Wine time

By Mir
January 2, 2007

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.]


  1. Thank you!!! I swear I didn’t bring any screw-top wine to any parties. I did, however, have an embarassing moment while trying to open a bottle of wine that was corked. I could have been practicing all this time if you had answered sooner! Kidding, of course. Does anyone have any brands to suggest I start out with?

  2. Caren Brands in wine like many things go to taste and price ranges.

    Robert Mondavi, Corbett Canyon, and Turning Leaf are three brands that I have never been disappointed with, and their prices are fantastic (Be careful with Mondavi as they have everything from $6 to $100 bottles of wine under different “types” of Mondavi (such as “Mondavi Reserve”)).

    For more expert advise you can check out some sites like, Wine Spectator. They even have a neat new little thing called, “Wine Everyday” which combines some common (read affordable) wines with everyday dishes (“What wines goes with Beef Stew” rather than the usual”What wine goes best with Prime Rib?”) You can find that information at

    Don’t worry so much about what others think. The best wine is one that you enjoy.

  3. I’m a red wine drinker, myself. Really, part of the trick is a) finding a good wine store with a knowledgeable owner, and b) trying different things until you at least know what varietals (grapes) you tend to like the best. For me, Pinot Noir is one of my favorite types of red wine. It’s easy to drink, not dry, a little fruity, and not usually expensive. It’s also very popular right now so is easy to find. Shiraz is from Australia and is similar in taste. Same grape is called Syrah in California labels. Merlot is usually a little bit heftier but still very good. Cabernet Savignon is typically too dry and bold for my taste, with a few exceptions.

    The hard part of recommending any particular bottle/brand of wine is that your local wine shop may or may not carry it. I’d honestly just go in and see if you can find a knowledgeable person to recommend something to you. Pick a variety you want to try, and come up with some adjectives to describe what you usually like…for me, I say “a little fruity, a little spicy, and smooth”. :o) Give a price range of $8-$15…there are MANY good wines in that range.

  4. One of my favorite reds is Black Opal Cabernet Merlot, which is a mix of a cabernet and a merlot (duh). Very nice.

    Very nice. (Just to increase the redundancy.)

  5. I would add that another great way to get to know a few different wines at a time is to go to a tasting at a wine shop – most specialty wine stores have weekly or biweekly tastings that are free and you can try an ounce or so of three or four different wines.

  6. I’ve never commented here before, but only lurked, etc. (I love this place!!) And Mir is soooo pretty.

    Wine is not my favorite libation, but I must say that two that are dee-lish are: the Yellow Tail brand (between $8-10) and (now this is slightly embarassing, say when you’re asking the wine guy at the store for it) Menage à Trois–it’s a blend of three grapes. Sounds scandalous, but it’s really tasty. Just a suggestion!

  7. I’m a Boone’s Farm girl, myself. The hardest part is choosing which fruity-liscious flavor I want to try this time. Or, if it’s a high-class party, Arbor Mist. 🙂

  8. I am a white wine person, as red wine gives me headaches (not when I cook with it, though). And you’re free to laugh behind my back that I like to choose wine based on the label.

    We’ve really enjoyed the little penguin wines. we also like wines from Australia and Portugal, which tend to be less expensive but still yummy.

    My favorite wine of all time is slightly sparkely – Vinho Verde from Casal Garcia (Portugal). mmmmm….

  9. oops – forgot to say that the Casal Garcia wine is about $5/bottle, so good on the finances and the palate. One of my cousins prefers a more expensive vinho verde, but I’m not very fussy.

  10. I’m with Fuzzy on Black Opal Cabernet Merlot. It’s extremely reasonable in price, and goes on sale every so often in our area.

  11. Ooohhh I’m with Angie. I didn’t want to make specific recommendations, but I also really like the Yellow Tail wines. Yummy and they have a kangaroo on the label, which is a bonus. 😉

  12. I have to defend the honor of some screw-tops!

    Gotta give a shout out for my favorite screw-top wine . . . Brancott Sauvignon Blanc. Ranges from $9-12 and widely available (I stock up when it goes on sale). Really easy to drink, crisp/dry with some melon and grapefruit tones. Just about any Sauv Blanc from New Zealand makes me happy, and many of them fall in the same price range.

    And most of them come with screw tops 🙂

  13. Awesome!!! Thank you so much everyone. Now I will be spending my weekend in a wine induced stupor. 🙂

  14. I have to add my 2cents that I actually dislike the Yellow Tail wines, especially the whites. They are not very consistent (ie one bottle might be good and the next really off) and I’ve been disappointed too many times to go back. The brand I’m never disappointed with is Rosemont Estates, which is an Australian brand that tends to range from $8 to $20 and is always good.

