For some reason wine has become this thing. This huge inflated pompous thing that people have invented corny language around, jacked up costs for, and made intimidating as all hell. Then you find yourself retreating to your couch with whatever's cheapest and goes well with sweats, or smiling through a glass of something at a dinner party that you can't pronounce and aren't sure if you're supposed to enjoy, instead of actually enjoying the wine.
Well, here's the thing, the only thing, really, about wine: It's all about what you like. It's like any other thing, a simple thing that gets complicated by the fact that knowing what you like depends on lots and lots of other things, things you've heard of, like the grape and the region and the year, and there's a lot of additional things within those things. But if you know a few things, things that contribute to the major thing, which is just what you like, then you can stride into Trader Joe's with confidence, or order a bottle for the table without hesitation, or between tears/laughter (depending on what kind of night you're having), when your girlfriend stops to exclaim, “Damn, this is good wine. What is this?” you'll actually KNOW. So how do you figure out what you like? Follow me.
Care. You probably drink a ton of wine. When you like something, like really smack your lips, and pour yourself another. How often do you look at the label and note the grape, winery, year, and region? Because that's a really good start. Start there.
Try something new. You wanna be the girl who sticks with the California Roll of wines for the rest of her life? No? Then step out of your comfort zone. Order something you've never heard of. Order it because it has a pretty label. Order it even though it sounds more like an STD. Order it because the server is cute. There, now you're carpeing the diem.
Wine comes from grapes. I know you know, but stick with me. They're either red or white, and they have names. You got the staples, like Merlot, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel. There's also Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Sangiovese — OK, you know, there's tons. While no two bottles taste quite the same, there are certain elements that each grape possesses. For example, Chardonnay is sort of buttery and thicker, while Sauvignon Blanc is usually lighter and drier. Cabernet Sauvignon tends to taste fruity, like actual grapes, while Syrah tends to taste more like the earth those grapes come from. These tastes can be tweaked by the harvesting and barreling process, but don't worry about that just yet. If you start paying attention and trying new things, eventually you'll get an idea of what tastes like what.
(Snob tip: Syrah and Shiraz are the same thing, but Shiraz is usually Australian or South African. Petit Sirah is a totally different grape. If some snob is giving you a hard time, drop these bombs and they'll likely stfu.)
Much like size, region matters. Here's three reasons why: 1) Some wines are named for the region they come from, like Champagne, or Bordeaux, or only come from a certain region, like Tempranillo — a grape often used to make Rioja, which comes from the Rioja region of Spain. 2) Some grapes are grown all over the place, but because of different climates, seasons, rainfall, etc., they taste different from region to region. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, universally known as the grape that's down for whatever. 3) Because of different climates, seasons, rainfall, etc. specific to each region, different grapes from the same region tend to have the same taste to them, even though they all taste different. Sort of like CPK pizzas.
(Just recently, I realized that I don't really like most French wine. I just don't. And I felt bad about it for a second, because France is IT when it comes to wine, the snobbiest and most intimidating of them all, and I felt like I should like it, all of it, but then one day I thought to myself, “You know what? It's too sharp for me. I don't like French wine, OK? I just don't. So go sacre bleu yourself, frenchies.”)
The year also matters. In any given year, shit happens. Sometimes it rains twice as much as it's supposed to, sometimes it doesn't rain at all. Sometimes there's a frost and all the grapes shrivel up and die (sad). Sometimes the stars align and the sunshine smiles on the grapes, and the grapes smile back, and it rains when they're thirsty and it's dry when they're not, and our little grape friends go on to make delicious wine because they love us — like in 2008. So if you know what kind of grapes you like and what region you like, you can look on the internets and all sorts of nerdy wine blogs and charts will pop up telling you if a particular year produced the kind of wine the vintners were hoping for. See how we're breaking it down now? Good.
Know how to describe what you like. But use your own words. Forget wine terms, or what's written on the back of the bottle. When you're trying that something new, really take a second to taste the wine on your tongue, in your throat, what it does to your sinuses. How does it make you feel when you're drinking it? Does it go better with sitting in a dark room, listening to Cat Power and thinking about your ex, or better over a bonfire and passing the bottle back and forth with friends? Get creative and specific, and if you're ordering from someone who knows their stuff, they'll know exactly what you want.
For example, I like big, old world dry reds that taste like an old leather shoe, fill my whole mouth up, and make me feel like I should be smoking a cigar (I don't smoke cigars) and playing bocce. If I tell this to a sommolier, not only will she know exactly what I'm talking about, but she'll probably bring me an Argentinian Malbec or Italian Syrah ... or something new and awesome that I've never tried before but will probably enjoy.
WTF does "dry" mean? It's wet, ain't it? I'm including this in here because I wondered this for YEARS but was afraid to ask. I know that sounds like a middle-school sex pamphlet title but it's true. Basically, dry means now you taste it, now you don't. The flavor just dances on your tongue for a second and then it's gone — little to no lingering aftertaste, and yet strangely savory.
I thought a “bouquet” was for flowers? Why do they keep saying that? It, as well as “nose,” is a fancy way of saying what a wine smells like, and you can totally roll your eyes when anyone says it to you.
What about decanting? What's up with that? Decanting is a fancy way of letting wine air out, and it's legit. It's basically wine's way of unbuttoning the top button of its pants after a big meal. You know how awesome that is, right? Well, wine feels the same way. And unlike you, tastes better as a result.
When the waiter pours a little into the glass, and looks at me all expectantly, what does he want from me? He wants you to nod your head so he can get to pouring for the other people you're with, which you should unless it tastes like complete ass.
Is more-expensive better? Hell no. But sometimes, yeah. It's a lot like clothing — it doesn't need to be expensive to be awesome, but the first time you try on a dress that's tailored to your body perfectly and made of a material that you never want to take off, you get why it costs $300. It's the difference between Forever 21 and your favorite boutique. Sometimes a bottle is expensive because the vineyard read the grapes bedtime stories every night and knit each grape little blankies so they didn't catch colds. I guess the takeaway is to not feel pressured to buy something because it's expensive, but craftsmanship costs you (in a good way).
Do I need to pair white with chicken and red with meat? What about rose? Or zinfandel? I mean, whatever. Seriously, drink what you want with who you want, where you want, when you want. Trust your taste buds and you can't go wrong.
I hope this helps, my lovely lushes. Once you know what you like, though, don't get snobby! Keep trying new things, ask questions, and have fun. There's tons to learn and appreciate; it's a whole big, sloshy world to discover. Cheers!
Allison Davis is the quality assurance tester for Idle Cellars and is drinking a glass of it right now.