WINE IN THE U.S. is a bit like fashion: We tend to mystify it, rather than demystify it.
Nobody knows that quite like wine expert Ken Maguire. As the proprietor of Fox and Hound Wines and Spirits in New Paltz, NY, Maguire knows how the American habit of putting wine on a pedestal can be detrimental to his business.
“In the rest of the world, wine is just food—it’s just part of life,” he says. “I was in Argentina visiting a famous winemaker. Before my appointment, a guy pulled around back with a big plastic jug, the [vintner] opened a spigot, and he filled up with wine for the week.”
That said: A little bit of studying wine will translate to a lot of skill and confidence in the wine world. That skill pays off when you’re ordering in a restaurant, pairing a wine with a meal, or bringing a bottle to a friend’s barbecue.
But to get from zero to hero, you’ll need a little bit of guidance. To gain that confidence, follow these steps to buying wine like a pro.
First: Taste the wine
A no-brainer, right? You need to drink wine to understand it. But that’s not always the case.
“I go to tastings,” Maguire says, “and too frequently you hear the server tell people, ‘This is going to taste like ripe cherries, licorice,’ and something in there nobody would eat—like road tar!”
Don’t let your server lead the witness. Instead, “trust your palate. Your taste buds and mine aren’t the same thing,” he says. While reviews and apps with tasting impressions are useful, begin your education by deciding what you like yourself, he says.
The best way to do that, he says, is to look for wine shops that do regular tastings (most decent shops run weekly tastings because it drives business). It’s not a bad idea to take notes, or at least to snap shots of bottles that you like, and to start keeping a catalog in your head of the kinds of qualities you like, and the grape varietals (literally, the kind of grape) that you tend to find appealing. If you know the beer world and you’ve learned that you like (or loathe) IPAs, then congratulations—that’s just the kind of refinement for which you’re aiming with wine.
A primer on tasting wine
As with beer, the wine world is just as nerdy, with myriad grape varietals and methods of production, blending, and aging. But Maguire says not to sweat it. Smell the wine before you taste it. This might seem pretentious, but teaching your taste buds begins with your nose, since humans instinctually know when something is spoiled by smell before taste.
Then, catalogue what you smelled. Was it floral? Fruity? Were there notes of anything like toasted nuts? Can you refine the aromas in familiar analogues—what kind of flower, what kind of vegetable or fruit?
Next, when you taste the wine, note how sweet it seems. Wine is graded on a sugar spectrum, from sweet to “dry”—not tart, per se, but a lack of any sugar taste.
Above all, try to think of your own words to describe the wine, because it’ll help you cement your own understanding of that wine, why you do or don’t like what you’re tasting and experiencing. Remember: This is wine school.
Order or buy wine with a strategist’s taste
If a wine merchant or restaurant sommelier makes you feel uncomfortable about wine, here’s an easy solution: Don’t go back.
“They should make you feel good about what you know, even if you know very little,” Maguire says. “If they make you feel intimidated, you should never go there again. Remember: They’re providing a service, and you’re going to spend your money there, so it’s their job to help.”
To that end, there are a few good tactics to order wine intelligently, especially if you’re on a date.
Do advance research: First, decent restaurants typically have their wine lists online, so you can study what’s there ahead of time. You can even call the restaurant to be sure the wines you research are actually still for sale. This lets you handicap some options ahead of time, and to quiz the restaurant’s sommelier on what she or he might recommend in a specific price range. Take down a few red and white names from the list, depending upon what food your date orders.
Order glasses, not bottles: “It lets you and your date taste each other’s wines, and that’s more fun,” Maguire says. Plus, ordering glasses puts less pressure on a single decision. If you’re ordering a few appetizers and a few main courses, the wine list might not offer the ideal match.
Bring your own wine: Call ahead and see if the restaurant will let you pay a corkage fee and bring your own bottle, Maguire says. Even higher-end restaurants are usually OK with this, and while you’d still better study the food menu, it lets you recruit your favorite wine merchant to act as sommelier instead. If you really want to step up your research, share the restaurant’s menu with your wine merchant, and let them guide you toward wine that will work with the meal, just as if you were cooking at home. Most decent wine shops also stock a good selection of half bottles, so you could bring two to dinner and food-match that way, as you would by ordering glasses instead of a single, 750-ml bottle.
Just ask the sommelier: A good restaurant should have zero problems suggesting wine that matches your food, and should be flexible enough to understand what to do if you say you can’t spend more than $30 on a bottle, or you absolutely don’t want to drink red wine (because, say, you or your date just doesn’t like it). “If their staff is well-trained they can get you in the right direction.” Being honest, even in front of a date, is a good idea, because if you’re trying to pretend you know a lot about wine—or astrophysics—and you don’t, that’s going to get you into trouble eventually. Especially if you’re dating an astrophysicist.
Be adventuresome in your selections
Because wine can have a huge variety, it’s not a bad idea to plant a stake in a particular type of wine and then explore that range.
Rosé is a good example, Maguire says. Most Americans think of rosé as a light, fruity, summer sip, but rosés with far more backbone are common; Americans are only now catching up to that potential.
“Bandol, from France, is made from Mourvedre [a grape more closely associated with heavy reds], and it’s really muscular enough for grilled chicken or fish,” Maguire says. One of our favorite rosés, Argentina’s Crios, is made from Malbec. It’s the perfect halfway point between red and white wine, so it’s incredibly flexible for food pairing.
Make a mental note of your favorite wines that pair with lots of food
Some wines are especially versatile, and they give you the flexibility to break the traditional wine-pairing rules.
“I have a lovely, light red from Sicily, Frappato, which a restaurant will often serve lightly chilled, and it’s fruity but not sweet,” Maguire says. “It’s a way you could still drink red wine with fish. It goes great with something more casual, like a grilled vegetable appetizer, or a pizza.”
Would you know to order a Frappato? Maybe not. (Now you do!). But if you’re open to exploring wine you haven’t tried, a skilled sommelier would know to steer you in that direction. Think about it the way you would trying one those strange sensory deprivation tanks Steph Curry uses: You’re not quite sure what you’ll experience, but it will probably be cool, and if you don’t love it, you still learned something.
Technology can help
We’ll be honest: The tasting notes are snooty. As with Yelp, though, you can read between the lines to understand whether a bottle is for you. Also, once you log tasting notes for bottles you like, Delectable begins to suggest other wines you’ll dig, and it becomes a sort of sommelier in your pocket. That may or may not matter to you, but if you get in the habit of rating bottles you like, it’s invaluable to share that list with a sommelier. When you’re buying wine, dig back into your archive to find the same bottle again.
P.S.: At the risk of undermining our next point, referring to an app at a restaurant can look a little cheeseball, depending upon how fancy the place is (and how much you’re trying to impress your date).
Lighten the f’ up!
“People take wine soooo seriously,” says Maguire, rolling his eyes. You don’t have to—and while everyone loves a bon vivant, nobody likes a snob.
Also, be patient with yourself. Learning about wine is a great, and an important life skill. “Say you’re in a business situation and your boss or the client wants you to order the wine and hands you the list—it’s great to be able to stare at this giant book of a wine list and not be intimidated.”
Gaining that confidence is a fun journey, and you shouldn’t invest too much baggage in it.
We’ve never lived in an era with more great wine, even at $10 a bottle. The goal posts are very wide. Shanking a wine order is pretty hard to do these days. The key, Maguire puckishly hints, is to remember that wine is just fermented grapes in fancy bottles. And you can take it as seriously as you want—but the last thing you want to do is get too stressed about getting it “right,” because there’s no such thing.