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Feb 18, 2008 12:45 PM

Knowledge and Selections? Help!

I grew up with wine in the house, my parents have a massive collection that I hope to eventually have one that rivals and the truth is I love wine; I prefer red but I'll happily drink most whites.

However, the truth is I pretty much know jack about wine, I don't know how to really tell good from bad, classy from lawn mower, priced due to quality or just overpriced. With that in mind I'm asking for knowledge please help a naive college student who craves steak and risotto with a good wine instead of hot pockets and a warm beer. I don't particularly know what I'm asking for in this regard, just general knowledge, expert opinions, good things to know, to look for, how do I tell if it's been a good year, hell I don't even know how to really describe my own tastes besides the region it's from.

Along with that I'm looking for selection, from what I've had I prefer spanish and italian wine more than others (not really sure what the others include), particularly rioja, chianti and riesling. So far my absolute insane favorite has been the Marques de Caceres Rioja Reserva 2001, otherwise I'm kind of blank on what is good. Considering what I like what would you suggest for me to try?

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  1. Fox,

    Your passion for wine is evident and that is all that really matters. You have a lifetime of exploration to do and it isn't necessary to conquor the world of wine in a day. I've bought, and enjoyed, many things I didn't know jack-all about. I just knew I enjoyed them.

    Since you like Spain, go nuts with all wines Spanish. Learn everything you can about Spanish wine. Try every Spanish wine you can get your hands on. Right now Spain, for the most part, offers plenty of great values and you shouldn't have any trouble finding enough different wines to keep you busy for a while. When you get bored of Spain, repeat the process with Italy. If you ever finish Italy, do the same with your next favorite region.

    Keep your eyes peeled for wine events at your school. Many colleges even have courses you can take on wine "appreciation." Maybe there is a wine club. Maybe you should start one. Going to organized tastings is always a good idea, but it is even more fun when you explore with your peers. There is fun, irreverant book you might be interested in called "The Wine Brats," written by the children of some well known wine families. I think they are good at speaking to younger generations of people who know they like wine but are tyring to figure out how it fits in their life.

    Another thing you can do is find out if there are any local wineries. Wine people tend to like to talk about wine and are often very enthusiastic about sharing with those who are interested (like this board?) and you can learn things just by spending time around people who like wine.

    And a word of caution, there are very few absolutes in the word of wine. Leaving the chemistry behind (and even then there are some disagreements on certain things), the smartest wine people I know rarely answer a question without qualification. Meaning, you ask them something and the answer almost always starts with "Usually/For the most part/Often/It tends to be that....." While there are bricks of science in the foundation of wine, the art of wine is the true foundation of every interesting experience. Don't be discouraged by difference of opinion, or even people that claim fact in direct opposition to some one else's, fact. This is all part of the journey. As hopefully your college education is teaching you, just because it is printed in a book, doesn't mean it is true. And often even more vexing, just because some one is an "expert," doesn't always mean they are right. Take your nuggets of knowledge and file them away, compare and contrast, and come up with your own ideas and conclusions.

    Lastly, there is nothing wrong with a warm hot-pocket and a beer...just not a warm beer.

    1. >>> please help a naive college student . . . <<<

      Where do you go to school?
      Are you of legal drinking age?

      I have a whole list of things you can easily do, but I need more information . . .


      1. You can either:

        1) Pick a country and learn all it's main varietals OR

        2) Pick a varietal and sample all the versions of that varietal from around the world. OR

        3) Pick a wine vendor or two and follow their advice OR

        4) Find some wine books and follow them....

        a combo of the above...

        Which raises interesting question, in what sequence did I go about sampling wine... and I can remember the following:

        California Chardonnay... very first thing... I think I just asked a wine shop what I ought to start with and that's what they gave me and it was great...

        Red Burgundy... next thing I can remember. Went to the shop specifically interested in burgundy and got a bottle around 30 bucks or so (which back in the 80's wasn't chump change), and it was good...

        Cabernet Sauvignon... from California, but also Chile because Chile was undiscovered at the time and offered some insane deals...

        Spanish Reds... because somewhere along the line Robert Parker had declared these to be so unappreciated...

        Back to california... Zinfandel... really liked the stuff...

        To France... Northern Rhones.... it was a Guigal Cote Rotie that really grabbed me here...

        Back to California... wine vendor suggests trying this obscure stuff called "late harvest zinfandel"....what a revelation...

        Some wine tastings.... a bordeaux vertical, capped off with a 1985 Vintage Port... most of the attendees liked the port better, so that was my intro to port...

        California Sauvignon Blanc somewhere in there...

