Caren sent me this question a loooong time ago, and through a combination of scatteredness and busyness and a healthy dash of procrastination, I managed to completely miss answering in time for the holidays. I would like to apologize to Caren’s friends and explain that, in fact, I am the reason she kept showing up for parties with screw-top wine. Sorry about that.
Dear Pretty Mir,
I am not a wine drinker currently, but that is because I do not know what brand of wine to drink. As you mentioned in a previous post, I would like a good wine with a modest price. Not a cheap wine. But what kind? There are so many and I am overwhelmed. I am not about to just pick a bottle and try it. If I hate it, I will just be throwing money away, and that is just not good. Could you give me any pointers?
This sort of hesitation when it comes to wine is more common than you might think. Unless you’re made of money or grew up in a home where wine was part of your family culture, it is hard to know what to buy when you haven’t had a huge variety of tasting experience. And it’s easy to get suckered into certain mindsets about wine, as well, particularly because plenty of people tell you there’s certain things you should and should not do when it comes to wine.
I have just one DO and one DON’T apiece for you about wine. Are you ready? It’s extraordinarily deep and I don’t want you to miss it.
DO drink wine you like. DON’T drink wine you don’t.
Did you catch that? As far as I’m concerned, those are the only hard and fast rules.
Oh, sure; conventional wisdom says to drink white wine with cream pastas and chicken and red wine with red meats, and there’s no shortage of rules about what kind of wine goes with what, down to the very last dessert. If you enjoy those rules and want to (and can afford to) follow them, great. Have fun.
For most of us who aren’t sommeliers, however, we have certain preferences. Me, I always preferred white to red, for years. I finally managed to develop a taste for red and discovered that I have a severe sensitivity to something in red wine (which is, unfortunately, not uncommon), and now I cannot drink it at all.
This of course means that I have to have margaritas with my steaks, now.
Heh. Actually, it means that sometimes I (oh the horror!) drink white wine with dishes that “should” be paired with reds. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who are Serious About Their Wine who find that appalling, but guess what? I’m the one drinking it, I should be the one picking.
There are two ways to educate yourself about wines in general. The first is to try a variety of them. Going to a winery for tastings is an experience unto itself and definitely something to try if you have the opportunity, but for most of us, the more practical method is just… experience. Order a glass of something you haven’t had before when you’re out to dinner. (Make your companions order something different. Everyone taste everyone else’s, unless you’re worried about cooties.) Try a glass of something new at a party. Over time, you’ll get a sense of what brands and general properties you enjoy.
The second way to educate yourself is to read, and this works best when paired with some experiential back-up. Go review common wine terms and think about what sorts of things you’ve tended to like in the past. Do you prefer red or white? Do you tend to like a nice dry wine or one that’s sweet? There are lots of books on the subject, too, but again—this is about what you like. But being able to verbalize what sorts of things you like in a wine will make the choosing much easier.
To wit: If you walk into a liquor store and say to the clerk, “I’d like to buy a bottle of wine. Ummmm… red wine. I guess,” the clerk is going to laugh at you, either openly or behind your back after you leave. That’s simply not enough information to really help you choose something you’ll enjoy. In contrast, if you’re able to walk into a liquor store and say to the clerk, “I’d like a nice dry red wine that’s not too woody, preferably something with a really smooth finish,” then the clerk may be able to point you towards something you’re likely to find suitable.
Let’s talk about price for a minute. While it is true in general that more expensive wines are going to be superior to cheaper ones, there are plenty of inexpensive wines that even the “people who know wine” find perfectly acceptable. Do not assume that more expensive is far better. For those of us with untrained palates, the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $30 bottle of wine won’t (in most cases) be that appreciable. And in some cases a $6 bottle of wine is pretty tasty. Again, some of it is what you, personally, like. And some of it is knowing what brands can be trusted.
I poked around and found the following sources for some affordable wine picks:
And here’s one that’s a little different, but has some interesting tips: Epinions guide to picking a wine in a restaurant.
All of these will give you some ideas. So will talking to more experienced wine-drinking friends, and asking knowledgeable sales staff once you know how to explain what you like.
One more thing: Keep in mind that those wines that you buy and then discover you just don’t love the way you thought you might needn’t go to waste—use the leftovers for cooking. White wine is divine in a variety of sauces, and red wine is a perfect marinade/tenderizer for red meat. (And I cook with red wine frequently even though I cannot tolerate drinking it; whatever my problem is, it doesn’t carry over to cooked usage of reds.) Educate yourself and then start trying some new things. And have fun!
[Disclaimers: Don’t drink if you’re underage. Don’t drink and drive. Please drink responsibly. Please share with me.]