Clueless about wine? Don’t feel bad. Wine can be a perfect storm of the confusing and the obscure. Nobody’s born with a seasoned palate for fine wine — or a working French vocabulary. To prepare you for holiday libations, we’ve got seven tips sure to jumpstart your path to wine enlightenment.
Here’s a thirty-second crash course on the basics: Wine is either white or red. There’s other kinds — rosé, sparkling, etc. — but more often than not white vs. red is what you’ve got to worry about. Food pairings are straightforward: Order white wine with white meat, light vegetables, and fish. Order red wine for red meat and rich, roasted veggies. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are popular, reliable choices for whites and reds, respectively.
Not too much!
If you’ve bought a bottle, your server will pour your first glass and refill you periodically. Pay attention to how high they fill the glass. If you top yourself off, don’t exceed that level. Filling your glass to the tip-top is a rookie mistake. Wine glasses aren’t just shaped for looks — they’re there to make sure you can get a big whiff (“the nose”) of whatever you’re drinking. Taste is like 40% smell. If your wine can’t breathe, it won’t taste the same.
How much to pay
Pay whatever you’re comfortable paying. Expensive wine isn’t always better wine. It’s just more likely to be more complex. Even experts agree that you can drink something excellent for less than twenty bucks. If you’re dining out, though, you might want to avoid whatever’s at the very bottom of the ladder on your menu. There’s nothing wrong with the “house wine” — it can be excellent or not-so-excellent. It’s there for when you don’t particularly care what you’re drinking as long as it’s tasty. That’s 100% OK — not every glass has to be a special event. But since you’re reading this list, we reckon you’re looking to learn something about something special. Don’t get hasty, though. If you’re reading this, you probably want to hang back before you drop a cool hundo on a bottle of wine. Baby steps first. Delicious, boozy baby steps.
What’s the deal with the taste test?
When a bottle shows up at your table, your server is probably going to pour you a little bit and present it to you. This isn’t so you can taste it and figure out if you like it! By the time the cork is out, you’ve bought it. If you don’t like it, it’s too late to turn back. What you’re testing for is whether the wine is spoiled. As many as one in twelve bottles are “off” in some way. Usually, they’ve been “corked”, meaning the cork didn’t quite do its job. Corked bottles won’t make you sick, but they will smell and taste a little bit like damp cardboard. That’s what you’re looking out for. Or smelling out for, as the case may be. That said, it’s pretty unlikely. Think twice (or three times) before sending a funky-smelling wine back, especially if you’re unfamiliar with what a slightly spoiled wine smells like. Give it a sniff, and unless something is definitely wrong, give your server the OK.
Some folks associate screw caps with cheap wines. Don’t! Screw caps vastly reduce the odds that your bottle is corked or otherwise spoiled. “But why use corks at all?” They’re a big deal when it comes to aging wine. Some wines are best enjoyed after they’ve been in the bottle for a couple of years or more, and the cork is an important factor in how wine ages. They’re also fun to open. That’s why you’ll usually still see corks on expensive wines. The majority of wine, though, is meant for drinking within a year or two of bottling, so don’t discount it just because it’s got a screw cap.
Don’t be afraid to ask
Repeat after us: My server is my friend. It’s OK not to know everything (or anything). You’re only going to look like a knucklehead if you pretend to know more than you do. Your server is there to suggest pairings and give you some info on what you’re about to order. They’ve got your back when you order a drink, just like they do when you’re ordering your steak.
Take a wine tasting class
Want some hands-on guidance? Yelp’s got you covered with a Wine Tasting Class category. Search for classes near you or bookmark one of these great local businesses.
Lake Forest, CA
“Make sure that you partake in the wine bottling experience. It is truly special, and they even create custom wine labels for you.” – Louis B.
“If you haven’t been to Pairings yet, you’re missing out. Jeff can match a wine to your mood, astrology, favorite Game of Thrones character… He could probably match a wine to the consistency of the lint in your pocket if you asked him.” – Brenda T.
“Now that Tim’s has several locations, he has access to some wines that otherwise would be limited to the wineries’ wine clubs.” – Lisa W.
New York, NY
“Mark’s passion for wine is contagious. The wines you drink and learn about in the class are standard, everyday wines, which makes the knowledge gained extremely functional — like others have mentioned, the wine is poured very generously — and the cheese and crackers served are delicious.” – Mia F.
New York, NY
“Didn’t think we could learn more about wine, but Jaye and Proud Wineaux proved me wrong. It was extremely informative and enjoyable with the useful yoga poses and insightful information regarding the wines we tasted paired beautifully with tapas.” – Tina F.
“Unfortunately for me, I have completed almost every class James teaches at the Texas Wine School. Over the past year or so, I have expanded my knowledge (and palate) about wine exponentially, all while having fun and meeting other people who share a common interest in wine. I don’t think it can get much better than that!” – Chelsea C.