When I decided to ditch the high tech life and start Brentwood Wine Company, I knew I'd need legal advice (just read Shipping Information and you'll see what I mean). It may be a sign that middle age has firmly set in, but my small business lawyer is quite a bit younger than I am (that's happening more and more these days). He's been very supportive, quite knowledgeable and has asked some very intelligent questions about wine and the wine industry along the way. But today he had a confession to make. "I'm getting tired of beer" he said somewhat contritely "How does one find out more about wine?"
Well now, I thought, that's a question I don't hear very often. But since 11% of the people drink 88% of the wine (a fun fact to know and tell) a lot of people must be thinking it. Among the nouveau non-broke (a.k.a. Gen-Xers) it must be one of the great unspoken fears - to be found out as A Wine Novice. And if you're a fellow Baby Boomer (the only time my wife and I still get to use a term implying youth when referring to ourselves) and still don't know squat about wine, you've probably become a wine curmudgeon ("It gives me a headache, and besides, wine drinkers are a bunch of snobs, and it's too expensive, and ...) purely out of self defense. You may think it's too late to ever join the club. Well that's surprisingly easy to fix (even the expensive part).
Ask yourself how you got into any of your hobbies - cooking, woodworking, beanie baby collecting, whatever. You just jumped in. What could be easier than drinking a glass of wine? "Ah", you say, "But I have to like it and be able to talk about it. And don't I have to be able to score it on that 100 point thingy? And besides, I'd feel like a fool walking into the local wine shop and displaying my ignorance." The answers are "yes", "no", "Are you kidding?" and "Don't sweat it". Let's take these one at a time.
The first thing you must become proficient at is the (Dave) Parker TWO point wine scale. In the computer industry everything is binary. That means 0 or 1, off or on. With this system one can encode and rate everything in the universe, including wine. In the case of wine, there are only two important ratings: 0 and 1; "Yuck" and "Yum". (For the advanced drinker there's actually one other rating, call it .5: "I'd drink it if someone else was paying for it").
That means you and your tastes are the only things that matter. And don't worry, you'll easily find plenty of "Yum" wines. Don't feel self conscious if you like that "light fruity Cab" that everyone else skips right by on the way to bigger (and more expensive) stuff. Don't even worry if what you like is a Merlot or (dare I say it?) a White Zinfandel (well, it's okay to worry a little if this happens). The important first step is to know what you like. Once you've mastered the Parker Two Point System, you're ready to move on.
TALKING ABOUT WINE
Now how do you describe the wine you're drinking? Initially you don't have to worry about this, because anytime there's wine, there's sure to be a self-styled wine expert who will be happy to fill any dead air time with his (or her) opinion of the wines. This is valuable because you can pick up a few key buzz words to use in an emergency - intense, well-balanced, long finish - stuff like that. When it's your turn to get a word in edgewise you can say "I liked the wine's fruitiness" (all good wine has some fruit so you're okay on this one) or "I found the wine too harsh (or watery)". These are very subjective terms so you're okay here, too. But better yet, why not use your talking time to change the subject? How about talking about something else of mutual interest? You may find that everyone else (except maybe the self-styled wine expert) would rather talk about the current hot movie or how the local team is doing or the Russian Stock Market or something other than wine.
Now you self-styled wine experts out there (and as you can tell I'm one, too, so it's okay to admit it) are probably asking about now "Why is he taking up valuable real estate in a wine web site talking about changing the subject away from wine?" Well wine experts start as wine novices and wine novices (and experts, too) don't live by wine alone. I know, I know: It's heresy. But it's true heresy (ask Galileo about true heresy). Nothing turns a beginning wine drinker off faster than hot air spewed from wine-stained lips. But you already knew that, right? Right? Even at events that are all wine geeks (doesn't that term send shivers up your spine? - well that's what they call us behind our backs) wine should not be the only subject. And by the way, real wine experts (Masters of Wine for instance) can see right through us wine-experts-to-be (Bachelors of Wine (tm) let's call them). But I digress.
