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suggestions for wine newbie

I'm somewhat new to wine, and am trying to "train" my palette. First, is there any good "kit" for learning how to detect various common aromas? Second, what are some relatively inexpensive wines that are good representatives of the typical flavors in various varietals?

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  1. It's very hard to go wrong with a young fruity beaujolais (NOT nouveau)...accessible taste, easy to find, not expensive...

    1. Do some research on this board for bottles under $20 that are a good example of the varietal (Seghesio, for example, is what I would call a standard California Zinfandel). If you have the patience, budget, and alcohol tolerance, start drinking a bottle or two a week to get a sense of what tastes like what.

      Even better, see if you can get 10 friends in on this and assign each person one bottle. That way, you can taste 10 at one time so you can really see the differences. And it's more budget friendly.

      If you have friends who are as interested as you are, you could do one night for reds, one night for whites, and then start honing in on specifics (if everyone LOVES cabernet, do a cabernet from around the world night, etc).

      It's a lot of fun, and you can start throwing in food pairings after awhile too.

      Recently, we opened up a bottle of $5 cabernet and one that was closer to $60, and our wine newbie friends were very shocked by the difference. Even the least experienced palates can tell the different in side by sides like that.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Pei

        RE: your first paragraph. That's exactly what I'm trying to do!

        1. re: amkirkland

          Pei, If you have a wine shop favorite ask the owner if he knows of any wine clubs in your area. That is how my dh and I started and know we've graduated from tasting attendees to hosts.

          Enjoy the adventure!

      2. My number one recommendation for someone getting started in wine...

        Learn that it's the YEAR that matters, in most cases. Learn how to read vintage charts. A wine from a "good" or "great" vineyard in an off year is going to be at best fair and in a poor year it will be very unimpressive.

        You may end up thinking you don't like that particular type of wine, when it was merely a bad year.

        Also... the 6 most important wines to learn FIRST, in my opinion, especially for someone living in the US:

        WHITES: Riesling, Chardonnay

        REDS: Cabernet (or cabernet/merlot blends), Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel

        "Study" those 6 wines, find out what years were the best in their various source countries, and go from there.

        13 Replies
        1. re: Chicago Mike

          Most red wines and virtually all whites are made to be drunk young, and for those wines, vintage charts are mostly irrelevant.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I agree. If you're starting out training your palate, tasting wine is the best practice, regardless of vintage. It's very overwhelming, so start with a country, or a grape that you like. Start trying that grape for example syrah, from different countries, and different styles and depending on your budget, different vintages. If you have friends who are also interested, get them in on the fun. For geekiness, taste the wine at different times of the day, and notice how both the wine and your palate change. Be more geeky, and try to taste and memorize how various wines are characterized, by smelling and tasting "wine " flavors like, coffee, chocolate, citurs fruits, berries, etc. So when those fancy descriptors like rich tannins with black cherry aromas, float around you can start to identify descriptors of grapes and the styles of wine they produce. The best advice? Practice,practice,practice! Good Luck

            1. re: sharonm

              Honestly I can't understand anyone protesting the importance of Vintage Years in wine...

              The single most important factor in wine quality and absolutely the first thing a "newbie" needs to learn. Otherwise they're going to end up buying alot of "off years" and wondering why they don't like the varietal.

              I could give so many examples of this from personal experience, in almost every varietal you can name. The fact is that for many important wine regions in the world there are only 2 or 3 really good vintages per decade on average. Then there are a couple "fair" ones and at least several horrible years. If a newbie is pulling wine off the shelf blind it's a crapshoot that they get a good bottle.

              1. re: Chicago Mike

                My experience is the opposite. Most wines, especially those in the stated under-$20 price range, are pretty consistent from year to year, and not made for aging, so the main use of the vintage date is to ensure you're not getting an over-the-hill bottle (a frequent problem with Italian wines).

                The more expensive the wine, the more likely the vintage is to matter. Higher-end Bordeaux and Burgundies, for example, vintages matter a lot. But we're talking way over the stated under-$20 price range there.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  For the inexpensive, under $20 wines the OP is asking about, I agree with Robert. Vintage, while a key component of many wines, won't really be a big factor for this exercise.

                  1. re: woojink

                    You guys talk like $20 is a lousy wine... where do you shop?

                    For alot of varietals you should expect good to excellent wine for $20 a bottle... you can get good to excellent riesling, zinfandel, syrah, pinot noir, even chardonnay for that price. You can find nice cabernet for $20 as well, especially if you're not limited to the US and France.

                    Good luck enjoying it if you're drinking a bad year.

                    If you're looking for "mass commercial" wine with some semblance of "tipico" taste where vintage year doesn't matter then you're probably more in the $4.95 to 8.95 price range.

                    1. re: Chicago Mike

                      Can you name one of these under-$20, bad-year wines you're talking about? I really haven't experienced that problem. Modern viticultural and winemaking techniques mean that in most climates good wine can be made every year.

                      I find good (and lousy) wines in every price range from around $6 on up. Most of the wine I buy is in the $8-15 range. I rarely spend more than that except for old or ageworthy riesling, Bordeaux-type blends, and dessert wines.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Well here's just a few remarkably bad years in the past decade:
                        2000 Mosel
                        2002 Ribera
                        2002 Rioja
                        2002 Tuscany
                        1998 Sonoma Chardonnay
                        1998 & 2000 Napa Cabernet
                        2000 Zinfandel
                        1998, 2000 & 2002 Maipo Cabernet
                        2000 Barossa Shiraz
                        2000 & 2002 Adelaide Chardonnay
                        In all of the above there's good to excellent wines at $20 in great years.

                        And while these were distinctly bad years, there are several others that were at best "fair".

