How To Learn About Wine & Win Friends
I hear it all the time. “I want to know more about wine.” It’s usually said when a new acquaintance finds out I’m wine knowledgeable or that I’m a wine blogger, which unfortunately carries the oft-incorrect reputation for being wine knowledgeable. Except in this case, of course. I know everything. And with that ego leading my way through the world, such a comment used to evoke a sense of responsibility that I needed to somehow save this person from their wine ignorant state.
How do I deliver these poor souls from the depths of supermarket rot gut and lazy I’ll have the pinot grigio bar orders? I asked myself. Teaching classes seemed like a good place to start, which was enthusiastically supported by many friends, each of whom know less about wine than I do. I went so far as to spend an embarrassing amount of money on an online course that teaches you how to build your own embarrassingly expensive online course, sat through a few lessons, then hung it up. I thought about leading in-person, small group workshops around town. Or writing a book, or writing this blog with a clear mandate to educate. I even thought about getting my Certified Educator of Wine certificate so I could “legitimately” teach people about wine, though in my heart I’m certified-averse. When I get close to putting any of these ideas into motion, they all drip a syrupy imposter syndrome residue I fear even turpentine won’t wash from my hands.
Lately, my response to I want to know more about wine evokes a cynical shoulder shrug at best and a jaded “What for?” in the darkest hours. Why complicate your life by jumping down a rabbit hole of wine trivia, where rivers of subjective commentary regularly flood the path and erode easy passage to the next circle of vino purgatorio? Don’t you know ignorance is bliss?
I blame the mono for my disenchanted mood. (Here’s hoping for just a couple more weeks of disillusion and not a day longer). In real life, I believe learning more about wine is time well spent. Learning more about anything is noble. Life gets more interesting when you can differentiate a broccolini from a mere broccoli, when a potato becomes a fingerling and salt becomes Himalayan. And isn’t it rewarding to know you have a magnolia, a shagbark hickory, a wisteria and an azalea growing in your backyard instead of two trees, a vine and a bush? And how about that house wren that’s building a nest in the grill you haven’t touched in three summers? Far more interesting than cursing a tired old bird for dragging all those twigs in between the grates.
Wine is a daunting subject because it’s more than just a beverage. It’s history, culture, science, geology, art, and humanity interconnected through the intricacies of place, people and purpose. It’s nature in communion with one of the noblest human endeavors to ever exist: The pursuit of mindful intoxication. You see, there’s religion and spirituality in wine, too, so we can’t possibly expect it to be simple and easily mastered. No one knows everything about wine, nor will anyone ever know everything about wine. But do not let that deter you, for the journey is the prize, grasshopper.
Fortunately for you, my inquisitive readers, I’ve pulled myself away from the wound and ceased licking for an afternoon. With my head freed from the echo chamber of my own ass and the complaining on pause, I wrote for you a crib sheet of sorts, a directory on how I think you should get that wine education you say you’re after.
How To Learn About Wine & Win Friends
Follow these guidelines very carefully, and you will find enlightenment and win more friends, because everyone loves to have a wine savvy jackass around.
READ A BOOK
I love books and I love to learn from books. They allow you to move at your own pace, and when your mind starts to wander into that fantasy where David Letterman returns to The Late Show for one night just so he can interview you, the paragraphs you read without absorbing are still there. Simply go back and re-read!
Windows on the World by Kevin Zraly is an old-new favorite. His was the first book I ever read on wine, lent to me by my boss way back in 1997 or 1998. I’m not positive I was 21 yet, but I was working in a white tablecloth restaurant in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and itching to know more about the magical elixir of fermented grape juice. Kevin was the keynote speaker at the Wine Symposium I recently attended, and was an incredibly entertaining, humble and forthright speaker. His book is his presence printed and bound, and it’s my favorite pick for complete beginners.
The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil is an encyclopedic tome written in a beautiful narrative tone. I love this book. Though I was late to discover it, it’s filled with fun sidebars and polished language that true readers can appreciate, and has allowed me to languish in a self-imposed refresher course without feeling academically oppressed. She has a free email newsletter called Wine Speed that's nicely done as well. Good for beginners who love history and fact, and excellent for intermediate learners.
The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson is an encyclopedic tome written in an encyclopedic tone with occasional sprinkles of dry British humor. I have owned every edition of this book, first published in 1994, which I bought when studying for the WSET Diploma exams. I still own that early edition; the binding is ravaged, the pages underlined, the margins notated. The newest rendition is my go-to when I need a quick fact check, but for the casual wine lover it may be a bit much.
The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson - These two Brits are considered among the wine world’s foremost experts, and have recently published the 7th edition of this gorgeous book of maps. If you love maps, do this book. Otherwise, you might want to hold off until you’ve committed to obtaining some higher wine degree, like the Master Somm or Master of Wine.
