There’s no question that the wine world can be intimidating for those early on in their wine journey. I remember a while back when I was at a business dinner and one of the gentleman I was dining with was ordering wine by the producer and year without looking at the wine list. I hoped I might have a clue someday what he was talking about.
It felt so foreign at the time, a vast world of jargon and terms, many of which are in different languages, and knowledge that is only gained from experience, and a lot of it.
I remember thinking, “how could anyone possible know that they like that particular vintage from the southern part of Burgundy, but they don’t like the same vintage from other nearby regions? How does one get to the point where their palate is so well explored and defined that they can actually pick out, and appreciate those nuances?”
Now maybe your goal isn’t to become a wine master to that degree. Wine should be enjoyed and appreciated on whatever level the person drinking it will enjoy it. If you have simple tastes, more power to you. You just saved a lot of money.
But as you grow in your wine journey, new opportunities for exploration arise, new worlds are opened, and new possibilities beg to be properly investigated.
That’s what propelled me forward. Not so much the “James Bond ordering specific vintages at fancy restaurants.” But more of a quest for knowledge. What triggers this interest for me is that wine is the perfect expression of a time and place.
It’s the weather, soil, sunlight, traditions, cuisine and people from a particular place at a particular time. It’s the terroir plus culture, bottled up so that it’s easy to store, transport and enjoy.
The quest for opening up all of what is in these various bottles and tasting them is what ended up creating a passion for me, and now has lead to me creating all of this wine content.
But I thought it would be fun to think back to those early years, to remember how I felt in my wine journey at that time, and lay out a few key pieces of advice I wish I could share with my younger self. So here it goes.
- Great wine can come from all corners of the earth. This is so important. We instantly might think Napa Cab when we think of great wine. It’s expensive. People talk about it a lot. Screaming Eagle is a cult wine. But the truth is that great wine is everywhere, and the places you might not think to look at first, are among some of the best places to look. Explore. Explore. Explore.
- Pay attention to geography. It took me a while to realize the importance of geography in wine appreciation, but it is vital. Now that we have mini computers in our pocket all the time, always make a point to open Google Earth or whatever mapping app you use, and take note of the location of where each wine you enjoy originates. After a while you will build a strong cache of geographic knowledge that can help you know what different wines will taste like even before you try them.
- Don’t pay attention to price or wine ratings. These are subjective terms and can vary widely. Instead, read more about the producer, their history and philosophy for winemaking. Better yet, pay them a visit if you can. Don’t let the hype and noise around certain wines create the narrative for them. Decide for yourself.
- It’s important how you serve the wine. You don’t have to go crazy on every detail of wine etiquette, but do remember to: serve wines at a proper temperature (we usually drink reds too warm and whites too cold), use decent stemware (your choice here), give the wine proper time to open up (decanting is a great a idea most of the time), and when switching between different wines, don’t clean the glass with water. You should rinse it with a splash of the wine you are about to drink to prime the glass.
- Don’t take your “wine expert” friend’s opinion as gospel. Develop your own palate, your own appreciation. Someone’s favorite bottle ever may not be enjoyable to you. And that’s ok. Your friend might not agree with your “favorite wine.” Doesn’t matter at all. Wine is personal. Decide for yourself. There is no wrong or right.
- Vintages are important but don’t get too caught up on them. For most wine and wine drinkers, you can get by without worrying too much on which vintage is better than others. Sure, if you see two bottles sitting side by side, one from a great vintage and one from a poor vintage, you’ll want to grab the former, but winemakers nowadays can make great wine under tough conditions. A lot of time, bad conditions just limit the amount of the wine, not the quality. If you’re early on in your wine journey, pay attention to vintages, but focus more on other factors, such as the wine’s location, wine making style of that region, the varietals and nuances of the region and wine. This will go further for you in the long run than vintages.
- Don’t collect wine that isn’t designed to be collected. I remember collecting special bottles of wine in my early years, mostly simple wines that I wanted to age, but the wines were designed to be consumed young. They didn’t turn out great at all. Most wine, 90+% of what you see, is not meant to be aged. You should age wine that is built for the long haul and that which will improve only. And you might not even like the taste of aged wine right now, so think about which wines you’re laying down before you spend $30 on a Napa Cab that is plateauing right now.
- Every time you go to the store, buy one bottle from a region/grape/producer you’ve never heard of. I still try to do this today, every time I visit the store.
- Follow wineries on social media, listen to podcasts. Most wineries are active on Facebook, Twitter and especially Instagram, posting updates from the vineyards and the wine makers. Simply following along through the course of the year gives you great insight into what’s happening on the front lines. It’s like free wine school being taught by the best of the best. Plus, you can interact with them and ask questions. Podcasts are great too. “I’ll Drink to That” is a personal favorite.
- Have fun. Sure, there’s a lot to be learned, but have fun with it. Enjoy your wine with friends and family. Enjoy pairing with different foods. Recognize the fun in the journey, not the destination. Being a wine aficionado is great. But becoming one is the most fun.