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What I Wish I Knew When I First Got Into Wine

It’s easy to drink good wine, but knowing how to find it is the real secret. Of course, once you know wine well, you can find new great wines without even thinking that hard (or even spending that much money). It’s a delightful skill to have and you can learn it too with a little effort.

One afternoon I sat thinking about how experts consistently pick good wines and if there were any clues that an expert could pass along to someone less knowledgable in order to improve their wine-finding abilities. Of course, these types of tips and tricks will only get you so far, but they’ll at least point you in the right direction.

What I wish I knew when I first got into wine

On feeling unsure and overwhelmed at the retail store…

wine ratings explained

Use “fruit-forward” or “herbaceous” to ask for what you like

Instead of struggling with words trying describe what wines you like, start with these simple phrases:

  • I like herbaceous wines
  • I like fruit-forward wines

Herbaceous wines have very little fruit flavors and more mineral and savory flavors. Fruit-forwards wines are… more fruity! Just so you know, I’ve observed most new wine drinkers tend to fall into the fruit-forward category.

Fruit-forward wine = warm climate & herbaceous wine = cool climate

The world of wine cracked open for me when I realized that my love for Shiraz and red Zinfandel meant that I liked fruit-forward wines from warm climate regions. Suddenly I could surf a map and make educated guesses with my wine buying. It lead my “discovering” the great red wines of South Africa, Argentina and Spain.

Stop shopping for wine at the super market

This is the dirty little secret about the wine business, some wine shops care about the individual wines they stock and some do not. Point in case is a grocery store: there are great wines to be found at a grocery store, but most grocery stores are stocked by large distributors who are more interested in making money than pleasing your palate (there are a few exceptions). A retail store that curates their selection will have a higher baseline quality and you’ll be more likely to pick something great.

Buy cheap wines from a curated wine shop

Go to a wine shop (online or offline) with good reviews and start with their cheap wines. Well curated cheap wines will teach you a lot about what regions and wines to search for… plus, the risk is a lot lower if you don’t like something (you can make Sangria). Make sure that the store doesn’t just specialize in one region (e.g. just France, just Italy or just California). You don’t want to get wine region tunnel vision during your exploratory phase.

Use ratings with a grain of salt

When it comes to ratings, if it’s a varietal and region you’re familiar with, they can be useful to find new wines. If it’s unfamiliar territory, they aren’t as useful and won’t guarantee that you’ll like a particular wine. Read more about wine ratings.

On a budget? Go for alternative varieties and alternative regions

When you’re on a budget you have a great opportunity to think outside the box. Your wheelhouse is going to be seeking out alternative varietal wines and styles, and underrated and undervalued regions. For example, if love a big bold wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, you’re likely to fall in love with Touriga Nacional (a Portuguese wine) or Petite Sirah (from California).

On ordering wine…

Please bring me something I don't hate - on ordering

Ask for a taste before buying a glass

Did you know, most wine bars and restaurants will give you a taste of a wine before committing to a full glass? This only works with the wines by the glass menu, but it can save you from being forced to drink a wine you hate. One of the best ways to ask for a taste is to ask to taste the 2 wines you’re trying to decide between. Be polite and try not to ask for more than 3 tastes.

On being seen when drinking wine…

Deer pouring wine in human clothes illustration by Wine Folly

Hold your wine glass at the base of the stem.

If there is a secret handshake of the wine elite it’s how they hold a glass of wine. While it’s true you can hold your glass any old way, you’ll blend into a room of experts if you do this:

  • If it’s a stemmed glass, hold it towards the base of the stem.
  • If it’s a stemless glass, hold it towards the bottom of the bowl.

Swirl [pretty much] everything

Wine aficionados seem to have developed a nervous-yet-justifiable twitch: swirling. Swirling a wine is useful to do before smelling a wine to release the aromas as well as aerate it. You’ll often see wine connoisseurs endlessly jiggling a glass of wine while in casual conversation, they can’t help it, it’s habit-forming. Try it, you’ll love it. Join the club.

Pay attention while drinking

The one thing that will put you ahead of all of your peers in the wine game is easy and fun. It seems obvious, but you’ll be surprised at how many people just drink without thinking. All you have to do is pay attention every time you taste a new glass of wine. Try to be systematic and use the same routine. For example, I started this habit by trying to pick out 3 fruit flavors and 3 “other” flavors (mineral, herbal, etc). You don’t have to pay attention the whole time, just when you start, and maybe once again before you finish your glass.

On interacting with wine snobs…

wine snob illustration by Wine Folly

Smile, nod, and slowly back away.

There is no specialty interest out there (from literature, art, theater or even outdoorsmanship) that isn’t replete with snobbery. Snobs use their knowledge or experience of a topic to exert power over you and it usually ends in you feeling embarrassed or unwelcomed. Unfortunately, wine is a popular topic with snobs. There are many ways to deal with a wine snob, but the best is to simply not engage with them. In this case, by smiling, nodding and slowly backing away. Here are a few more tips on dealing with snobs.

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