind, you’d easily think they were different wines. And I bet you’ll prefer one of the ones that’s had time to breathe.

3. DO expand your palate. Try new stuff. All the time. Especially if you're young like me, spend your early wine years trying everything you can get your hands on, finding the stuff that you REALLY like (not buying a bunch of high-scoring bottles to save for 10 years before you taste them), then you can spend your years of wine maturity buying that really good stuff, not wondering or worrying if you could get better (subjective) bang for your buck somewhere else.

4. DO challenge your presuppositions. Think you don’t like, for instance, Chardonnay? Walk into a wine store, find a knowledgeable clerk, describe what you don’t like about Chardonnay (or Merlot, or Riesling, or pinot noir, or whatever) and then ask him or her to please recommend a Chardonnay that they think avoids all the characteristics you described (my own initial dislike of Chardonnay came about by tasting a few that could be described as tasting like a bunch of sawdust floating in a vat of movie theatre popcorn butter with a sprinkling of liquid smoke). Challenge your preconceived notions, and find new things.

5. DO buy some nice wine glasses. This is obvious, but some people don't. Crystal, or at the very least good glass, with a cut rim and a big, convex bowl (where the rim has a smaller circumference than the widest part of the you can swirl). You really only need red wine glasses - they're even fine for sparkling wine, and don't let anyone tell you different.

6. DO eat wine with food, and learn something about wine and food pairing. I heartily recommend this book. Wine IS food (a luxurious food item certainly, but food nonetheless), and should be treated as such. Like enjoys like. Additionally, one of the great pleasures in having a wine collection is having a perfect bottle to go with a special meal you're preparing (or you've ordered at a restaurant).

Update: Here is a great little video by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon vineyards, who adds a couple of very good points to this list, namely, try wines in context (i.e. try several similar wines together), taste in a group (but don't let others' opinions influence your own too much), and don't think you can understand a (great) wine in 5 minutes.


  1. Good advice, all in all. I've been meaning to write something similar on cigars as there are plenty of "thou shall not's" with cigars but nothing that truly lets a newbie learn the joy of an ancient pleasure.

    By the way, number three is the best advice. I'm not much of a wine guy, and part of that is self-conscious (I get called metro enough as it is) so I don't venture out of what I know. However, I have found that when I'm drinking with someone more knowledgeable about the subject, it becomes immensely helpful to learn new styles.

  2. Thanks for the comment Michael. I agree, tasting (or smoking) with people who know more than you is a great way to learn. If you're ever in Seattle, we'll have to have a bottle and a smoke together-

  3. nice post. keep this stuff coming, Andrew.