                        One of the first "newbie" experiences I ever had was back in the mid-80's. I can't recall the exact year but was probably from the first half of the decade...

                        Anyway, I'd "splurged" and bought a bottle of a renowned vineyard... it was either a Ferrari Carano or Sonoma Cutrer... anyway, I brought that bottle home and was so excited about trying this "sumptuous" chardonnay. Turned out it was about as impressive as flat lemonade. As I studied more, it turned out that bottle was from a very lowly-rated growing season...

                        That was my wakeup call to vintages and I've had many since... and I'd suggest it to any newbie just getting into wine... especially if they're paying more than a few bucks for a bottle.

                        While winemaking techniques may be very impressive, they are no match for mother nature.

                        1. re: Chicago Mike

                          My perspective is probably different since I don't like high-alcohol fruit bombs, but I think you're over-generalizing.

                          For example, 2002 was problematic in Tuscany due to cool, wet weather, but they still made lots of good wine. There are often excellent values to be found in vintages that have a bad reputation.

                          1. re: Chicago Mike

                            I guess I don't buy much wine for under $20 per bottle. I wish I could, just works out that way. In any event, vintage IS important and it does matter, but for a wine newbie, figuring out which varietal and/or appelation is appealing is far, far more important than trying to figure out a vintage chart.

                            I can easily rattle off great, not great and terrible vintages also, but I don't think someone who is a wine newbie will be buying aged vintages any way. It will be most likely wines that are under current release. So again, the vintages aren't as important, as trying a bunch of wines and learning your preferences.

                            I agree with Robert that good or bad vintages are rarely across the board, and especially for a beginner, learning and finding out the vagaries of wine at the varietal level will be much more impactful than exploring the differences of the same wines in differing vintages.

                        2. re: Chicago Mike

                          True, 'tis a sad state of affairs that people now spend the equivalent of a small Carribean nation's GDP on a case of house wine these days, but . . .

                          Depending upon one's experience and palate preferences, it CAN be difficult to find great wines -- perhaps not at +/- $20, but certainly in the "under $15" price category. Don't misunderstand, there are thousands of "good-to-very good" wines produced worldwide in the approximate $12-15 range. And depending upon where you live, hundreds may be available to you. But to find a truly great (exceptional, outstanding, mind-blowing, awesome -- pick your favorite adjective) wine below $15 is not an easy task, and to find one under $10 is like finding a pearl in your dozen oysters at Grand Central Terminal or the SF Ferry Building . . . possible, but --

                          One of my all-time great finds was the 1978 E. Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone for $3.99 (less 10% by the case). It was amazingly good at 10-12 years of age! Another was the 2000 Mas Gabinele Faugeres for only $7 -- just bought that last week, but it was probably the very first under $10 wine I've enjoyed enough to purchase a case of in probably 10-15 years!

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Adjusting for inflation, $4 in 1978 is comparable to around $12.50 today.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Well, let's keep in mind the wine wasn't purchased in 1978 . . .

                              According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://data/bls/gov), $3.99 in 1981 is equivlaent to $8.86 in 2006. If you factor in the case discount, it's $7.97. ;^)

            2. >>is there any good "kit" for learning how to detect various common aromas?<<

              The best known is the Nez du Vin. Very pricey and not really all that useful, IMHO, unless you don't know what saffron, violets, cloves, pineapple, etc., smell like. www.lenez.com

              Vintage charts are best viewed with suspicion. Even assuming you can trust their usually anonymous authors, they often summarize huge regions and ignore microclimates and the talent of individual winemakers. For example, most vintage charts lump the French southwest under a single rating, yet that region's range of climates, geography, grape varieties and wine-making styles is so enormous as to make such a broad generalization meaningless, not to mention useless. And even in vintages where an entire region experienced disastrous conditions -- the southern Rhone in diluvian 2002, for example -- there are invariably producers who make decent wines.

              Pei's on the right track. Get together a group of friends or acquaintances (you can easily get 12 or 13 pours from a bottle), buy a bunch of wines and taste them side by side. If one or two people do the choosing (maybe with the help of a trustworthy wine store clerk), the wines can easily be organized into flights of three to five bottles. For example, you could start with a flight of whites, move on to some supple reds and end with a flight of heavyweight reds or sweet wines. Flights can be built around various themes:
              - different producers from the same appellation and vintage (2004 Chianti Classico, for example
              )- different vintages of the same wine (Saintsbury Pinot Noir from 2001, 2002 and 2003)
              - all or part of the range of wines made by a given producer (Beyer's three riesling cuvées -- Réserve, Les Écaillers and Comte d'Eguisheim)
              - wines made from the same grape but in different parts of the country/world (sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, California, the Loire and South Africa)
              - wines made in the same region and the same style but from different grapes (syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel from Napa/Sonoma or Southern Australia)
              - and so on.

              Also, ask around (at wine shops, wine-friendly restaurants, etc.) and keep your eyes peeled. There may already be groups in your area that you can join or tastings that you can attend. The important thing is to experience as many and as wide a variety of wines as possible. I don't recall who first said it but it's absolutely true: the more you taste, the more you taste.

              1. Inexpensive wines from northeastern Italy (Veneto, Friuli, Collio) generally have very straightforward, classic varietal characteristics. Typical varietals include cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot grigio.

                The only problem is that they're not always shipped properly, so especially the whites sometimes end up oxidized.

                1. Perhaps I wasn't clear. I'm looking for, for example, a specific cabernet sauvignon that is a good representative of what most expect from a cab... and so on for different varietals. It's a plus if these are under $20 and widely accessible.