The next step in talking about wine is thinking about it. Yes I'm implying you can talk about something without thinking about it - we all are guilty of this. Although it's called wine tasting, it really should be called wine smelling. Way over half the interest and enjoyment of wine comes from smell (I'm not including the interesting effects of the alcohol of course). Take your time to smell the wine, inhaling as you bring your nose to the glass (or vice versa). If you want to look cool, you can swirl the glass first - just be careful: Splashing Silver Oak Cab on someone's white table cloth is definitely not cool. Now after inhaling, think up as many words as you can to describe what you smell. (It may help to close your eyes while thinking - I know it does for me). It doesn't matter what words you use at this point - even R.P. has been known to use terms like "Baskin Robbins Jamoca Almond Fudge". If you can find at least three words to describe the smell - BINGO - you can also use the complexity word. Now wait a moment, and breath in some fresh air. Now sniff a second time. You may notice entirely different things. If so - BINGO AGAIN- you can say "evolves in the glass". Now sniff a third time. This should confirm sniffs one and two. And you really look like you know what you're doing. If you can't find much to talk about after three good sniffs, then just say "The nose seems quite closed at this stage."
Now you can actually taste the wine. Take a good sip and swish it around in your mouth, thinking about what you're tasting (Yes I know this goes against everything Mom taught you about table manners, but she's probably not here. And if she is, she'll be impressed; I promise). Now be prepared for one of three things to happen: First the wine may taste a lot like it smells. Then you can say "The elements noted in the nose are echoed in the mouth". This is (probably) a good thing. Instead you may find that the wine either tastes wimpy, or very acidic (like poorly made lemonade) or very bitter (like burnt toast with cheap marmalade on it). Use words like weak, acidic and astringent here. These are usually not good things - especially if that's all you taste. Now don't worry about offending the host, who may have spent $50 on this swill. You're the wine novice, remember, and it's okay to say The King Has No Clothes. The most important thing is you have an opinion about the wine that you can express. Here's a little secret - great wine is usually made these days to be enjoyable to everyone, even you the lowly novice, as soon as it's sold. And the host shouldn't be serving you anything that's not ready to drink anyway. So you're covered if you have a negative opinion. Now the third thing that can happen when you taste the wine is the rarest. Your mouth fills with more things than you can describe, and just when an applicable word pops into your head, you taste something totally different. If this happens, just keep quiet. Try closing your eyes again. Keep swishing. Maybe suck in a little air. (sorry, Mom). Just keep thinking... More on this soon.
Okay now pay attention - this is important - swallow (spitting is for really advanced drinkers only) and start counting. If you already swallowed and didn't start counting, just take take another sip. If your throat hurts, or you want to gag, or nothing much happens, stop counting. Eat some bread, drink some water. You're done with this puppy. You can say "acidic finish", "overly oaked", "weak and insipid" or some such and move on to a new wine. If you're feeling especially confident, you can make up a two digit number, probably starting with a 7 or a 6 (or a 5 if you're in a really mean mood). Now if your throat feels good (maybe even a little peppery) and you taste the wine for a long time after you swallowed, you found one with "a long finish". If the overall effect of the wine was good for you, and you're feeling spunky, be a sport - make up a two digit number starting with 8 (or even one in the low 90's!). Now if the finish is not just long, but you keep experiencing more things than you can describe, this is a "great, complex finish". Give the wine a wad of bonus points for this.
