A good wine isn’t something you should be ashamed to enjoy. It’s also not a one-way ticket to the often-expensive and over-the-top world of wine, wine lingo, and wine reviewers. It’s actually easy to enjoy the differences between a pinot noir and a cabernet without draining your bank account or learning a totally new vocabulary.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
Wine often gets a bad rap. Sometimes it’s deserved: Obtuse and intentionally fussy language make wine difficult to get into, big reviewers and high-priced wines make normal people think it’s too expensive and fussy, and there’s an entire low-end market dedicated selling you on the idea that “wine is hard, just drink this.”
Other times it’s not fair: The old “wine is bullshit” trope paints an entire drink with a broad, obviously fallacious brush, and encourages people to just give up on something they may enjoy instead of learning about it.
So if you like a glass here and there, or even buy a few bottles for holiday dinners or special occasions, how do you learn to appreciate things like how the wine was made, what it’s made from, how it tastes, and how one wine differs from another? How do you avoid getting entrenched in that intentionally obtuse and opaque market?
Try Lots of Things, and Pay Attention to What You Like
If you’re already interested in wine, this should be easy. All you really need to do is drink more wine! Drink different wines, from different parts of the world. Start with different varietals, or those different “types” you see wines organised by at the liquor store. Try a pinot noir, then try a cabernet sauvignon. Try a chardonnay, and then try a pinot gris.There’s a big difference in flavour between types of wine, even the same “colour.” As you drink, you’ll come to associate specific flavours with specific types of wine. This is your first step to figuring out what you like and what you don’t — and it’s the first step away from “I don’t like/only drink red/white wine,” which is huge. Too many people write off all reds or whites because they don’t like one specific typ, and that’s all they have ever had.
Once you try something, make a note of it to yourself. Sure, you can use pen and paper, or an app (I specifically like Vivino, an Android and iOS app we’ve covered before) to “log” the wines you drink and what you thought about them. At the very least, it helps you keep track of what you like and what you don’t like, and why. At best, it will keep you from drinking something you didn’t like again, just because you forgot you tried it.
Now don’t run out and buy a ton of wine and start making notes. This is a slow, gradual process. The goal here is to enjoy yourself and learn about your own tastes. Don’t make it a chore! Use this as an opportunity to expand your horizons. Once you’ve established that you like, for example, riesling, you can try rieslings from different parts of the world to see how they differ, and which ones you enjoy.
Find No-Nonsense Reviewers Who Level WIth You
All of this exploration can be pretty daunting, especially because there’s money involved. If you don’t like a bottle, you’re out the money you spent on it. Your next step is to get some help from someone who’s been through the same motions as you, or at least someone who’s relatively no-nonsense when it comes to reviewing wines.
This is difficult. It requires both opening up about the wines you drink and enjoy now (and doing it without shame, so if all you’ve been drinking is Barefoot and Yellow Tail, you need to be able to say that!) and you need to find voices in the wine world that aren’t out to wrap you up in all of that BS we mentioned earlier. Here are a few suggestions:
- VinePair: Vinepair’s mission is simple: to demystify the world of wine and try to stir your excitement while breaking down all of those obtuse walls around the wine world. Their Wine 101 guide is detailed and tons of reading, but it’s all written with a lighthearted, “we’re like you” tone that defines complex terms and wine-making lingo without forcing you to memorise them. You’ve probably seen some of VinePair’s graphics and tutorials linked here before, from the differences between champagne, prosecco, and cava to why you can’t trust wine point reviews — one of the ways wine marketing is actually BS.
- Wine Library TV: Gary Vaynerchuk doesn’t do Wine Library TV anymore (it actually ended several years ago,) but his no-nonsense, no-BS approach to wine tasting and discussion endeared me to wine, and taught me that even if I was the only one tasting or smelling what I smelled, that was enough. He explains the details of wine in plain language, and while some of the reviews may be dated, his overall tips for how to drink, enjoy, and buy wine are legit. Gary was one of the first people to tell me that the price of a bottle means nothing compared to how it tastes, and then backed it up with recommendations that I actually enjoy. Seriously, even if you don’t watch the show, follow him on Twitter.
- Your local wine seller, or a wine store with knowledgable staff. This one might be tricky to find depending on where you live, but if you can find a liquor store in your community — or even a grocery store that sells wine — where the people responsible for the wine actually seem to know and care about what they’re selling, you’re sitting on top of a gold mine of useful information. After all, anywhere there’s wine, someone has to order it, and if you have access to that person, they probably have some thoughts on the bottles that make it to the shelf. Sometimes this means you have to frequent smaller, neighbourhood retailers, but I’ve had just as good luck talking to people at generic alcohol retailers. Talk to them about what you like, and see what they suggest based on their stock. It may be hit or miss, but like the wines themselves, you’ll quickly learn if you can trust that person’s opinion.
The point of all of this is to get a little guidance before you spend your money. It can go a long way, especially from someone who’s knowledgable. Like any skill, you can grow on your own with self-study, but finding someone who’s been down the road you’re on is invaluable.
Go to Wine Festivals and Tour Local Wineries
Regardless of where you live, there’s probably a winery near you, and they probably offer tours, tastings, and a behind the scenes look at what they do. Many communities — especially in the warm weather months — host wine festivals, where local wineries show off their best and most popular bottles. Sometimes they’re free. Other times there’s a cover, or you’ll want to book in advance. Either way, they’re a great way to explore a bunch of different wines at once and talk to the people who actually make them. It’s an incredible experience, and if you’re interested in wine at all, it’s a great way to learn a lot, taste a lot, and have a good time.
There are a few wine festivals I attend almost every year, and even if I don’t care for some of the wines I try, tastings are free once you’re paid for your ticket to the festival, which is great. None of these affairs are fancy, either — odds are all you need to do is let the winery know you’re coming, or pick an open house weekend.
Of course, most wineries are more than happy to sell you a bottle (or a case) of their wares at a festival or open house, so be ready for that. Still, even if you’re just in it for the short-pours, it’s fun and you’ll learn a ton in a single afternoon. You never know, you might come away with some new favourites.
Keep Your Tasting Notes to Yourself and Drink On Your Budget
Speaking of budget, the best way to avoid the snootiness that comes with the wine world is to, well, don’t participate. Keep your tasting notes to yourself. Bringing a bottle or two of your favourite wine to a friend’s party is a great idea. Regaling them with your detailed tasting notes isn’t.
Like any passion, you should be able to enjoy wine for you, personally. Everyone has different tastes, so what you love, someone else may hate. What you smell, someone else may not pick up. Unless everyone is enthusiastically discussing the finer points of the wine you’re drinking, avoid the urge to educate unless that’s what people want from you. Save it for the right audience, tell your friends this is one of your favourites, and leave it at that.
In the same vein, don’t let anyone else set your wine budget. There is no dollar amount at which wine transitions from “bad” to “good” or vice versa. I’ve had $US5 ($7) bottles of wine that left a bigger impression with me than $US25 ($35) bottles, and my wine fridge is packed with bottles from all price points. Judging a wine based on its price is a silly thing. If you start out trying things you think you might like, and you learn a little about varietals and their common flavours, you’ll be able to choose based on that instead of a perceived dollar value.
Trust yourself to be able to tell what’s swill and what’s delicious. After all, that’s the point of anything — to bypass the nonsense and learn what you like and truly enjoy. Wine is no different.