        LATER in the game: Most Italian wines, Loire, Alsace, Australia... I avoided Germany for a long time because their wine labels are hands-down the most difficult to read in the world... And these really coincided with FOOD AND WINE MATCHING which I was completely ignorant of for probably 10 years... it wasn't until I met a very serious collector who was also a food/wine buff that I began to appreciate the matching... now that's about 100% of my interest.... and that will really broaden your tastings out.... Not sure if I'd start there first though... maybe just start with sampling the wine "straight".

        Part of my strategy coincided with Robert Parkers first book releases...this was the mid-80's and his "telephone books" on wine were just coming out. I'd read up on a certain wine and region and if it sounded interesting I'd haunt the wine shops and buy a few bottles...

        And that's another strategy you can use today... find some good wine books and "follow along"... also you have your parents opinions to help you....

        Whatever you do, follow your fancy... whatever seems to hold your interest the most... in that sense maybe there's something to "wine, women and song" :)

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chicago Mike

          "wine, women and song" ...


          More politically correct is the Persian "دویار زیرک و از باده کهن دو منی فراغتی و کتابی و گوشه چمنی" a popular rubaiyyat (quatrain) by Omar Khayyám (1048-1131):
          "Two sweethearts,
          Two flasks of old wine,
          A book of verse
          And a cosy corner in the garden."

          I mean, we don't know hungry_fox's gender ...

        2. For basic knowledge, wouldn't your parents be the best and most affordable resources? And the least expensive too, especially if you can drink out of their cellar.

          For selections, since you like Spanish and Italian, I'd start there and explore those countries. Drink as much as you can, and it might be useful to take notes.

          1. Fox, if there's one other major thing I'd recommend when starting out on wine is to become familiar with the vintage history of each of your target wines...

            I learned this lesson very early on a bottle of cali chardonnay from one of the "legendary" winemakers.... I was so happy to get home and pop that bottle open... only to find a very inspid, very forgetable wine... Come to find out it was from one of the worst vintages of the early 80s...

            Since then one of the first things I look for is a great vintage.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Chicago Mike

              Great advice! Do you have any suggestions for the best places to find vintage history information?

              1. re: washingtonred

                First, be advised that Mike and I disagree on this SLIGHTLY. Vintages are important, but a) less so in California than in the EU (for example), and b) vintage charts are the barest of guidlines -- the more you count on them, the less reliable they become.

                Every year -- good or bad, according to a vintage chart -- vinters make excellent, very good, average and mediocre wines. A rating on a vintage chart will give you GENERAL information about the overall quality of that year; but it will not tell you anything about the wines specifically. See this -- -- as a better than average example of a vintage chart.

                An improvement upon a generalized vintage chart would be the specific winery/producer website. For example, if you know that you are interested in Chateau Palmer, a red Bordeaux from the Margaux appellation, you can go to their website -- -- and there will be a pull-down menu on the far right that will let you look at specific information as to each vintage of Chateau Palmer.

                Joseph Phelps Vineyards will provide you with similar information at and so will several other vintners.

                And finally, when you speak of "vintage history," how far back do you want to go?


                1. re: zin1953


                  I'm with you on this one. Yes, there are poor years, but a great winemaker will most often find a way to create great wines, even given the vagaries of nature. Some of the best Merlots that I have had (domestic) were from the '89 vintage, which was panned by all of the wine press. It depends more on the winemaker, than on the year. Vintages, even in EU are but a guideline. So very much depends on who is working the grapes.


                2. re: washingtonred

                  I'd suggest:

                  1) reading the wine press.... QRW, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast... do google searches on "vintage year" and the target region you're interested in....

                  2) Also wine books will almost always have a vintage chart....

                  Look especially for the extreme years.... extremely consistently poor and extremely consistently above average.... focus on doing your buying in the good years and particularly avoiding the poorer years. Here's the key... for whatever varietal of wine you're looking for (cabernet, let's say)... most wine stores are going to mostly stock the past 3/4/5 years that were released.... so during those years SOMEWHERE in the world was almost always one excellent vintage of that varietal. Some years in cab it might be California, some years might be Chile, might be Australia, might be France, might be Tuscany... or perhaps a couple of them... those are the wines to focus on IMO....

                  Next year it will be different, and the year after that... just keep pursuing the better vintages for whatever your target varietals are, and I think that will enhance your overall experience.

                  One last thing on this topic... when you identify a particularly interesting vintage what you'll often find is that the lesser name vineyards produced really great wine that year. Perhaps you have a "legendary" vineyard on Highway X, for example... but just down the road a few hundred yards is a lesser name winery, maybe with not as experienced a winemaker... but the wine is priced at 1/2 or less than the trophy wine's price. In a super year you'll find that lesser-name wine can be phenomenal.... because the growing conditions were so good, the fruit was so good, that it makes even an average winemaker look great.

                  1. re: Chicago Mike

                    Thanks to Jason, Bill, and Mike~ I appreciate the information. Anything to further my education in this area!