                  Or... is this an ignorant question?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: amkirkland

                    I'll make a few suggestions that are easy to find and to me taste like "A --fill in the blank--":

                    Rosemount Shiraz.
                    St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc
                    Seghesio Zinfandel

                    Of course, the best way to learn "what a cab tastes like" is to round up a bunch of cabernet sauvignons and taste them all for similarities.

                    1. re: amkirkland

                      That's the sort of question best answered by a staff person at a really good wine shop. Do you have any where you live?

                      There's no one wine that's typical. French and California winemakers often make very different wine from the same varietals.

                      1. re: amkirkland

                        I don't think representative wines are necessarily the best approach. This is an agricultural product with a lot of variation in grapes, climate, and winemaking techniques, so I'm not sure there's such a thing as a "normal" cab.

                        I'd say the best approach is to pick a region you like, and really get to know the wines there. What grapes grow there? What do those wines taste like? Who are the winemakers in that area? Who are the importers? Definitely use your local wine shop as a resource and if you can, visit the region and do some tastings.


                      2. First thing that I'd recommend is a copy of Andrea Immer-Robinson's "Great Wine Made Simple" (Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier), Andrea Immer ISBN 0-7679-0477-X, followed by Kevin Zraly's "Complete Wine Course" (Windows on the World - A Lively Guide), Sterling, ISBN 0-8069-7649-7. Both are more tasting guides and will step you through the basics, concentrating more on the elements that one finds in wines and the grapes, rather than tomes on the methods of production and the finer aspects of place of origin.

                        Taste along with these two books, and you'll have a great background on wines - in general. Besides, they have fun "homework!"


                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          yes yes yes - Andrea Immer's book is a great place to start. It really leads you through the basics, pointing out what to look for and suggesting specific wines at a variety of price points.

                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            Absolutely, TOTALLY recommend Great Wine Made Simple. It's helped me go from complete wine novice to someone able to competently talk about wine in a shop. The book starts out with very basic things. First, she discusses the differences between what she calls the Big Six wines: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The next few lessons go into different words that are essential in wine lingo; what makes wines, dry, crisp, oaky, tannic, buttery, grassy, floral, and spicy. All of these are illustrated through tasting. For example, to learn about dryness in wine, you try a dry Riesling, then an off-dry Riesling to get yourself a direct contrast.

                            1. A good wine merchant can educate you and put together a nice mixed case for you. I read reviews not for scores but for descriptions to help guide my purchases. I agree with the vintage rule but only in the extremes as I find the scores are arbitrary between 85-95. I think of wines in simple terms:

                              1. Drink alone wines: the after work glass before dinner
                              2. Food Wines: the wines you pick for a specific cuisine
                              3. Special Occassion Wines: the wines that you look forward to pulling the cork on (and always wish you bought more especially when it is the last bottle).
                              4. Great Value: maybe not the best bottle but the value makes it a favorite (Columbia Crest Shiraz, Codice, Sacred Stone Blend, Covey Run Riesling).
                              5. Never again wine: "should I drink this or dump it" is the thought after the first sip.

                              If you find wines you enjoy, buy a case (especially if they are a good value and a discount is offered by the case).
                              If you find a specific wine you like, try other wines of the smae varietal from that region(especially in the same price range). This is no guarantee but it is often a way to stya close to a flavor profile you like.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: TonyO

                                Great advice overall, but I would caution against buying a whole case of anything until you've really given your palate some time to grow. I bought a few cases of things early on that I thought I would love forever, but I soon outgrew them and was stuck with several bottles of something I didn't love anymore. It's just not worth the $10, $20, or even $30 you might save.

                                Buy a half case, or get a discount by buying a mixed case.

                                1. re: Pei

                                  Thanks for the advice. I'm definitely not a stock up and save kind of person. I strongly prefer to get as many different experiences as possible.

                              2. One thing you can do is learn when your local wine sellers have tastings and go in to sample. Ask questions, take notes and learn what you can. Go to local wine tastings at restaurants if you can, sample their choices (usually with food) and learn from those too.

                                For learning about varietal scents, skip the 'kits' as they aren't going to be the best representative of a scent anyway. Just go out in the world and take in it's odors. We were told this in our wine certification course. Take in the scents in your spice cabinet, the scents in a forest, on a beach, in your backyard.

                                And the best advice has already been given. Gather a bunch of friends, have each one bring a wine of a certain varietal and taste them. Be sure to utilize something to cleanse the palate between tastings, like bread or crackers, and drink a lot of water to prevent your palate from becoming too overwhelmed. And read.....read and read some more. The information available on wine is staggering. And also remember that you will never come to a point where you know everything there is to know about wine, it simply isn't possible, and you can try 10 different wines with 10 people and you will all taste, and like something different. Wine is very much a personal thing and your tastes will never completely match someone else. Make sure you are trying different varietals from around the world too, as Spain, Chile and Argentina have beautiful wines that are inexpensive and wonderful that won't have recognizable names. Make sure you try french merlot and not just domestic (you may never go back if you do!), italian gavi and spanish tempranillo, try a malbec and a viognier too. Sample New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc against anything the US has to offer. Spend some money and try a Montrachet from France, it's spectacular. Your homework will be SO much fun!! Make sure you keep a notebook with you if you go out and drink wine in a restaurant; you can jot down what is good about it so you can buy it at a later date if you want. My notebook in my purse is crammed full of stuff but it is invaluable as a resource and reference.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: cooknKate

                                  "won't have recognizable names"

                                  Actually, most wines from Chile and Argentina list the varietal on the label, and they use mostly the same familiar handful of varietals used by most California wineries.

                                  It's nice to have a few reference books handy to look up what varietal(s) you're drinking in French, Spanish, and Italian wines where only the AOC / DO / DOC appears on the label.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    just for clarification, I was meaning more along the lines of those ubiquitous CA wines whose names are everywhere and anywhere.....not necessarily varietal names.

