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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Noble Writ: So You Want to Be a Wine Geek?

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 2:39 PM

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.

Wine is a daunting subject: tens of thousands of producers, located in unique microclimates all around the world, each creating between one and dozens of wines, each of which is different to some degree every year due to variation in the weather. How even to begin learning about it?

The breadth and depth of the topic of "wine" make knowing it intimately outside the scope of all but a few obsessed individuals. That's not me, and it's almost certainly not you, either.

Feel better already? Good.

Whether you're just starting to explore wine, or you're a regular wine drinker looking to learn more, there are a few simple steps you can take to increase both your knowledge of wine and the pleasure you derive from drinking it. Learning about wine isn't something that happens overnight but, as the first step below should demonstrate, the journey is a very pleasant one indeed.

  • User "Kaveh," Wikimedia Commons

This part is going to take some convincing, I'm sure, but if you're going to learn about wines, you really need to drink more wines -- and drink different wines. Now is the time to start building relationships with good wine merchants and to stop relying so much on points or the descriptions listed on little signs on the shelves to make your buying decisions.

A great exercise is to open two bottles at a time and then compare and contrast the wines while enjoying them over the course of several days. Most wines will hold up fine for a couple of days; simply close them back up, keep them in fridge overnight and let them warm up to a palatable temperature the next day.


Get yourself a notebook (yes, I'm sure there probably is an app for your iPhone) dedicated to recording the wines you drink. At the very least, write down the name of the wine, the vintage, where you bought it and whether you liked it. A helpful way to answer that last question is to decide whether you'd buy the wine again at that price you paid or not.

You don't need to write descriptive, detailed tasting notes -- no endless litany of flowers, fruits or herbs is required. If it works for you, and you're comfortable with it, feel free, but it's far from necessary. If it induces any stress at all, please skip it. You'll come to it naturally later, or not, and you'll be fine either way.

click to enlarge oxford052709.jpg

The Oxford Companion to Wine is your friend. Buy it, check it out of the library, borrow it from a wine-loving friend -- just get a copy. The OCW is in its third edition, and each has gotten better, but, honestly, any of them will do. There isn't a better all-around wine resource out there.

Now, each time you open a bottle, look up every entry in the OCW you possibly can about that wine: the country, state, region, town, producer and vineyard, the grapes used to make it, any wine-making procedures described in flowery prose on the back label, all of it! If you're like me, you'll retain new facts each time you read an entry. This adds up over time.

However, it's important to remember that reading something in a book is no substitute for personal experience. Many people have a tendency to extrapolate too much or reach too definitive a conclusion based solely on something they read, particularly when it relates to a subject with which they're not familiar. One benefit of the OCW is that it largely sticks to facts, but there is still opinion and bias in the entries, and it is best to be mindful of the difference until you can reach your own informed conclusions.


Once you've been drinking more wine for a while, look at what you've written down, think about what you've read and pick something to explore in depth. New Zealand sauvignon blanc? Sonoma zinfandel? Chablis? It's up to you, but do it justice. Really sample what the market has to offer, and do it over the course of several vintages. See if there are books on the subject and devour them.

Don't expect every area you focus on to become a favorite though. I've certainly had plenty that didn't work out. Muscadet is great example. It should be perfect for me: food-friendly, high acidity, low alcohol, and relatively inexpensive. Yet I don't think I've had more than three or four that I've really enjoyed out of the dozens that I've tried. I still have a few age-worthy examples in the cellar to see if they improve for my palate, but I'm not holding my breath. Regardless, I value the knowledge I gained.

Splurge Now and Again

You know you're curious whether more expensive wine is "worth it," but that is a question only you can answer for yourself. A painless way to sample is occasionally to spend double the amount you normally would on a bottle, but then skip buying a bottle. For example, if you normally pick up three $10 bottles a week, grab one $10 and one $20 bottle.

Do your splurging at a wine store and not a restaurant, though. You'll get a lot more bang for your buck, given the reality of restaurant wine pricing. Splurge bottles are another time to rely on the advice of good merchant who has gotten to know your palate, so work on fostering honest relationships at a couple of stores.

Learning about wine is not a quick process, but with a bit of thought and effort you can shorten it, and greatly increase the number of pleasurable bottles you'll consume. I hope you enjoy your journey as much as I've enjoyed mine so far.

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