I am quickly moving from sympathy to frustration with people who begin conversations about wine with self-flagellating disclaimers: “I’m no connossieur……” “I know nothing about wine….” “I choose wines by the label/price/winery name/bottle shape/weather report/horoscope/fill in the blank…..” “I only drink merlot/pink/chardonnay/Australian….” and on and on. I cringe whenever these apologies crawl weakly out of a friend’s or customer’s mouth. Inside my skull, tiny Count Rugens run around shouting, “Stop saying that!”
How have we arrived at this point? Wine wasn’t always seen as something other folks did. In countless corners of the world it remains a staple at daily meals. Is America’s Puritan hangover responsible for our reluctance to know more about this essential drink? What can we do to improve this intolerable situation, to get more people to drink more wine? Being practical, we have to admit that there are a number of people who cannot be saved, who do not want to be saved. They like what they like, they’re comfortable with Brand X, and no amount of cajoling, enticement, or crippling ridicule will shake them from their perch. But, thank our lucky corkscrews, there are legions of folks out there who are desperate to learn more, to shake off the shackles of ignorance, and set out on their own into the world of wine. But what to do, where to start?
Many wine educators, and this includes your Aunt Cruella from California, who never misses a chance to share more than she actually knows or understands, make the mistake of trying to teach too much at once. Wine is complicated and can’t really be learned in big gulps. Well, it can, but that’s not what I mean. Heck, even folks who study a particular wine region for years and years never really know it all. There’s just too much. So stop apologizing for what you think you should know but don’t. You’re in good company in not knowing stuff.
Remember when you were little and conducted mad scientist experiments in the kitchen, using every available liquid and dry ingredient? Nothing but fun, and a little bit of a mess. Well, those days don’t have to be a thing of the past. For a start, here are three simple things you can do to travel further into the wine wilderness. Still have fun, still make a little bit of a mess.
1. Try the same grape from a different region or country. Say you like zinfandel. Well, try a primitivo from Italy. It’s the same grape. Compare the new wine with your old stand-by. See if you can tell the difference. Find out which one you like more and try to say why. Then do it again, with the same grape or others. Invite your friends to play along.
2. Get a small group of friends together. Have each person bring a bottle of wine. For beginners, maybe everybody brings the same grape, but from different parts of the globe. If you like merlot, you can obtain bottles from California, Washington, France, Italy, and Chile. See how they differ, see what they have in common. See if you can learn, via books or the internet or the local wine merchant, what causes the differences. Next month, pick another grape and four or five different regions. When you get a bit more knowledgeable, and maybe more accomplished in your tasting, bring five bottles of red or white from different countries. Bag and number them, and then try to tell which bottles are from what countries and why.
3. This last tip is less about actual experimentation and has more to do with changing your attitude and how you talk about wine. Instead of saying, “I’m not……” start discussing your wine experience in positive terms: “I want to know more about….” or “I’m really excited about all the ______I’ve tasted recently,” or, even, “I just started drinking European wines and I’m learning so much!” Wine is supposed to be fun, not a cause for intimidation or embarrassment. Hell, it’s food. You don’t act this way with your steaks or salads, do you? If wine matters to you, if you think it’s important, then you should take your new, fun hobby seriously. And you deserve to have others take you and your new-found curiosity seriously as well. So, party on. You are worthy.
What are some tips you’ve received or shared that might help others improve their wine game? Any special lessons you’ve learned that increased your knowledge in a fun or amusing way? Don’t be shy, let us know. The fun part about wine is that the learning never stops. So, grab a glass and get to class!