                                2. One additional thought, re the flavor profiles, etc. If you have the opportunity to travel to the Sonoma Valley, of CA, do not miss the opportunity to stop by the Kendall-Jackson Tasting Room in Windsor, CA. Regardless of what might think of their mainstream wines, their "Sensory Garden," is as good as it gets. There is also a working small vineyard, where one can also taste the actual grape varietals, in season. This is worth the trip and the time to stop by for a real education - especially the Sensory Garden.

                                  I'd recommend trips to the various wine producing areas to get an education. Ask a lot of questions, and do not be intimidated by the group around you, or the staff at the tasting room(s). The staff is there for your benefit.


                                  1. All too complicated. Just taste wines that seem interesting - make your own mistakes - read a lot and talk to people who work in good wine shops.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: beef

                                      Ditto to beef - well put!

                                      DH and I are also wine lovers but basically are "newbies". People who own wine shops are excellent resources for information, they love to talk about wine and know what to ask you to steer you in the right direction. Make friends with these folks! Wine stores in my area (metro Worcester Mass) often have wine tasting hours or afternoons where you can contrast and compare and find new wines that fit your palate. But the best learning experience I've had recently was our first trip to Napa Valley this past September. Granted we probably did the "beginners" tour of the standard vineyards, but it was a fabulous learning experience and a terrific vacation. The tour escorts and the tasting room staff were happy to answer any questions, no matter how "dumb". We're still boring our friends with our "expertise" :-) !!

                                    2. Best piece of advice given above is - drink and taste as many different wines as you and your budget can handle. Only real way to learn. Your palate is your own. Don't let anyone else tell you what you taste and like.

                                      To that end, the question I ask anyone who wants to start drinking wine is... what kind of food do you like? What other drinks do you like? What flavors in food and drink are most appealing to you? Then I can recommend some varietals to try.

                                      Also, remember, as you drink more wine, your palate WILL evolve, and what you like now will be different from what you you like a year or two from now.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: woojink

                                        Oh, I can already tell that's incredibly true. My parents used to buy fetzer gewurtstraminer (probably not a chowish wine, i know) by the case, and I enjoyed it. Now drinking it is like drinking syrup to me.

                                      2. First step . . . what I tell all my students . . . is to "go back to school." Get a three-ring binder and some notebook paper.

                                        Most wine labels will come off if you soak the empty bottle in hot water. Tape the label to the left side of the paper. (If you can't get the label, just copy all the information down.) Next to it, write down when you bought it, when you drank it, and what you paid for it. On the rest of the paper, write down -- in your own words -- what you thought of the wine. Don't worry about what you write; you are the only one who's going to read it, so write what you think in whatever words make sense to you.

                                        Let's say, hypothetically, the wine you try is the 2006 vintage of Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Let's say you liked it. OK, what are the variables: the vintage (2006); the winery (Robert Mondavi), the appellation (Napa Valley) and the variety (Cabernet Sauvignon). OK, try changing one variable -- a different 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon; a different varietal wine (Chardonnay?, Pinot Noir?) from Robert Mondavi in the 2006 vintage; or a 2006 Cabernet Sauvingon from the Sierra Foothills, the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Columbia Valley . . .

                                        by writing down what you thought of the wine -- whether or not you liked it! -- you will soon build up a great idea of your likes and dislikes.

                                        If you are truly starting out, start with the basics: pick a winery like Fetzer, Kendall-Jackson, Blackstone and move on from there. Or start a bit higher: wineries like Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Louis M. Martini or the Gallo of Sonoma bottlings (better than you think). All produce varietally correct, true-to-type wines. Some will be better than others, but none should truly "suck."

                                        Good luck!


                                        5 Replies
                                        1. re: zin1953

                                          Good suggestion on shuffling the variables.

                                          Personally I'd seek out small winemaker / family-owned wineries rather than big corporate labels like those. You're more likely to find such wines at an independent wine shop than at a chain store.

                                          These days a computer might be better than a notebook. Images of most wine labels are online.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            The only reason I'd start with the "big, corporate" ones is that no matter where someone happens to live (in the U.S.), they're more than likely able to find them. Also, they tend to be very well made, correct-to-type, and a lot like the three bears: not too hard, not too soft; not too dry, not too sweet . . .

                                            Once the individual ("amkirkland," in this case) establishes a baseline, if you will, then I would DEFINITELY encourage him/her to more on to small, family-owned wineries. BUT the results are likely to be a bit idiosyncratic -- you either love them or you don't.
                                            When I was running a tasting group in Napa Valley back in the late-1970s, I'd include (e.g.) Cabernets from small wineries and large. If you rank the wines, rather than score them, awarding one point for a 1st place vote, 8 points for an 8th place vote, and total up the points, the wine with the lowest number of points is the group favorite. Robert Mondavi always came in first, but it never got a first place vote! Half the tasters would vote for "Wine A" as their 1st place wine, but they hated "Wine B." The other half would love "Wine B" and hate "Wine A." As a result, Wines A & B would score in the lower half, even though they each got several 1st place votes. But everyone would agree that Robert Mondavi was fine; it would always get nothing but 2nd and 3rd place votes, but would have the fewest points overall and would "win" the tasting.
                                            I would hate for someone to try a small, esoteric producer of, say, Zinfandel, strongly dislike its style, and then think all Zins were like that one. Better (at least, IMHO) to start out with more "middle-of-the-road" wines, and then explore from there.


                                            1. re: zin1953

                                              If there's no good independent wine shop where a novice can get advice on small producers, then the big corporate brands are a good starting point.