Now remember that third kind of wine we discussed - the one that you practically can't describe because there's so much going on in your mouth?. If you have one of those and you've been following instructions, you're still keeping quiet. Swallow, count, keep quiet. Is the finish as long and nice and complex as the rest of the tasting experience? Not sure?: Sniff and drink some more. Are you so sure that you want to jump back in and have another sip? And another. Is your mouth singing? Is the rest of the room going gray and the conversation fading away in comparison to what's happening in your mouth? Is there perhaps a tear in your eye? If so, you're in BIG TROUBLE. You've just had your wine epiphany and you'll never be the same again. But there's no going back, so just flow with it. Ignore the rest of the world. Keep sniffing, tasting, swishing, thinking, swallowing. Eventually you'll come back down to earth. Maybe. When this happens, one's natural reaction is to grab the bottle, memorize every detail on the label (except the price), dump whatever remains into one's glass and retreat back into Fantasyland. As a wine novice, you'll be forgiven if you do this, but if possible summon up all your self control and instead say calmly: "Wow. That was pretty good. Who was the producer again? Might I have another taste to confirm my analysis?" If the host is in touch with what's going on, he'll (or she'll) give you all the details and pour you another healthy slug. This is what real wine lovers live for - new converts. And you'll have it written all over your face. Now under the guise of "confirming your analysis" you can safely return to your wine. Make it last, because it may be a while before you find another wine that rings all your chimes like this. Now your final step is to give it a number. Pick one in the upper nineties. Don't use "100" - you just don't have enough experience to wield this mighty number yet. And who knows? You might just find something you like even more. One thing's for sure, you're about to start spending more money on wine. Sorry.
Now if you made it this far, and felt confident enough to assign a number in your head and someone spouts out a number then you can chime in with "I give this wine a <fill in the blank>" Personally, I wait until more than half the people present revert to numerology, otherwise I keep my mouth shut. One more important thing: If you're going to give a number, only give the one that you came up with on your own. You worked hard for it and it's yours. Don't let the opinions of others change your feelings, whatever you do. Listen politely, think about why they might have said what they did, and stick to your guns.
If you get this far, congratulations - you qualify as a wine-expert-in-the- making, just like that self-styled expert. You'll never have to feel intimidated by his (or her) kind again - they've got nothing on you, except more words (which you can make up on your own thank you very much).
WINE BY THE NUMBERS
If you read the above section, it should be pretty clear that numbers are just a shorthand way to add detail to the "Yum/Yuck" scale. And I wasn't kidding when I said "just make up a number starting with X". High end wine consumers, retailers and all the rest of the wine intelligencia have been (correctly in my opinion) maligned for worshipping at the altar of absolute numbers. While experts can pretty consistently agree on which wines are great, good, average and poor, even the same taster will not often give out the same score to the same wine tasted (blind) twice. The margin of error seems to be about 4 points on the so-called 100 point scale (which is actually a 51 point scale). But ask your local wine merchant the difference in sales between an 86 point wine and a 90 point one, or between a 93 point wine and a 97 point one. And just try to buy a 99 or 100 point wine after the review comes out. So while numerology may be key to wine investors (who are playing off of other's herd mentality), as a wine lover or lover-in- training, don't get too hung up on the scores. There's every chance that a wine rated by experts in the eighties will be the magic "epiphany wine" for you. The ones in the high nineties often aren't at their peak for years, anyway.
Should you use numbers? In my opinion, only if you feel comfortable doing so and it carries some meaning for you. Or if you're feeling a bit cranky and just want to sling a little back at that wine snob (yes they call us that too) on the other side of the room. Never lose your sense of humor, just play it close to the vest, I always say.
So you've decided to jump into the wine world (or at least stick a toe in to see how it feels). Where do you get wine without feeling like a dope? Well, as you've probably figured out from the tone of this missive, there's never a reason to feel like a dope. A real wine lover (including 90% of those in the industry) won't begrudge you your novicehood - they'll be delighted to help. And they won't preach or throw buzz words at you. (Gee, I hope I'm not getting preachy). Or try to cheat you either. Remember that 11%/88% rule? The most important thing they can do is assure that you have a good wine experience now so you'll join that "magic 11%" soon. So you're safe in their capable hands.
