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Completely wine ignorant, and willing to learn! Suggestions, aside from, 'Just start sipping'?

I know very little, if anything, about wine. Tannins? What? Oakiness? Huh? Paul Giamatii tasting cheese and asparagus in some sort of a red at the beginning of 'Sideway's? Pardon?

And how do I know what sort of a palette I have... how do I even develop my palette? Do I just start tasting whatever I can, or is there more to it? (Or is it just that simple?)

I'm 24, and I just recently decided that I'd like to learn more about wine. A LOT more. I want to know how wine is made, what differentiates a $5 bottle from a $50 bottle, and how to taste all the little differences between years, types, and brands.

All I know is that in the year that I really started buying and drinking wine on my own, and trying to serve it at parties, I like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and some Rieslings. I've had mixed results with Sauvignon Blanc; some have been amazing, while others I've thought to be repulsive. I've tasted Syrah (alongside a piece of steak) and found it horrible, but I'm sure I need to give it another go. I tend to like sweet and spicy foods, and I'd like to think I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to trying new food.

I can't afford to start regularly purchasing pricey (read: anything over $20) bottles more than once or twice a month, at the most. (I'm saving up for my wedding next June.) But I still want to learn as much as I can, if only to better understand and appreciate how wine is made and the experiences that come with drinking it. And I'd like to be able to go into a restaurant and know what to order, beyond just 'Any random glass of white because I'm having the halibut.'

Is there any literature I should read, any sites to check out? Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated! I'm actually a bit shy to even post this in the first place, but I guess the first step to becoming a wine aficionado is to simply ask for some help, right? :)

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  1. OK so one more thing I'll add, as a comment, to this already wordy post:

    What I'm interested in are 'magic combinations,' so to speak. What do I pair a great glass of pinot noir with to make it pop and come alive? How do I use certain foods to enhance those Sauvignon Blancs that I actually like? Alternatively, what wines go best with the types of foods I like to cook and eat? How do I combine the two in order to get an all-around better tasting experience?

    1. Hi you! :)

      I'm by no means a wine expert, but one bit of advice I have for you is to really think about what made the wines you like so good. What notes and flavors did you taste? What were you eating, or what had you just eaten while sipping the pinot, the riesling, the cab? What do you remember feeling in your mouth, and smelling during the entire process?

      Wine is a bit like perfume. If you like several different bottles of fragrance, you may find that each one has at least one or two underlying notes in common. For example, I've found that Miss Dior Cherie and Daisy by Marc Jacobs (the perfumes I love the most and get the most compliments on) both incorporate violet. Something about the violet enhances my skin's own natural scent, and I end up being drawn to most other fragrances that have that same note.

      Likewise, if you tend to love sweet and spicy foods, the wines you've listed as tasting good to you seem to make sense. (It really can be that simple!) Pinot noir often has a strawberry, cherry, or tomato note to it, mixed in with vanilla. Cabernet can also have some vanilla to it, along with red bell pepper, and I've even tasted ginger. Chances are, these are all flavors you frequently utilize in your kitchen and order when you go out for a meal.

      As for the Syrah, it makes sense to me why you might night like the one you tried: Syrah can have a black licorice taste to it that turns my husband off completely, and the man has a huge sweet tooth. Give it another go though. Try a different bottle, with a different meal (though I do believe barbecue can go very well with this particular variety), and see what happens.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Jadore

        Hello! Are you my new best friend on here or what?!

        Thank you for the wine-perfume analogy; that really clicked with me. By the way, my mother is violet crazy, and frequently wears Daisy, along with - get this - Jadore by Dior, lol. Everything you wrote makes sense, considering last summer I read up on all my favorite perfumes and found similar notes each. I tend to smell best in anything with vanilla, grapefruit, orange, and rose. That helped me discover other perfumes beyond my old favorite (Coco Mademoiselle) and start wearing Lola by MJ, Breathe by Lollia, and a few others. Maybe I need to approach wine in the same fashion.

        It's funny; you hit the nail on the head when it comes to what I like to eat. I will devour red bell peppers any way I can get them, in any dish, at any time. I'm really crazy for them, and will roast/grill/saute them as often as I can, or eat them raw in a salad. Strawberries are my absolute favorite fruit, and we've already covered my love for vanilla. But what disappoints me is that I've never actually TASTED red bell pepper in my Cabernet, never sniffed my Pinot and thought, "Yum, strawberry!" :( All I smell is, well, alcohol, and something intense, and a little earthy.

        Does this mean my palette is completely underdeveloped, considering I can't taste my favorite flavors in the wines I like best? I mean, yeah, I'm drawn to these wines for reasons I can't explain, and now I see that the foodstuffs I commonly enjoy play a big role in the attraction, but I never put two and two together. I'm embarrassed to even admit this, ugh.

        1. re: Glam Foodie

          Being able to describe aromas in wine takes practice. Start by identifying broad categories. It's easier and takes a lot of the pressure off (wine should be fun!). Instead of trying to discern the exact scents, be satisfied with identifying berries, flowers, earth, herbs, instead of strawberry jam, purple violets, damp leaves, eucalyptus tree.