                                              FWIW the Robert Mondavi winery of the 1970s was a small producer compared with Constellation Brands, the multinational conglomerate that owns the brand today.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                True, but they were also the most technologically "pure" of the Napa stalwarts of the day.

                                          2. re: zin1953

                                            Jason's advice is excellent. It's good to try out the more prominent names in order to get an idea of what each varietal should taste like, they tend to be pretty consistent. Once you get more comfortable with your personal favorites, then you can branch out to more refined bottles.

                                            I love my wine notebook that I keep in my purse. SO much good information. I do keep an online wine journal as well, but only after it gets jotted in the notebook.

                                            1. "First, is there any good "kit" for learning how to detect various common aromas?"

                                              Check out the UC Davis wine aroma wheel - it is really a great tool for training the nose: http://www.winearomawheel.com

                                              Here is a link to the user guide, which tells how to set up the "standards" you will sniff to compare with the wine you are investigating to see if the aroma is present. Its a great DIY aroma kit. http://www.winearomawheel.com/doc/use...

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: lisa13

                                                Ah, the UCD Aroma Wheel. I had not thought of that, and I well should have! Thanks. I order these in bulk to hand out in our International Wine & Food Society tastings. I've also used them as "prizes," when single-blind tastings were conducted, usually at the first level, say, "Old World - New World?"

                                                Thank you for mentioning these. Even for an advanced wine person, they help identify the aspects of most wines - adding words to sensory impressions.


                                              2. I agree with experience as the best tool in "learning" wine. Check with a good local wine merchant for any wine tastings that the store or local wine club may have. Listen as more experienced, knowledgable wine people describe a wine that they're tasting, then see if you can train your nose and tongue to find the flavors and tastes that they describe. That immediate feedback will hasten your learing.

                                                1. You have been given a lot of good suggestions, and some commentary and opinions that are a bit over the top for someone new to wine. While I have studies for years, I still consider myself a student of wine, not an expert, not a connoisseur. My best wine educators (all professionals of the trade, some masters of wine and master sommeliers) all kept it to a simple format:

                                                  1) SENSORY PERCEPTIONS - Become acutely aware of aromas, tastes and textures in your environment. Educate your senses before you try to understand wine. Take a stroll through a garden and smell the plants, flowers, soils, vegetables. Walk through a barn and understand the levels of 'barnyard' aromas, the sweetness of hay. Smell everything you eat, particulary fruits, spices, herbs, and vegetables.

                                                  2) TASTE, TASTE, TASTE - not swallowing. Taste often and a lot. That does not mean drinking; it is often a one ounce pour of many wines. Tasting also is for non-wine components that will expand your palate for understanding the character of wine. If someone says a wine has a lychee overtone, and you have never smelled or tasted lychee, you are missing a point of reference. Farmers markets are wonderful places to sample a wide variety of fresh produce to undertand the aromas and flavours. Character references in wine come from a person's individual experience as much as a professional text or reference. Ditto on the UC Davis aroma wheel. It is a great reference tool. My sensory training in wine has helped me with my studies of Cognac and Scotch whiskies as well.

                                                  3) Formal education - If you have a favourite wine merchant and they offer classes or tastings, attend as many as possible. I have had the pleasure of developing relationships with two incredible merchants over the years. After their classes and tastings, and my own studies, they helped arrange visits to help me continue my studies locally and abroad. My exploration took me to first to Napa and Sonoma, and later to Tuscany, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

                                                  4) BOTTOM LINE - The best advice provided by my wine mentors is: It's not the price, points or packaging that matter, it's whether or not you ENJOY the wine that is important. An expensive bottle in a poor environment and with bad company will leave a bitter memory, while an inexpensive bottle enjoyed with lovely company in pleasant surroundings can create a priceless moment. Don't let someone else's opinion influence yours. Educate yourself, choose wines you can afford, and create a wonderful experience for you and your friends. Have a wonderful journey!


                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: SanseiDesigns

                                                    Great post, except for the part about swallowing. Wine is for drinking. Only spit out wine if it makes you want to puke, I say.

                                                    1. re: jesstifer

                                                      Generally I agree--if you spit, you don't get the full flavor of the wine.

                                                      Unfortunately, sometimes it comes down to a choice between spitting or not tasting everything. I'm going to a tasting on Sunday that will have over 65 wines.

                                                    2. re: SanseiDesigns

                                                      Thanks for the advice. I've recently found myself buying lots of different apple varietals for the very purpose of deciphering the different aspects of the flavor in each one, and am trying to translate that to my wine tasting.

                                                    3. I think the best way to learn about wine living in Los Angeles is to take an overnight tasting trip to Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, and Paso Robles. You'll learn about some of the best Syrah, Zinfandel, Viognier, and Rhone-style blends in the world, and all about our "local" wines. There's nothing better when confronting a wine list than to see a name you recognize because you've been to it... it's only two hours away!

                                                      1. As I'm still embarassed to talk to wine store employees or owners, I rely on myself for most of my wine training.

                                                        In studying for a wine certification, I found this article -- http://www.wine.gurus.com/marian1.html which includes a standard method for identifying varietals, but also helps you discover some common wine flaws. Wine for Dummies was a great start, Andrea Immer Robinson's wine guide and my local community college offers sensory wine training and wine tasting courses.

                                                        3 Replies
                                                        1. re: helenjane

                                                          All of which, helenjane, are great but -- why are you embarassed to talk to wine store employees/owners?

                                                          Top-quality wine merchants are GREAT sources of information and help/assistance. NOT places like Costco, BevMo or TraderJoe's, but there are dozens and dozens -- hundreds -- of truly great wine shops across the country, where the owners and (most of) the employees are knowledgable, taste a lot more than you can/do, and are more than willing to help.