Avoid books that appear overly simplified. Wine is not simple and to present it as such dances too closely with misrepresenting fact, if not egregiously misinforming the reader. Wine Folly announces its own sloppiness in its title, and is guilty of both the aforementioned missteps. How it has become an Amazon and NYTimes bestseller is very possibly due to trickery by gaming the SEO system. The author herself stated, at the Wine Symposium I recently attended, that she’s going after the 80% of the internet not already in the wine circle, which calls to mind a recent podcast episode of On Being where host Krista Tippett talks with entrepreneur-technologist Anil Dash about the morality gap in the technology sector. Page views are neither equal to nor greater than years of hard work, study and experience devoted to mastering a subject.
SEARCH THE INTERNET
The internet is a strange, wonderful, exciting, scary place. Information is literally at our fingertips like never before. But that means we need to be extra mindful of where we get that information. Who are the gatekeepers? Who is fact checking the author? Beware of follies, and use Wikipedia as a jumping off point only.
The Pour wine column by Eric Asimov for the New York Times, and his Wine School column for the same publication are both good places to pick up insight without feeling like you’re actually in school. He’s been writing and living wine for years, and spends time with the industry’s top insiders and winemakers.
Jon Bonné’s recurring wine column, Crib Sheet, for PUNCH Drink comes with a “cool guy” bias that leans deep into small production, natural-minded wines, which is what I prefer to drink. You might find a new producer to seek out based on his recommendation.
Another great thing about owning a book is that the index is your friend.
You may wonder: What grape is used to make Beaujolais? Gamay! (Page 144 in Windows on The World, page 227 in The Wine Bible) Finding that answer took me 32 seconds, though it did require getting up from the chair and walking across the room to where the books live. So worth it.
TAKE A CLASS
If you like people and want your wine education to have a social element to it, then you might consider taking a class. Depending on where you live, of course, the options could be many or few. For the certifiable path, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust as well as the Court of Master Sommeliers are most widely respected, but quite possibly more than you want to get into. Both are geared to producing professional winos and have a tendency to take themselves quite seriously. In any case, look at the teacher’s background. Is she certified? Has she been to more than two wine regions? Can she answer hard questions? Can you stand the sound of her voice for more than 30 minutes? All good things to consider before signing up.
LEARN THE IMPORTERS
This is my favorite recommendation for all wine newbies, because it doesn’t require a class or a book, and it allows you to learn slowly while drinking only what you like, most of the time. When you find a wine you like and it has an importer logo on the back label, look for more wines with that same importer’s logo. Chances are you have similar palates and that you prefer certain styles over a specific varietal or region. You might like the rustic earthiness of a traditional Chianti without loving all Chianti, and you might find similar characteristics in a Loire Valley red blend, which is totally different in flavor profile and makeup, but there may be some notes in both that you really dig. Most importers lean toward a style and philosophy even when they focus on a region or country.
My personal favorites are Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Louis-Dressner Selections, De Maison Selections, Daniel Johnnes, Selection Massale, Vintage 59, Integrity and Martine’s Wines.
GET TIGHT WITH A RETAILER
This is probably the best way to learn about wine for the casual enthusiast. A good retailer will care deeply about the vino and is in it for the vino, definitely not the money. There’s no money in wine. He will study the producers and have on hand useful information for you when considering a bottle. He’ll know what it tastes like, give you a few notes and eventually, know whether or not it’s something you’ll like. But you have to build these relationships. Pay attention to what they recommend and let them know what you thought of the wine so they can better guide you to your next favorite bottle.
DRINK ALL DAY, ERR DAY
Seriously. Commit yourself to drinking and pay attention to what’s in the glass. No one cares about the Instagram shot of your plate, take a photo of the label so you can remember later what that damn delicious wine was. Notice where it’s from, what it tastes like, what the grapes are. If the grapes aren’t listed on the label, type the name of the wine into a search engine or check wine-searcher.com, or go to the importer’s website and look for the wine there. It won’t take long. You can do it on your smartphone! I promise, it makes the wine even more enjoyable once you know what the hell you’re drinking.
As you begin to gain knowledge and find yourself dispersing said knowledge among your friends and colleagues, you might notice a subtle air of respect for your parlance into the overwhelming world of wine. Notice their dilated pupils and slightly parted lips when you explain, “This red Burgundy is made from pinot noir grapes grown in France. Mmmm, the lovely cherry fruit and earthy aromas...and the smooth tannins!”
Don’t be surprised when acquaintances begin inviting you over for dinner, and your boss insists on taking you to lunch. People love you now, they want to be close to your holy wineness. But be careful to keep your ego in check, as it’s very tempting to get carried away with this newfound prestige. Then again, if you’re not feeling superior about your wine education, are you really getting an education?