New to wine?
I gather that weekly readers of this column are not new to wine. But a question that I receive with some frequency — “Hey, Bill, where do I start?” — does come from those who are.
So, I ask you regulars to get this piece to anyone you know who has asked you the same question and wants to join you with glass in hand. You will do them a great favor. You know that because you have glass in hand.
It may have been curiosity that killed the cat, but the perked ear also fed and soothed and comforted him. Same with you.
You’re at a gathering and you’re slugging down your Goose Island 312 Pale Ale, like you always do, and you see a buddy (with whom you’ve heretofore hoisted a few pale ales) now holding a wine glass with some red in it.
He’s enjoying himself, just as in the good ale days, and you’re curious. This is your wine “whassup?”
We’re not talking here about the head-cocking that comes when you learn that some French wine sold at auction for $100,000 a case, or read that a Koch bottle is the centerpiece of a lawsuit, or that a pinot noir (as I read the other day) had “aromas of black cherries and saucy plums, add in some cola, cinnamon and clove, some smoke and earth … I also get some charcoal pit, roasted nuts, loamy soil and spice elements (maybe clove and black licorice).”
No, I refer to simple curiosity, perhaps a bit of anticipation. “They seem to like it; maybe I will too.”
Start with you
I wrote a column several years ago rating bag-in-box wines; you know, three liters of Franzia Crisp White for $11.
An older fellow wrote me that he had never bought any wine before, but he “couldn’t go wrong at least giving it a go at that price.”
Where in wine is this guy now? I have no idea. He may be back to amaretto sours, or he’s over at the wine auction house Hart Davis Hart bidding on Burgundies.
It doesn’t matter; he started with himself and went from there.
Don’t buy into the cultural imperative to drink only “serious” wine such as Napa cabernet sauvignons or French Bordeaux or any of the edges currently cutting it (wine from the Jura, Spanish sherry, grower Champagnes, and so on).
You won’t like them and they will turn you off to wine. Those kinds of wines need approach vectors and you will learn them in time.
For starters, go with your gut — literally. Begin your wine life with the kind of wine that tastes good to anyone’s tummy, an easygoing white wine that’s slightly sweet. Many a German or Washington State riesling fills that bill, as do a raft of inexpensive, bag-in-box or Trader Joelike thrift wines.
On ice? If you want to, sure.
Another cultural imperative will tell you that off-dry or sweet wines are wuss wines, but pay no heed and do not be embarrassed when drinking them. Everyone, amateur to expert, enjoys a little sugar. Keep in mind that lactose, after all, is everybody’s starter food.
When people ask me for the best basic wine book, I always recommend two; both are perfect starter texts as well as reference staples for your library.
They are Kevin Zraly’s “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course,” now in a 30th anniversary edition, and Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible,” unmatched for its breadth and detail even 14 years after its first printing.
Both books are well written, cover all the basics and answer all the questions. I continue to use them myself.
The best way to learn about wine is to taste it. And the best way to taste it is to set one wine next to another and compare them, simply paying attention to your senses in turn. Some teachers call this the “see, swirl, sniff, sip, savor” technique.
You will find what you like in a wine by looking at its color; getting a good, deep smell of its aroma; letting a taste of it linger on your palate; and getting a feel for its texture, weight and structure by literally feeling it with your tongue and mouth. Above all, wine is a sensuous beverage.
Comparing wines side by side or in sequence merely helps you calculate or list what you prefer in one versus the other.
Good ways to do this are to visit a working winery (every state in the U.S. has at least two), or attend wine classes or wine tasting events (the best site for finding out where those are is localwineevents.com).
Here are two wines to recommend to get you started.
• 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling, Columbia Valley, Washington: Crafted to be slightly sweet; refreshing, easygoing, a simple pleasure. $8-$10
• 2013 Las Lilas Vinho Verde, Portugal: About as easy-drinking a white wine as there is; slightly spritzy, too. $8-$10
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
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