                                                          A good retailer, be he or she an owner or an employee, should be willing to listen to what you're looking for, how you're going to serve it (with dinner, with hors d'oeuveres or by itself -- it makes a difference), when you're going to serve it (today or in 10 years), and ask you questions (what are your likes and dislikes). Then, he or she will make some recommendations tailored to YOU . . .

                                                          It's important to provide feedback -- good, or bad. If I recommend Wine X to you, and you come back to the store and tell me you liked it, I'll recommend similar wines the next time. But if you didn't like it, I'll know what wines -- stylistically -- to avoid recommending to you, and can better shape my recommendations for you in the future.

                                                          Don't misunderstand: there's nothing whatsoever wrong with Mary Ewing-Mulligan's or Andera Immer's books (I recomend them all the time), and I definitely recommend sensory evaluation courses through UC Davis Extension, as well as other courses taught through a variety of universities, community colleges and even retailers. But you shouldn't be embarassed to talk to people who work with wine for a living.


                                                          1. re: zin1953

                                                            "Top-quality wine merchants are GREAT sources of information and help/assistance. NOT places like Costco, BevMo or TraderJoe's... " Usually good advice, but we (Phoenix, AZ, USA) have one wine-buyer at a Costco, who is a great resouce. Now, if James is not handy, I agree with the statement, but would like to think that there are other Costcos, etc. with some very good staff, just not as often found, as at the good neighborhood shop.

                                                            As to being put-off with discussions with the personnel, I'd urge the poster to find the shop(s), with good employees to offer info. Any shop, worth its weight in corks, should be eager to help the clients, regardless of their level of wine knowledge, or appreciation. It is, after all, in their own best interest, to help all clients with their purchases. If it were me, I'd rather have a novice, who really wants to learn, than the person, who knows all first, thru fifth, groth Bdx Ch. and also knows exactly what they want. That is just ringing up a sale, while with the former, you stand a good chance of turning someone ON TO wine for the rest of their lives - and building a good customer, in the process.


                                                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                              Fortunately, I live in the heart of California's wine country and work in the industry -- I just hate going to retail environments and having to talk about a product that so many folks have such strong (FLABBY! TOOTHSOME! FRUIT BOMB!) opinions on....well, it's still daunting.

                                                              My friends and I made a group called cheesewhizzes.com that meets roughly once every two months -- although the focus is cheese, the wine part gets as much time. I've learned so much from friends with my budget that aren't trying to sell to me.

                                                              The other two things that have helped oodles are sensory evaluation classes -- UC Davis, local community college-- and the UC Davis Wine Tasting wheel. A homemade online version is here

                                                        2. Get a copy of Matt Kramers' "Making sense of wine" - Finish the book and youll be in the top 2 percent of the wine world --I give it to my students along with a UC Davis tasting wheel and Hugh Johnsons pocket guide wine book(2007 now available,FYI).
                                                          Also, if your 40 years or older, specialize your tasting to 3 or 4 varietals(mine are Pinot Nior, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay) your taste buds are going bye bye and although you'll enjoy all varietals/regions you can become well qualified if not expert in a limited ammount of varietals.
                                                          Welcome to the world of wine - Your gonna' love it!

                                                          1. Kristen Wolfe Biehler in CHOW magazine identified some wines that capture core characteristics of popular wine grapes. Here's part of her list, without vintages:

                                                            Cabernet Sauvignon: Goundrey Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia)
                                                            Merlot: Nativo Merlot "La Garto" (Argentina)
                                                            Pinot Noir: Argyle Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (Oregon)
                                                            Sauvignon Blanc: Beckman Sauvignon Blanc (CA)

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: jane

                                                              Except for the Argyle, those wines are not easy to find.

                                                            2. I'm going to give you some advice. It's not perfect but I think it'll work because it worked for me. I was in your situation 20 years ago, except that back then my price target was $10-$12 a bottle. There's been some inflation, especially on the reds, so $20 is a good target.

                                                              1. Get a subscription to The Wine Spectator. Don't read the thing, because the articles are ego pieces for that wine maker or that B&B proprietor. All you care about is the rating card in the middle of the book. Throw the rest away (okay, every now and then they have a good article, but not too often), and drink wines from all over the world.

                                                              2. Buy wines rated 80 and higher. Don't get too picky about the ratings, i.e., a 92 vs. an 88. Those numbers are an exercise in false precision. The ones in the 80s are equal. The ones in the 90s are equal until about 95 or so. Hell, buy some in the 70s. You never know. And if it's inferior wine, it won't kill you. It'll give you a basis of comparison.

                                                              3. Drink at least two bottles a week, and pay attention when you drink them. That's all you need to do, just pay attention. If you really like something you drank, make a note of it.

                                                              4. Always buy two bottles of any wine and try not to form a definite negative opinion until you've drunk the two. Why? Because maybe the one bottle was off. Maybe you drank it with the wrong food. Maybe you weren't receptive.

                                                              5. Buy a decanter and use it for reds. That's especially important these days because the winemakers have been letting the grapes hang on the vines longer, which drives up the sugar and alcohol content and makes them drinkable with less aging. But it also makes them highly fruity and less complex. A decanter will aerate the wine, and partially offset what I've just noted. Give a red wine at least a half an hour in the decanter, and an hour or even two hours is better if you can wait that long.

                                                              6. Get some big wine glasses, i.e., ones with more room in them than seems reasonable. Swirl the wine around, especially if it's red wine. This is another way to aerate it. I know it's going to look and seem pretentious, but that's not your problem. It will make a difference. Note: Cheap wine glasses are better than expensive ones right now, because the glass is thicker. What you care about is the shape, and a set of nice big cabernet glasses will be fine. Think Crate & Barrel.