Now, chin up, chest out. March to the local wine shop. If you don't know a good one, ask that self-styled wine expert. He (or she) may get on your nerves but he (or she) is probably a great source of information and will certainly be very happy to share it with you. Just remember, they're just at a different point on Maslow's Hierarchy of Wine Needs. They can't help being enthusiastic to the point of being boring. It happens to all of us. Okay, you're at the wine shop. You may even find that it's that local upscale grocery store that you've been going to all along. Tell the proprietor (or most kindly looking face you can find standing near the wine section) that you're kind of new to this wine thing and would like a recommendation. He (or she) will probably ask what you've had that you've liked, (and not liked). They'll probably also ask what you're planning to serve with it and what price range you're looking for. This last one is easy. Repeat after me: "Something in the $8 to $12 range would be perfect." This is a test. A knowledgable wine retailer WILL be able to find you a nice wine in this range, and probably not at the top end of it either. He/she WON'T try to talk you up to a "great wine for just a little more". If they do, put a black mark next to their name. If they have to ask someone else, strike up a conversation with that person. He (or she) is your man (or woman).
Now take the wine home and drink it. Pretend you have to talk about it as we've practiced above. Make notes even. Keep doing this until the bottle's empty (not necessarily all in one night - the BATF made me say that). Now next time you see your local wine seller, talk to him about what you liked and didn't like about the wine he sold you. Buy something else. Repeat until you're an expert. That's it.
This same method works in restaurants with some modifications. First, you have raise your price range (sorry - the restaurant industry habitually marks up their wine a lot, and it's a great big hairy shame, too). Here's what I do: Look at the wine list and come up with a range that starts slightly above the cheapest bottles and takes you up maybe $10 a bottle from there. Now find a bottle of wine that's priced dead center in the middle of this range. After the table has ordered, ask the server what he (or she) would recommend to go with it. Say you're thinking about something like <now point to the "magic middle" wine>. You don't need to say the price range. This is also a test. If he/she goes off to ask someone else, make a note to talk to that person on the next trip. If he/she recommends a wine higher than your range, just say "any other recommendations? Like maybe this one" and point to another wine priced near the "magic middle". You should have a good experience. If not, black mark time.
Now I know what you're thinking: "Dave, you run Brentwood Wine Company and sell wine in your Wine Shop. How come you're sending me down the street to my local wine shop? Can't I get something great from you?" My dear wife would second that motion. Well I'm glad you asked (If you didn't ask, just skip this paragraph). Yes, I'd love to be your "wine advisor". If you're comfortable with E-Mail or phone correspondence and the deferred gratification of shipping time, I can get you great wine (unless you live in a few hard-nosed states) that you probably won't find elsewhere. And the prices will be good, too. Even with shipping and handling. But we're new and small and our initial focus is getting collector-quality wines out. What you, the wine-expert- in-training really needs is a face-to-face relationship and a short buying-to-tasting cycle. We'll get you later, when you make black belt wine expert (or at least Bachelor of Wine (tm)). Still feel free to shoot me an E-Mail. My opinions are free, and I have plenty of 'em.
I'll leave you with:
DAVE'S TOP 10 WAYS TO TELL YOU'RE IN A BAD WINE SHOP:
10. The Thunderbird is at eye level and all the wines with corks are on the bottom shelf.
9. There's a sign on the door "No Shirt No Shoes No Service"
8. There are gas pumps out front.
7. The guy behind the counter can tell you exactly where the Peppermint Schnapps is but gives you a blank stare when you ask about Pinot Noir.
6. They carry all five kinds of beer: Bud, Bud Lite, Coors, Coors Lite and Schlitz.
5. You catch a glimpse of a baseball bat behind the counter.
4. They seem to do more business in lottery tickets than in wine.
3. There are more pickup trucks in the parking lot than Sport Utility Vehicles, Beamers and minivans combined.
2. It's managed by a friend's friend's brother who's "really turned his life around since he's been out of The Big House".
1. All the magazine racks have black plastic covering the pictures.
Do you have wine tasting experience you'd like to share? E-Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about it.
Til next time: Enjoy your life! It's the only one you've got!
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