Wine Tasting for Beginners

Tips on developing your palate and buying the right bottle.

You can’t really learn wine from a book: all lessons are in the glass. You learn by tasting. You learn not only what you like but why you like it. Once that’s established, you know when to drink it and with what. And along the way you learn about buying and storing, types and styles, glassware and accessories, and, of course, tasting. Plus there’s pleasure in the glass. Pull some corks, pour some glasses and continue your education. There are some things it helps to know before you remove the cork, however.

Choosing the Right Wine

There are so many choices. Overall, that’s a good thing. Huge choice, however, has its downside, too. But learning with wine is trial and error. Again, don’t sweat it: you are not picking mutual funds. We begin with the simplest facts: wines are either sparkling or still. They are white, rosé or red. They are dry, slightly sweet or sweet. They are all made from grapes. Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

There are dozens and dozens of grape varieties from which wine is made. And those grapes don’t even taste quite the same when grown in two different areas of the same vineyard, let alone in two different parts of the world. Furthermore, while great wine is made in the vineyards, there are techniques employed in the winery that can make a huge difference to what ends up in your glass. Some techniques are officially prescribed (those controlled appellations, again): a wine labeled from this region will be not less than x percent Cabernet Sauvignon, not more than y percent Merlot, for instance. Yes, as if the dozens of grapes were not mind-boggling enough, the game is further complicated by the fact that some wines are blends (named for place, such as Bordeaux), while others are varietals, named for the grape of which they are mainly constituted, such as Merlot.

Like most people, I’m far more interested in flavor than in production specs, so when choosing, I work backward from taste, which is also how I advise you to get started if you are a relative novice. Start by buying varietals (one-grape) wines within the price sweet spot.

The Fruit of the Matter

Get to know the grapes, and you are on your way. Where to start? Let’s go to the head of the class: the so-called vinifera, those grapes that dominate and compete head-on for market share in the global wine business.

White grapes: the Chardonnay and the Sauvignon Blanc rule, but don’t neglect to try a Pinot Grigio from Italy or a Pinot Gris from Oregon or a Riesling from Alsace.

The reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah make up the lion’s share (but that list excludes four grapes found in some of my favorite wines: Zinfandel from California, Grenache from the southern Rhône, Nebbiolo from Piedmont and Sangiovese from Tuscany).

Once you know a Cabernet from a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay from a Sauvignon Blanc, you can go on to explore the wines in which different grapes are blended, wines more often named not for grapes but for regions, such as a familiar little blend called Champagne. As I have mentioned, it depends on the Pinot Noir, which is a red grape. You might be scratching your head: isn’t Champagne a white wine? Another French Paradox? Not so much: Champagne typically contains the juice of both red and white grapes, mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But grape juice is clear; it’s the grape skin that furnishes color, and only if it’s left in contact with the juice (not the case with Champagne).

Sip, Then Jot

Incidentally, when you are exploring wines, it helps to keep a journal, recording your impressions of things you’ve tried. Many wine lovers soak off the labels and paste them in a diary. (Looking back on wine adventures past, one never wonders where all the years went.)

Here’s another eye-opener: A wine that is arguably the world’s best (and certainly one of the most expensive) is made from a grape I haven’t even mentioned—the Sémillon. I am referring to the greatest of all dessert wines, Château d’Yquem [dee-KEM]. Some upscale restaurants offer it on occasion by the glass, making tasting it almost affordable—well, an affordable luxury anyway. If you ever have the good fortune to taste this divine elixir, the last thing on your mind will be what grape it’s made from. It’s all in the glass, and the more you know . . . well, you know.

A final word about choosing: palates new to wine often prefer semisweet, if not sweet, though they soon acquire a taste for dry wines. Likewise, though white is more often the starting point than red, white wine drinkers often end up as red aficionadas.

So where are the best places to buy?

Buy from a reputable seller who turns over stock regularly. There are great deals to be had at some large retailers that purchase in huge quantities at top discount or buy closeouts from wineries or distributors trying to raise cash or free up space for new inventory. These outlets are convenient and favor the consumer who knows what she or he wants and is content with some of the more popular brands. For more thoughtful selections, personal attention and rare bottlings, wineshops and specialty retailers are recommended. And you can find good buys there as well. A knowledgeable shopkeeper will steer you to good vintages, which vary widely by geography (a bad year in the Rhône can be a fine year in Chile) and certainly by year (that year’s Bordeaux may be the vintage of the century, while the next year’s could be hard to give away—well, relatively hard). Someone who buys professionally can also sometimes point you to good wines in lesser vintages—the star of an otherwise lackluster year in Napa, say.

If you happen on a wine “promotion” featuring an improbably good price or a questionably exultant rave by the seller, there’s a simple test. Buy a bottle. It’s not a tech stock; the downside risk is small. If you like it, go back for another . . . even a case. Voilà: now you are a connoisseur and a collector. Most reputable stores won’t steer you far wrong. You know where they live, and they want you back. Of course, taste is always subjective. But once you know each other’s palate, any motivated seller and buyer can work together. Plus you’ll find that people who work in these stores like wine and like talking about it—with you or anyone. (I know a bunch of guys who drop in each Saturday on their favorite wine store just to browse and chat.)

Buying direct from wineries, either on-site or via the Internet, is always good for a few bons mots at dinner: “When we were in Napa, we stopped by the So-and-So Estate and tried this heavenly Merlot. Well, we just had to bring back a few bottles.” For many, such chitchat is part of the wine game. Sometimes the stories are quite entertaining, though the teller should always track the listener’s attention and tolerance. There are other ways to socialize over a glass that are less self-reflexive. Wine always seems to lubricate the tongue.

How Much Should I Spend?

My second piece of advice about buying is no more “out there” than the first, but so many people can’t seem to get it: price is not synonymous with quality. Truly great is one thing, greatly hyped quite another. There’s no reason to get soaked. In today’s global economy, with wine from dozens of regions around the world in distribution and new ones coming online each year, and modern production techniques yielding some amazing results, we are actually living through a time of wine glut, as near a buyer’s market as I’ve seen. For the price of this book, you can easily find a terrific bottle of wine. The “sweet spot” of value I look for nowadays is the quality bottle between $9 and $29 retail. No doubt there are decent ones to be had for less, but the odds of finding them are against you, and the cheap disappointments can add up as you taste your way to a winner. I certainly buy and drink wines well above $30 (professional development, right?). Are they “worth it”? Quite often they are, and I have spent years building an experienced palate capable of appreciating subtle traits. But I also know what I’m paying for: the supply-and-demand effect that kicks in when a large segment of the market wants the same product; the middleman who buys and stores the wine until it’s old enough to command top dollar and reach its peak. Of course, top expertise and unique wines also command a premium and do often yield greatness, but after a certain point other factors contribute to cost above any standard of quality.

In the course of my career, I have been the president of one ultrapremium winery in California and chaired the board of another. Both estates produce exceptional wines (if I do say so myself ), for a price still within my sweet spot, though at the upper end. But minding the books, I knew that the costs of a bottle were largely buried in the vineyards. Suitable real estate in wine country can make Manhattan prices seem reasonable, as I discovered firsthand when we decided to expand into new acreage and plant more vines. So we borrowed the money.

And guess who is paying the interest and principal on the loan, bottle by bottle? At least in California there is some room to grow. Consider two of my favorite wines, Champagne and red Burgundy. Both are dependent on harvests of Pinot Noir vineyards, some of them postage-stamp small. As there is no immediate prospect of change in the consensus that wines from these regions are among the world’s best, the grapes lovingly coaxed to fullness on these little tracts of land are likely to remain the most expensive fruits on earth.