How to Taste Wine Like a Novice

Wine tasting and learning all the information there is to know about wine can be intimidating, but there are tips and tricks you can learn that will help you on your wine tasting journey! Enjoy this personal anecdote from Nikki Goddard where she uses her wine tasting knowledge and experiences to offer tips on how to taste wine like a novice. Cheers! ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ BY NIKKI GODDARD A decade ago, I invited a friend to join me for a casual Friday evening wine tasting at a top Manhattan bottle shop, expecting her to be as excited as I was about the prospect of free wine. I was surprised when she visibly recoiled, as though I had just proposed we spend the night deep-cleaning my bathroom. When I asked her what the problem was, she shrugged and explained, “I wouldn’t know what to say about the wine.” Caught off guard, I replied defensively, “well, they’re not going to quiz you on it.” We ended up going out for beers instead, but that exchange has kept me wondering for nearly a decade about an important question: How much do we need to know about wine in order to enjoy it? Knowledge of wine can undoubtedly be important and useful, though perhaps not in the way you might think. To enjoy wine, you certainly need to have a taste for alcohol—but for some reason, society has collectively decided that we cannot appreciate wine without first understanding its intricacies. Yet, I’ve never met anyone who felt they needed to complete a course or read a book in order to delight in a square of single-origin chocolate, a wheel of triple crème Brie, or a cup of coffee brewed from freshly roasted Arabica beans—all fine delicacies with more than their fair share of history, nuance, and terroir. Countless times, I have stood across the bar from someone who, in an attempt to order a glass of wine, has sheepishly apologized, “I’m so sorry, I don’t know anything about wine.” However, I can’t recall a time I’ve felt compelled to apologize to my doctor for my lack of knowledge of medicine, or to my H&R Block associate for my inexperience with tax preparation. It’s not my job to know these things, and, similarly, I have never expected my retail and wine bar customers to offer detailed tasting notes on a glass of Brunello or wax poetic on the merits of stem inclusion. What is important for the casual wine drinker is the ability to briefly describe a set of preferences in order to end up with a satisfying choice. It is not necessary to spout off favorite regions, grape varieties, or winemaking techniques. In fact, this may actually be a hindrance—there is a wide range of, say, Pinot Noir styles out there, and someone who favors a light, earthy Burgundian style may be put off by a bold, juicy example from California’s Central Coast. Instead, just a few adjectives will do. For example, “I like crisp, citrusy whites,” or “I’m interested in exploring earthy, spicy reds.” The best way to come up with your brief personalized description is to visit a local wine bar, preferably one that offers flights, and certainly one that is known for having knowledgeable staff. Sit at the bar and get to know your server. As you sample various vinous delights, start a conversation about what you like or dislike about each wine. Your server should be able to extrapolate the common threads from your observations. Now, you can confidently walk into restaurants, wine shops, and bars and get the guidance you need to find your ideal bottle or glass. Beyond this, most wine knowledge is just icing on the cake for the casual drinker. With increasing education and practice (and it’s a very fun sort of practice), it becomes easier to make these distinctions on your own, to distinguish the great from the good, and to serve each wine at an appropriate temperature with a complementary food pairing. This can indeed be a very rewarding endeavor. Wine knowledge, and its necessity or lack thereof, has long been the subject of much discussion and debate. Kent Bach, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, is an ardent lover of wine, but makes no claims of expertise. To the contrary, despite having recently sat with me for more than four hours over a bottle of German Riesling and a fascinating discussion of the philosophy of wine, he insists that he lacks the faintest clue of how to discuss the wine itself. Although he has an experienced palate and a clear understanding of what he likes, he finds he much prefers to enjoy what is in the glass rather than to describe it. However, he does have some very thought-provoking commentary on the way in which other people think and talk about wine. I first came across Professor Bach’s work early in my wine career, while reading a paper he penned in Barry C. Smith’s Questions of Taste, a slim but dense collection of eye-opening discussions on the philosophy of wine. The book opens with Bach arguing both sides of the very question my friend inspired me to ponder that evening in New York. On the one hand, he suggests that while knowledge of wine can