A couple of years ago I got bit by the wine bug. Not sure exactly how it happened. I really seriously started my wine education about 18 months ago, though I had worked in a tasting room during the summer of 2008, and tasted not an insignificant amount of wine, including some very serious stuff with my uncle, who is a winemaker (formerly in Napa, now in Portland). But only about Febuary 2010 did I really start to go to wine tastings, purchase wine (what little I could afford-I got really good at finding the free tastings around Seattle), and explore the intellectual side of wine. This post is for the reader in my position 18 months ago. A newbie: someone interested, fascinated even, and wondering how best to go about spending limited time and cash (...oh, especially cash) on wine. Here’s what I wish someone had told me. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.
1. DO NOT put a blanket “I don’t like it” label on something general, like a particular varietal (e.g. “I don’t like Merlot”). Wines today are made in such a variety of styles that regardless of varietal (and even, these days, region) it’s a near-guarantee that one can find a wine that constitutes an exception to the preferences one discovers when only beginning to categorize and understand wine. Larger, general-level opinions should be left to the veterans who have tasted thousands of Merlots from all over the world.
2. DO NOT taste just anything from anywhere. If you’re motivated to learn about wine, then you need to start with the classics. Taste the benchmarks, the wines that have been made the same way for hundreds of years. You don’t really need to spend your limited wine budget on the Tempranillo from California grown from 10 year old vines and vinified by a wet-behind-the-ears winemaker, no matter what the critics score it. Instead, get an old-school bottle of Tempranillo from Muga, in Rioja. Or a bottle of classic Burgandy, for Pinot Noir, or Bordeaux, for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.
3. DO NOT think that all tasting is subjective. While the fallibility of tasters has been well-documented (people are gullible, and in blind tastings, thinking that a bottle is expensive causes them to assign it a higher score), and wine tasting is obviously not an exact science, there is general expert consensus, just like in science itself. This consensus is what helps to set prices and separate the good wine from plonk (And oh boy is there a difference between good wine and plonk. Try a jug of Carlo Rossi against a RIDGE wine sometime. Go on, I dare you.). Though do keep in mind that numerical wine ratings are nonsense (more on this later).
4. DO NOT, therefore, think that because you like it, it’s good. Some people will tell you that this is the case, but unless they’re true relativists (virtually no one is-it’s very difficult to defend philosophically) they’re either misguided or don’t really mean what they say. Our notion of “good” is informed, or really is constituted, by engagement with particular wines. So, as you taste more wines, your definition of “good” will change. In addition, real experts and connoisseurs are people who differentiate between “good” meaning well-made, and “good” meaning matching their personal taste. And that capacity takes a long time to develop.
5. In addition, DO NOT always worry about whether or not you like a wine, especially with benchmark and iconic wines. Yes, drinking wine should be pleasurable, but when one is seeking to truly understand wine, one’s subjective pleasure should come second to whether or not the wine is objectively good. Every expert knows that there are all sorts of wines that are well-made and yet don’t seem worth the money - that’s just the way subjective taste is (Here’s a personal example). And while you can easily get two experts to disagree on the quality of just about any bottle of wine, an objective, impartial, and non-contexualized analysis of a wine is what we should all strive for, despite the impossibility of achieving it. The first few sips: analyze, process, study. Then enjoy, while periodically returning to critical analysis of the wine as time passes and oxygen changes the aromatic and taste characteristics.
6. DO NOT buy by the case. Once you start tasting and drinking wine seriously, it’s been my experience that one’s tastes can change very quickly. Trust me, you’d rather NOT get stuck with 10 or 11 bottles that you’re not thrilled about. Unless it’s very difficult to find, you can probably track down some bottles if you wait a few months to make sure you’re still in love with the wine.
7. However, DO NOT buy just one bottle. If you taste it and you love it, buy two or three. Not only does this mean you can drink one in the near future with the exact flavor profile in mind (all the better for pairing it with food), but you can drink the other(s) a year or two down the road, comparing its aromas and flavors to your notes from the previous bottle, learning firsthand about how wine changes in bottle.
8. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, DO NOT think that wine is “just grape juice.” Wine can be a very heady and esoteric subject, and there is a tendency these days to simplify wine in order to appeal to a wide audience of people, especially by avoiding any semblance of snobbery that could intimidate and scare them away from the subject. This is admirable, but reductionism of the “just grape juice” sort goes too far. Wine is beautiful and fascinating, and in a very real sense more than the sum of its parts - if you don’t think so, I’m not sure why you’re reading a wine blog. But if you’re not sold, then think of similar sorts of reductions; is love “just a collection of hormones bouncing around in your head”? Is fine art “just a collection of blobs of pigment on a canvas”? No, they’re more than that, in what they inspire in the subjects they act upon, emotionally and intellectually. Grape juice, though possibly delicious, is just not that interesting. Wine is a nearly ubiquitous cultural touchstone, and has stimulated the minds and imaginations of people for thousands of years.
Next time, things a wine newbie SHOULD do. Thanks for reading, and give your own advice in the comments.