Making the next step
I have a good foundation understanding of wine: aroma, how it's made, etiquette, history, etc. Now I'm trying to make the next step into being able to really understand nuances, what wines to cellar, consistantly good labels, and so on. I would love any recommendations on how to make this step.
Sounds like saying "I've been thru all sex education courses at school, now how do I get started?"
My suggestion may sound too brutal, but here it goes: Just do it.
Pick a region, work your way up in the quality hierarchy (price is a rough indicator), keep the labels & basic notes (I like it, I like it a LOT, I don't like it, maybe some comments here & there). Whenever you can, by all means GO to that region, visit producers (just call in advance), talk to them, taste at their cellars.
Ignore -at least, to start- wine critics, or your taste will be strongly biased.
Go by your instincts.
Again, pretty much like sex.
I think I did a poor job of explaining my delima. I'm stuck in the cycle of going to the wine store buying a bottle or two that I haven't tried yet deciding whether I like it or not and that's it. I don't feel like I'm expanding my knowledge base other than finding a few wines here and there that I really like and those that I really don't like.
Most of us (winos), have been at that stage, at one point, or another. It can seem overwhelming on analysis. I think that the point that RicRios made was: do not analyze it - just do it.
Sounds easy, but it might not be quite so. What I did at that point was set up a budget and make a monthly trip to a very large wine shop across town. I'd make notes from several media sources, but mostly prowl the aisles with my shopping cart - about half-size to fit down the tightly packed aisles of wine. I would usually pick one bottle of wine, that looked/sounded interesting to me. I'd leave with two to three cases of wine of all varietals and price ranges, trying to stay within the overall budget. Then nightly, I'd sample the wines and make notes on each - varietal, producer, region, sub-region, etc. I tried to determine such things as my likes, food pairings, temp. to serve that wine, etc. and just experiment. It was great fun, and fun for my wife, and our friends, who got to help me with the wine, though it was really a personal journey and they were, then, just folk to help with the wine, that I could not consume. (This soon changed, as I became much more inclusive of others in my trip.) The upside was that I became familiar with wines, in general, and a few in specific, plus had great vicarious sojurns to far-away places. The downside, was when I'd stumble on a wine that I thought was fabulous, head back to the store to find that it was no more - gone, and that the new vintage didn't "do it" for me any longer.
In time, I changed to 2 btls. of each, so I would have that extra handy when I hit the jackpot. Now, I have broadened my tastings, as much as I can. I attend wine dinners/tastings as often as possible all over the US and much of Europe. I wrangle "trade-only" access to events through my retailers and friends in the business. I am more likely to purchase half-cases, or cases, than I ever was back then. The economics have changed, but I still go out a few times per year and just buy a few totally mixed cases to expand from. There is too much worthwhile wine from far too many places, some made from varietals that Hugh Johnson probably doesn't know of (nah, HE knows of them), that one cannot ever know it all. It is a continuing education, with no real end. Even if one attains a Master Sommelier rank, or Master of Wine, there is still much to learn, but what a wonderful curriculum!
One can do all of the reading, and viewing of tapes and DVDs that they wish, but it is in the experiencing of wine, that they will learn the most. To quote RicRios, "Just do it."
scour your local paper and find stores that offer tastings. these are typically free, and usually during weeknights and saturday afternoons.
also look for listings of restaurants that offer tastings. most often this is reasonably priced, has a theme and bits of food that pair well with the wine. it also has the added benefit of meeting other winos!
When you're looking for wine stores that offer tastings you should ask if/when they do them for free. At least in SoCal, wine stores charge for their tastings (actually a reasonable cost, usually) but many also offer free tastings of what they happen to have open. Where we are, the city allows only certain hours of paid wine tasting events, so 'left-overs' are generally free the next day.
But........ if I'm picking up your issue correctly, you need to read some of the major wine magazines and books on the subject. Also try following some of the wine blogs and message boards that are all over the internet. After a while you will learn whose recommendations to trust. If that's what you're looking for, post back and I can give you some specific recommendations.
Are there any wine bars, shops, or clubs with tastings in your area? That's really the best way to educate yourself.
My recommendation is twofold:
1) Start studying the "wine literature" to identify the best VINTAGE YEARS for the varietals you're drinking. You'll find that focusing on the better years and particularly avoiding the poorer years will improve your tasting experience considerably...
2) Start experimenting with FOOD & WINE COMBINATIONS... Now that you have an understanding of the "wine basics", start pairing different dinners up with different wines and start recognizing that there may be a wine you really enjoy but it's a god-awful match with a particular food that you enjoy. It's in the food-wine matching that wine (and food) reaches the "zenith", IMO.
re: Robert Lauriston
Yeah, I remember...
I'm old school... I guess in a dying breed of people who actually think the climatological conditions of each vintage year is the single most important factor affecting the quality of the harvest and the wine...
Imagine that... how could anyone ever be so "out of date"...
New school is much easier... "Vintage doesn't matter"... how I wish I believed that! Unfortunately, almost 20 years of wine tasting tells me differently... someone could easier sell me the Brooklyn Bridge than convince me vintage years don't matter...
re: Robert Lauriston
Well by "vintage charts" I really mean "study the vintages"... If you don't have alot of wine pals to share information, then here's some places a newbie can start:
1) Read whatever you can by people who have done extensive tastings of each vintage...