                                                              7. Do not let lost in meaningless esoterica. For instance, it doesn't matter what sort of corkscrew you have. I often drink bottles that are worth hundreds of dollars and I use a plain 'ol wing corkscrew. Expensive wine glasses are about paying for crystal, and you can't even put 'em in the dishwasher. My decanter isn't crystal either. If you should happen to get a cork that goes back into the wine, don't worry about it. And don't sit there and sniff the cork. You'll only look foolish.

                                                              If you do what I just suggested, in two years you will know a whole lot more about wine than you do now. Some people will protest the Wine Spectator idea and tell you that those guys have a bias toward big, fruity wines. It's an apt criticism, but it's a tradeoff and the advantages outweigh the pitfalls.

                                                              After a while, i.e., a couple years, then you'll be ready for that tasting kit. But not until then. And between now and then, just have fun with it. It's only wine, not nuclear physics. By the way, I wouldn't do the varietal tasting hoo-hah with the friends, etc etc. It will quickly become an exercise in one upsmanship, and after a couple glasses you won't be able to tell the difference anyway.

                                                              4 Replies
                                                              1. re: Willy3000

                                                                I've had a lot of boring to unpleasant wines with Wine Spectator ratings around 90. Like Robert Parker, they tend to like unbalanced high-alcohol fruit bombs. Most of the best values I find have not been rated.

                                                                You can get access to those ratings cheaper online at winespectator.com, plus in some cases additional user-submitted tasting notes.

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  "Most of the best values I find have not been rated."

                                                                  I definitely agree, but I wouldn't limit that sentiment only to "best values." There are many great wines that never get rated -- small vintners that don't send samples in, or are in areas not covered by the publication(s), or just quietly fly below the proverbial radar.

                                                                  Publications can only report on the tiniest fraction of wines released in any given year. Parker, for example, doesn't publish reviews of wines below 85 points. But I've had some "great" wines (90+ points) that I've hated, and some mediocre wines (back from the days he DID publish notes on wines below 85 points) that I've loved.

                                                                  1. re: zin1953

                                                                    The winespectator.com suggestion is a good one. But the other comments, well, bear in mind that the person who asked the question is a self-described "newbie." Your comments come from a level of experience that he doesn't have. You've got to walk before you can run.

                                                                    1. re: Willy3000

                                                                      I totally agree with Willy. My advice is to do what I did: just drink lots of wine. Its essentially a process of elimination. The more you drink, the more confidently you are able to determine what kinds of wines you like and what kinds you don't like (although I must say myself, there is only one category of wine that I consistently don't like, which is the sub $5 mass-produced plonk, with the exception of 2-buck chuck).

                                                              2. The more bottles I drink the more I find that the single most important factor influencing quality is the actual winery and winemaker. Granted, that seems to be a simple thought, but I have come to trust certain wineries over the years for consistently producing a quality product in all price levels. I hear the talk about vintage quality (Oh look out, it was an 88 not a 91 point vinatge) and terroir (the acidity of the soil is beeter 2.7 miles north) and so on. I must admit, I do not spend hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine and likely never will. That is not to pass judgement on those drinking (or more likely "collecting") bottles of Chateau La Mondotte, but there is more to life than what's in the glass ! I'll take a $50 bottle of Owen Roe and spend the other $450 on life's other pleasures. That being said, I would advise remembering the names of wineries and the varietals from those producers as a good tool when purchasing wine.

                                                                1. Tony, I agree with you about the wineries. I have a list that I'm loyal to. A bottle of Kistler chardonnay is always going to knock my socks off. I guess the first thing someone's got to do, though, is spend a few years just running through the various wineries. I think buying from the WS list is a good way to go, at least in the beginning.

                                                                  Actually, I don't usually spend hundreds for a bottle. (I went back and changed "regularly" to "often" in my last posting.) What's happened is that I got to know wine and then along the way I bought some good wine for $50-$100 a bottle. Got a wine chiller for the basement. There it sits.

                                                                  Last month I went to a restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA and open up their wine list. Lo and behold, my 1991 Stag's Leap Cask 23, purchased for $75 a bottle, is priced at $615. Holy cow, I said to my dining companion. I don't even like the stuff that much. Seems sort of bland to me.

                                                                  Go figure. I have to say that, for reds, I'm quite partial to Bordeaux. Which distresses me, because way back when I sort of avoided the French wines because they were over my price ceiling and the language, classifications and general aura of mystery and pretense baffled me.

                                                                  So when I pay ungodly sums for a bottle of wine, it's inevitably for Bordeaux. I wish I had known then what I know now. And California's move toward those high-sugar Parkerized wines has only made the French stuff more desirable to me. But none of this applies to the original poster, 'cause the wines I'm talking about are way above $20 even in their year of release. Not only that, but regardless of budget it's one of those things for after the first two years at this game.

                                                                  1. I must plead ignorance as I have always wanted to experience a truly great Bordeaux (the few I have had were under $100 and left me wondering what the hoopla was all about). When I "splurge" it is usually for a big Barolo or a nice Cabernet Franc or Owen Roe bottle. Maybe some day........

                                                                    1. There's all sorts of great wine out there. I really hate it when people act as if you haven't lived until you've tasted X, so I sure as hell hope I wasn't just guilty of that. The thing about the French wines is the "terroir" idea, i.e., that the particular soil imparts a unique flavor.

                                                                      Who the hell knows, but all I can say is that I think they have more character than most of the CA reds I've tasted. But the Italian reds are fantastic, and so are the Spanish reds. As far as France goes, one of my sentimental favorite Bordeaux is Chateau Meyney, which I still seek out.