          The Wine Aroma Wheel, developed by Ann Noble at UC Davis, can be a useful tool for starting out this way. Once you smell a category (say, "berries") it helps you think of likely options for narrowing it down (blackberry, cherry, etc). You can Google "wine aroma wheel" and find several, but here is one:

          http://winefeeds.files.wordpress.com/...

          If you find it helpful, I suggest ordering one or more from Ms. Noble. They are not expensive and she will send you nice laminated versions.

          Sometimes smelling the real thing can also be of assistance. If you think you might be detecting cloves, but aren't sure, go pull the jar of cloves out of your spice cabinet. Smell the cloves, clear your nose, then smell the wine again. Your memory of cloves will have been refreshed and it might be easier to decide whether that aroma is present in the wine.

          Always remember that it's okay if the back label says the wine smells like strawberries but you can't smell them. Sometimes we perceive things differently. There's nothing wrong with that. Lots of people enjoy wine all the time without ever sticking their nose in a glass. The important thing is that they enjoy it.

          Finally, the best advice I could probably give you is to take classes and go to tastings. These events will have a knowledgeable wine person to lead them and usually a broad mix of wine experience among participants. The more you smell and talk about wine, the easier it will become. Try looking at www.localwineevents.com to find this sort of thing in your area.

          Good luck! Don't let it become so stressful that it negatively affects your desire to learn about and enjoy wine. :)

      2. Drink, drink and drink (all responsibly) different wines and keep notes about what you drink with what food and if you liked it or not (both individually and together); go to wine bars, go to wine stores,

        Don't be afraid to ask questions, don't be afraid to be disappointed from time to time, you might not like something that everyone else like (or tell you it should be good), don't be afraid to like something that "does not make sens", don't be afraid to say you don't like something.

        And don't be afraid to have a beer or water if you don't feel like having wine.

        As for books, here is a long-ish thread about it : http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/565453

        M.

        1. >>> Do I just start tasting whatever I can, or is there more to it? (Or is it just that simple?) <<<

          a) It IS as simple as that, and b) it isn't . . .

          No amount of reading will substitute for tasting yourself. After all, you have YOUR taste buds inside your mouth, not ours. That said, books can be VERY helpful, but in conjunction with tasting. Check out Andrea Immer Robinson's books, for example.

          Also, I don't know where you live, but most communities offer wine classes -- either through a continuing education program at a university or college, Adult Education, or even through a wine retailer. Look into those, too.

          There is a lot more to do, such as writing your own wine book . . . if interested, let me know, and I'll tell you how to do that. I found that was an invaluable tool when I was starting out.

          Cheers,
          Jason

          2 Replies
          1. re: zin1953

            As zin1953 suggests, I have Andrea Immer Robinson's "Great Wine Made Simple". It is designed like an immersion course at home. I find it very useful and after I visit a new wine growing area to become somewhat familiar with the local varities, I reread that section of the book to renew my basic knowledge. It really makes sense after a visit to Burgundy, France for instance and it is very helpful with wine pronunciations.

            1. re: zin1953

              Just found this thread, and I just KNEW that someone had to mention Andrea Immer (now Robinson, unless that marital bliss has ended). There are two, somewhat similar books: Immer's "Great Wine Made Simple" (ISBN 0-7679-0477 X), and her mentor's "Windows on the World Complete Wine Course," by Kevin Zraley (ISBN 0-8069-7649-7).

              Both take a similar line and a simple course - taste, but with a purpose. They will take you through many of the terms mentioned, and many different places. They are both built around tasting, with that purpose.

              I would say to get both, and enjoy. Now, they have some recs. that might not be current, especially with regards to domestic (US) producers, as some have gone, and others have come, since publication. Still, you could take their suggested lists into a good wine shop and return with comparable samples, though the names will have changed. That alone, will expose you to some aspects of wine.

              Also, the "homework" with each book is well worth the effort, and will be more fun, than one could otherwise have imagined. University should have so much fun!

              I still pull Immer's book out for informal events for the International Wine & Food Society, as they are enjoyable and educational, even upon a return.

              Thanks for mentioning these Jason,

              Hunt

            2. The San Francisco area is a fantastic place to learn about wine (you seem to be posting in San Francisco). There's no substitute for tasting. K&L has a couple of tastings each week at its stores. A store I've only been to once but absolulely love is William Cross Wine Merchant on Polk Street and they have tastings, too. Taste, taste, taste and take notes on what you like and don't like. Consider CellarTracker! http://www.cellartracker.com to keep track of your notes.
              And don't be afraid to buck the trend. Once I figured out I didn't like cabernet sauvignon I was able to focus on grapes I really like.
              Two good books for beginners: Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine and Fear of Wine: An Introductory Guide to the Grape
              By the way, K&L is a great spot for budget wine. So is Oddlots on San Pablo Avenue in Albany. I always hit Oddlots, Kermit Lynch (a great importer) and The Spanish Table, all on San Pablo Avenue.
              I should also point out that Kermit Lynch's "Adventures on the Wine Route" is a fantastic book if you like wine.