add a very enjoyable sort of cognitive or intellectual pleasure to the overall drinking experience (say, correctly identifying the variety in a blind tasting, or understanding why the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in your glass tastes different than one from the Loire Valley would), this knowledge cannot actually make the wine taste better. On the other hand, Bach suggests that it is possible that knowledge can actually detract from the enjoyment of the wine. Have you ever gone to see the big blockbuster movie of the summer after hearing rave reviews for weeks, only to find that, sure, it was pretty good, but it couldn’t possibly have lived up to the expectations you had developed prior to your viewing? This can happen with wine too. The most revered wines of the world have acquired fervent cult followings and extravagant price tags to match, and many wine aficionados can only dream of someday having the opportunity to try a sip. By the time this happens, it can often be a let-down, despite them being indeed quite terrific bottles. Sometimes the reverse is true—believing that a wine is expensive can lead you to rate it more highly—but typically, if you know that a wine costs $5,000 for a 750-milliliter bottle and has a five-year waiting list just to be granted the privilege to purchase it, you tend to expect it to change your life when you drink it. But alas, it is unfair to expect a wine to do that. When I first learned about the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC for short), I became fixated on the idea of tasting the wines of what many considered to be the greatest producer in Burgundy, if not the world. But when I read Professor Bach’s paper, I was filled with a new concern. What if, when I finally had the opportunity to experience DRC, my perception was ruined by over-inflated expectations? Several years back, I sat at the bar at the now-defunct RN74 in San Francisco with a friend who shares my exact palate for wine—it is uncanny, the extent to which we consistently agree. The bartender quickly gathered that we were massive wine geeks, and began to surprise us with little blind tastes. When I picked up one of the glasses he had set in front of me, I lifted it to my nose and inhaled the delicate, ethereal scent of preserved cherries, crisp autumn leaves, and lightly crushed rose petals. I closed my eyes and took a sip, and immediately felt like I had been transported to another plane of existence. When my mind returned to the room and reality, I turned to my friend and proclaimed, “Holy crap. This is the best wine I have ever tasted.” Smirking, the bartender remarked, “Don’t drink that too fast. It’s DRC.” As I sat there stunned, my friend took her sip, with expectations now set. When she placed the glass back on the table, she shrugged and said, “Well, I mean it’s good, but it’s not, like, life-changing.” ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Top Tips to Taste Wine Like a Novice: 1. Don’t overthink it. Focus on what makes your tastebuds happy, just as you would with any other food or beverage. 2. Find a good wine bar in your area—one where the staff is regarded as knowledgeable and enthusiastic. 3. Describe the wine you're looking for in any way you like. Staff at a good wine bar will be pleased to guide you and will usually happily pour you a tastes of a few wines by the glass (it's best to stick to one theme at a time: all sparkling wines, all reds). 4. Share your feedback with the server, and don’t be afraid to be honest. Based on your preference, they should be able to identify your preferences (e.g. oaky, acidic, aromatic). 5. Ask to try another wine with a similar description to the one you preferred the most. If you feel similarly about it, your server can explain what these wines have in common and give you a few adjectives to describe what’s appealing to you about them (if you don’t like it, keep trying more!). 6. Once you have these adjectives, write them in the notes app on your phone, or better still, Delectable, because I promise you will lose the cocktail napkin you’re tempted to scribble them on. Pull up this useful note anytime you need it. 7. Even if you know your stuff, this is an excellent way to discover interesting new wines. Maybe you don’t need to take notes, but it can be fun to leave the decision in someone else’s hands. Say you never drink Australian wine, but you love light-bodied, earthy wines with a bit of funk—perhaps there happens to be a natural Aussie Grenache on the menu that fits that description, to which you never would have given a second look! 8. Remember that above all else, wine is meant to be enjoyable. If you’re feeling anxious or intimidated, take a step back and remind yourself that no one is judging or quizzing you (and if they are, you should probably find some new drinking buddies). If you want to learn more, there’s a wealth of fantastic information out there. But for now, just ask yourself: would I happily drink a second glass of this?

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