                                                                      Back when I was starting out, it would go for $15 or so, which was right at the top of my range. So I didn't drink a lot of it. Now it goes in the high $20s. The WS often lists French reds that are reasonably priced. Just go out and buy 'em two bottles at a time and see how it goes. Drinking it always beats reading about it.

                                                                      The other thing about Bordeaux is that they're not so hung up on a pure varietal. They all blend cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. In CA that's called "meritage," and they charge ungodly prices for doing it. In Bordeaux it's called what they do. I think a lot of the CA reds are as boring as they are because they don't blend 'em.

                                                                      I can really understand why the French just tear their hair out about these things. They're making better red wine than CA all the time, and getting their asses kicked by bland, overly fruity CA varietals. The problem is the relatively uneducated consumer + exchange rates + the complexity of French language and wine classifications. The dirty little secret, in my opinion, is that where CA actually meets and often exceeds the French is not with the reds but with the whites.

                                                                      White Burgundy is 100% chardonnay by French law, and I think the CA chards regularly meet and beat the White Burgundies. But when it comes to red wine, I'm a Francophile. And bigger on Spain and Italy with every passing year.

                                                                      1. SO much depends on how the wine is being consumed. I fing it interesting how few people read the food menu before the wine list. I would rather base my wine decision on my meal choices (especially in a great restaurant). I find it easier to pair in that order (food then wine) rather than picking a wine and then having to eliminate certain items because they do not pair well. Isn't it great when you order a nice piece of Halibut and someone orders a giant Cab ??? Hopefully there are some good choices by the glass !

                                                                        I have been drinking a lot of wines from Washington and Oregon and prefer most over the same varietal on California. The wines form Owen Roe and Sineann are world class (especially the Cab Franc and Zinfandels). Their Rieslings are also show stoppers. They are not available everywhere (fortunately Vermont is a place they are) but if you see them, give it a try.

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: TonyO

                                                                          Funny about what you say regarding pairings. Pairing wine is very important to me. I usually read the wine list first to find a couple of candidates I want to drink (in addition to the wines I usually bring myself) and then look for the right foods that will pair with the wine.

                                                                          If there is a dish I must absolutely have, then I find the right wine for it.

                                                                          Generally when we bring wine to a restaurant, we bring several 3-6 bottles of different red varietals, that way we have several pairing options. We then usually buy a bottle of white from the house for non red wine dishes. We don't usually drink 3-6 bottles of wine... and I have a very handy, soft sided insulated wine carrier so it's pretty easy.

                                                                        2. Unfortunately BYOB in Vermont is virtually nonexistent (unless the restaurant is without a liquor license). It has taken some time, but many area restaurants are starting to put some thought into their wine lists. However, there still are many that find nothing wrong with serving a $50 + bottle in a .79 Libbey glass and serve reds at 75 degrees and whites at just above freezing. Hey, if it's a carafe of house Chianti for $6.00 served with a pizza, I understand. My issue is with places claiming to be "fine dining" and not willing to make the investment to do it right (although they have no problem charging $$$$). Am I expecting too much ? I don't think so. Store and serve wine at the correct temperature, in a proper glass, and for the love of God, offer to decant that $100 bottle of Barolo !!

                                                                          1. Wow, this got a lot of comments. Here is how I learned about what is considered to be "good" for a specific wine type: I learned about varietals. You don't need fancy kits for this, though some people find them helpful.

                                                                            Some of the other posts also mention this vital aspect of learning about wine. Makes sense of some of the wine media (though not all), because it turns out a pinot noir is actually not supposed to taste the same as a cabernet. This was a revelation to me when I was a newbie, and a lot of the feedback you got above, while excellent, is probably a little intimidating for you at this point (I certainly wasn't drinking wines from the Mosel or $100 Bordeauxs when I started out!) Appellation America has great online descriptors of wine varietals and their characteristics.

                                                                            The best way to learn about varietals is to drink a wide range of them, using blogs and other media to track down good examples (my blog is driven by evaluating varietal characteristics and most reviews are for wines under $20, and Jerry Hall's Winewaves is also excellent for your purposes).

                                                                            Have fun, and get your friends involved as other posters suggest.

                                                                            Web addresses:
                                                                            Appellation America http://wine.appellationamerica.com/va...

                                                                            Good Wine Under $20


                                                                            1. Price isn't everything. A lot of it is just about figuring out what you like.

                                                                              This friend of mine just visited Burgundy, and has posted some amazingly eye-opening observations from tasting the wines there. A lot of them are under $20, incidentally:


                                                                              1 Reply
                                                                              1. re: deetrane

                                                                                Hey, Deetrane. True, price isn't everything but since the poster expressed an interest in wines under $20 in his remarks above, it seemed helpful to respond. True, the wines Brooklynguy writes about are under $20--in France. I'm not sure how many of them you could find over here at all, never mind under $20. I'm a huge fan of Brooklynguy's writing and his blog, however, so everybody should definitely swing by there if they get a chance.

                                                                              2. Regarding wine publications and wine reviews - always remember, it's not about the points, it's about the pleasure. If you don't agree with a book or movie review because the critics' opinions and tastes are different that yours, then you will understand that wine reviewers are the same. It's a personal opinion (perhaps a bit more experienced because of the wines they have tasted and the education they have acquired, but it's personal perspective nonetheless).

                                                                                Note that many publications receive advertising revenues.

                                                                                As a few others have noted, if you like the fruit-bomb wines favoured by some of the nationally known critics, then you will enjoy their reviews. If you follow your own palate and it it is in a different direction, that is fine as well. I just find it unfortunate that the opinions of a few can influence the manner in which wine is made, even by some of the finest wine makers, and that we are seeing more of the fruit-bomb wines on the market. What ever happened to subtlety and elegance?