    Also, don’t diss the screw cap, they’re supposed to be very good at preserving and ageing the wine. I haven’t gotten comfortable with them yet (they just seem so cheap) but apparently they’re the wave of the future.

  15. A great everyday drinking red wine is Coppola Rosso. I love that stuff, and it goes with everything from pizza to steak. It’s widely available, and usually less than $9.

  16. haven’t heard anyone discuss wine in a box yet.

  17. When I was in Russia, I saw lots of Gin and Tonic in a can. Yum, I know. But I think that would be the wave of the future as far as wine goes. Red wine in a six pack. Classy.

  18. An editorial in Forbes from way back made mention that ANY meal is improved by wine (ANY wine). Don’t let your reluctance to spend big bucks on wine dissuade you from trying the inexpensive bottles. They’re often (more than not) quite good, and give you a chance to try different varietals without feeling the pinch.

    Don’t be shy to tell the wine steward at the local shop that you’d like something “very inexpensive,” and that you’d simply like to get some experience. He’ll know what’s the best of what you can afford and can provide some other tips as well.

    Another point is that, to hear a lot of people tell it, “dry” wines are the only way to go. Phooey. Try some of the sweet wines (often sold as dessert wines), particularly from Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia. Mavro Daphne is one, Commandaria is another. Try Pomegranate (from Armenia) for a wine made from something other than grapes. All are sweet, without being cloying. Oh yeah, you MUST experience port.

  19. Red wine gives me horrible headaches too, but I drink it anyway (or DID drink it anyway, but now I’m pregnant, so not so much) and chase it with Excedrin. I suspect this is very bad, but I don’t want to hear about it.

    A good way, I think, for the non-educated to select wines is to narrow it down by type (e.g., for red wine, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Shiraz, etc.) and then expand out from there. So, if you buy a bottle of Pinot Noir and like it, try a few more, of different brands until you settle on one you really, really like.

    Another way is to select by country – I find, for example, that Chilean red wines are reliably inexpensive but often quite good.

    Also, not to disagree with Mir, but I think most liquor store clerks are very tolerant of ignorance and happy to help out. I’d try going to the local liquor store and asking the clerk to recommend a wine based on what you’re planning for dinner, or asking for a good wine for “about $xx”.

  20. Stephanie, I’m taking the wine in a box challenge.

    Target (yes, that Target) has a pretty decent wine in a box. A whole series of them. Similar in quality to “2 Buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s (which is where I get most of my wine . . . so many to try, so little time). They are more than OK. Great? No. But OK is more than enough on a Tuesday evening on your first day back to work after the holiday and you think you might still be a little hungover from so much holiday and family and dear lord why did they stay so long?

    I can’t get wine at my Target in NY/NJ, but I did try some when I was in the Chicago area. It was a monster size Target with full aisles of groceries. It was all so pretty and glittery and happy.

    On the whole, wine in a box isn’t where I’d put my money, but if it’s Target, it has to be good. Or at least OK.

    As for a six pack of wine, try the Sofia mini sparkling wine from Fancis Ford Coppola (named after his daughter). It comes in a pretty pink can with its own straw. Not cheap, but fun.

  21. Screw tops actually do preserve wine better than corks but they are generally veiwed as cheap so most wineries avoid them. The new synthetic corks are becoming more popular.

    Wine in a box is even better at preserving it once it is open. Which is good since most boxes hold A LOT of wine! It will stay good much longer than an open bottle! (as long as it was good in the begining!)

  22. Wine in a box is also great for cooking. It lasts nearly forever and Cook’s Illustrated just did a cooking taste test and found many of them as good as using a bottle.

  23. Have you seen the new stainless steel caps (yes – like on beer bottles)? Also an alternative to cork that top wineries here in Germany are using. I’m getting used to them, but they still look funny to me.

  24. John Cleese hosted a documentary about wine and wine-making called John Cleese’s Wine for the Confused (2004). It was sort of informative, as it explained the way wines are made and the difference between red and white. His suggestion on finding the perfect wine also came down to drink what you like.

  25. There is actually one absolute rule I would like to throw out there. Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE wine. I pretty puffy heart love wine. However, as a friend of mine discovered, much to our concern, you should NEVER cook turkey breast in red wine.

    It turns a distressing shade of grey/purple and tastes funny.

    Beyond that, most anything goes 😉

Bargain Hunt





Want Not Archives

Creative Commons License

Pin It on Pinterest