2) CROSS check various chart services. Don't just take one source as gospel...
3) Lurk and ask questions in wine forums. A great one is the Wine Lovers Discussion Group (http://www.WLDG.com)
4) Follow which years seem to be scoring highest in blind tasting results...
SO, let's say newbie wants to focus on California Cabernet... check the stories, the charts, check the postings and post a few questions about "which years are better" on a few forums...
From this you can get a good feel for which years are likely to be better than others and particularly which years are best avoided... over the course of a lifetime you'll probably find your wine satisfaction to be quite a bit higher if you stick with better years. Enjoy.
re: Chicago Mike
The vast majority of wines on the American market are made to be drunk upon release.
Many wine regions have such favorable climates that they only have good and better years. You can see that easily in this chart:
To the extent that in some regions some years are better than others, the effect is extremely local. Ch. Latour, for example, is famous for making good wines in difficult years. In 1986, hailstorms completely wiped out some vineyards' crops in Piemonte, and cold weather caused problems for everybody, but Gaja and Bruno Giacosa, among others, still made great wine.
This is all reflected in price and availability. Great Bordeaux from vintage with a bad rep is often a relative bargain. If a particular wine has a bad year, good retailers won't stock it.
Bottom line, vintage date is most often useful to tell whether a wine is over the hill.
I'm at a similar place in wine knowledge and have been considering starting an informal wine tasting club with other wine lovers. I think it'd allow more wines to be tasted side by side which would increase one's understanding of the nuances, you'd have a group of people to discuss indepth the wines you are having, you can blind them, chose your own theme, etc. It seems much better than wine tastings where you see the wines, don't get to pick what you taste, often can't readily go back for more and don't have the opportunity to have as much discussion about them.
I think I'm at about this stage (with some regions anyway) and I've found that hanging out at wine stores has been a great education. I've picked a few where they seem to stock the kinds of flavors and regions I like and then I just attend as many tastings there as possible; at least once a week.
I also make sure to keep notes on the relevant details for every wine I try, so I can find the ones I love easily, and avoid the ones I don't like. Once you have enough of these, you can also start to see personal preference patterns in varietals, vintages, etc.
The staff at the best wine shops tends to be pretty passionate about the product, and I'm happy to listen to them rhapsodize about their latest discoveries. I've discovered a lot of great stuff this way.
It's fun to hold a regular dinner and explore - we have one which usually attracts 10+ people, allowing lots of bottle exploration - we tend toward restaurants with long, varied and reasonably priced selections, and everybody usually leaves with a new idea or three
Plenty of good advice here, but the bottom line is, as the commercial says, "Just do it!"
I don't know where you live, but are there any wineries nearby? If so, GO! Taste what they offer, ask questions about where the grapes are from, how the wine is made, etc. Go to the next one, same thing. Repeat. This will help you to understand the WHY of it ("oh, I like French oak in my Cabernet more than American oak," for example; or, I like Sonoma Zin better than Napa Zin; etc., etc.)
If there aren't any wineries, try tastings at wine shops, wine bars and the like.
If you have friends who are roughly at the same "stage," then the idea of regular dinners with 10-12 people is a wonderful one -- you can explore and learn together while sharing the expense.
Wine classes, offered through a college or wine store can also be very worthwhile.
Also, as I said in another thread:
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
AND by "shifting" one variable at a time (same variety, same appellation, same vintage, different winery) you can easily find out not only your likes and dislikes, but - again -- the WHYS behind them.
Another thing I'd highly recommend is:
1) Tasting the different varietals "side by side" so you can get a sense of the similarities AND the differences... Like take a series of heavier-bodied reds and taste them side by side for example...
2) In conjunction with the above, taste the wines with APPROPRIATE FOOD MATCHUPS...
At the end of the day, the "ultimate goal" is to get to some nice food & wine pairings, so jump in and start tasting !
In the many years as a student of wine, I have found that notes help. As some have mentioned on this string - take notes of your experiences with the wines you try. Organise your thoughts so you have a format you can use for comparitive reference (visual/appearnance - colour, clarity, viscosity; aroma/nose; taste; texture; overall impact).
With regard to the discussion about vintage charts - these are not the final word of a region's wine for a particular season. Like points, stars or glasses used by critics for evaluating wines, charts serve a purpose as guides, particularly for the novice, uninitiated, or for people who simply don't have time to keep up on the circumstances during bud break, growing season and crush of every wine region. But like all guides, there will always be exceptions to the rule - fine wines in poor professionals with a passion for wine.
I use the vast knowledge and exposure my wine merchants have on wine to acquire selections that will suit my mood and sense of exploration. They always have great suggestions, and get to know my tastes, preferences and sense of adventure. I also get a heads up on special wines that are on their radar. They are also helpful with pairing ideas when I am at a loss as most are foodies, too.
I've studied by region, and then by varietal. I've spent 18 years on Burgundy/Pinot Noir, and began my Tuscan studies and exploration in earnest three years ago. In between there have been many varietal and region explorations, but I get more out of focused studies that include visits to the regions. Spending time in Tuscany with locals opened my eyes to the anthropological evolution of food and wine of the region.
As with any journey, pick a destination, determine a route, and go! Too much analysis will lead to paralysis that will keep you from enjoying all the wonderful wine that awaits you!