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Drinking Out Loud

How to "Get" Wine

Why so many good wines are underrated

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 2, 2013

The other night I served to some guests what I thought was an absolute beauty of a dry white wine. We were having a simple fish dish and I figured that one of my beloved Muscadets was just the ticket. I figured wrong.

"So tell me," said one of my guests in her most diplomatic, I'm-trying-to-be-reasonable-here voice, "what exactly is the appeal of this wine?"

"It's the stoniness," I said. "The minerality. The crispness. The sheer originality."

"I'd rather have a Chardonnay," she replied.

Yes, you'd think I would have learned my lesson by now. This was hardly the first time that I've trotted out a wine that others have considered about as attractive as a five-day-old flounder. Is it my fault? Sure it is. My job as a host is to please my guests.

But we wine writer types are nothing if not evangelical. The old Star Trek line—"To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before"—well, that's what wine writers are supposed to do, right?

"Not with guests," said my wife. "How about a nice Chardonnay?"

I've got nothing against Chardonnay. Really. But wouldn't you like an intriguing dry white from Portugal's Douro Valley made from who-ever-heard-of-them grapes such as Viosinho, Rabigato, Codega do Larinho and Gouveio? Or one of those unpronounceable but delectable dry whites from high-elevation vineyards in Greece?

How about one of the many dry Chenin Blancs from France's Loire Valley? Or a delicious dry Sémillon from Australia's Hunter Valley, north of Sydney? Or a dry white from the Carricante grape variety, redolent of rocks, from Sicily's Mount Etna?

Wine greatness is a two-way street. It's not enough for a producer to find an exceptional site, craft a lovely wine and then get it to us. Someone also has to appreciate it at the other end. That's us.

We have responsibilities too. Yes, yes, of course you should drink what you like. But let me be blunt: Don't tell me what a great wine lover you are if all you want to drink is the same handful of wines. Today more than ever there is an increasingly big difference between a wine drinker (once rare in America, but no more) and a wine lover (a rare creature anywhere).

So how do you "get" wine? Allow me to acknowledge from the outset that none of us, which assuredly includes me, too, will either like or "get" every genuinely fine wine out there. (Myself, I don't care for Sherry, as I don't enjoy oxidation.)

The key is a willingness to make an effort. The effort is twofold. Part one is trying wines that are new to you. This in itself requires a certain proactiveness. Put bluntly: Don't look to your supermarket for really interesting wines. Make the effort to visit a specialty wineshop.

Once there, try to find a salesperson with whom you feel comfortable. (I personally recoil from guys who declare, "This is the best Chardonnay we've had in the store this year." What I hear in that is, "The distributor is blowing it out and we're making a helluva markup on this rather oaky, stupid wine that most folks will like.")

Part two occurs once you find a wine you really like. This is the moment where wine lovers differentiate themselves from mere wine likers. In my experience, many wine drinkers are, well, passive. A wine gets put in front of them. They say they like it. But then, only hours later, they can't remember anything about it.

I get calls from friends that go something like this: "Hey, I was at our favorite restaurant last night and we had a wine I really liked."

"Great!” I say. "What was it?"

"Yeah, well, that's what I'm trying to remember. It was Italian, I think. I thought you might be able to figure it out because you know their list."

I make some apologetic noises and the phone call dribbles off. What I don't say (but would like to) is: "Make a note! Borrow a pen and write it down: Name, producer, vintage." Or you could take the empty bottle home with you. Some restaurants are handy at removing the label for you (which these days is getting harder as label glues grow more tenacious).

Once you have that information at hand, jump on the Internet. Check out the Wine Spectator site for more information. Check out the winery's website. Look at see what other wine lovers have written on chat boards or cellar note–sharing sites. And not least, tell your retailer that you enjoyed this wine and ask if there are any more at home like that one.

Only after all of this—and a few more bottles of wines from different producers in the same zone—will you "get" it. You liked that Barbaresco you had? Wonderful. Hunt down some more. Read all about it. After a mere handful of examples, preferably with some food, you'll "get" Barbaresco.

And what about wines that you don't care for, such as when my guest diplomatically rejected the Muscadet? A real wine lover might ask, "Is this something everyone who knows wine would acclaim?"

In the case of the Muscadet, I would honestly have to answer no, not really. It's a quirky wine that appeals to those who like higher-acidity, leaner white wines. But what if it was, say, a good vintage of Château Margaux or a great white Burgundy such as Meursault Perrières? What if it was a great Napa Cabernet or a stellar Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir?

Ah, then I would have to say “Make an effort.” Because that's often what it takes.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 2, 2013 12:47pm ET
To remember that wine you liked, just pull out the smart phone and snap a photo of the label. No pen and paper necessary.
Suzanne Gibney
Marblehead, MA USA —  April 2, 2013 1:04pm ET
Great stuff, and very relatable!

The conversation with the friend who found a fantastic wine but did not think to write down the name is classic, and nearly verbatim to several I've had.
Ted Hudgins
Naples, FL —  April 2, 2013 1:42pm ET
I too have dinner guests (only a few) who don't get some of the esoteric wines I try & foist upon them. My solution is simple: make sure there are at least 6, if not 8, people at the table which justifies opening the mainstream wine and the little known one. Invariably the conversation will drift to a comparison which inevitably leads to better informed consumers.
Katherine Jarvis
Los Angeles, CA  —  April 2, 2013 3:11pm ET
Matt, thanks for this article. I am in the wine trade--handling PR for several wineries in California, Italy and Argentina--and love exploring new wines, and often quirky wines. When I go out to dinner with my husband, he always asks the sommelier, to my embarrassment, "what is your most fruit-forward, buttery Chardonnay?" The irony is that now-a-days, that is a tough thing to find on a restaurant by-the-glass list, at least in California. Sommeliers have also taken a stand toward more balanced and leaner expressions of Chardonnay (if they even carry the grape on the list), and with it, it is obvious that they have left some potential customers in the dust. Now my husband is deferring to single-malt Scotch or beer, instead of his beloved Chardonnay. In my own home, I always try to pick the best of a few "genres" to offer my guests, because everyone has different preferences. It is the democratic thing to do...

-Katherine Jarvis
Bruce Bauer
Portland, Or —  April 2, 2013 5:59pm ET
With all apologies to your wife, we in the trade can't, and shouldn't help ourselves when it comes to introducing friends, family, etc. to new wines. I find people endlessly open minded when they come to my house and fine a new bottle placed before them. Now maybe I run with a particularly polite crowd, but I think more than that they want that new experience. Or maybe they just like drinking for free. I'll believe it's the former. In any event when I get "Oh wow, I've never heard of it but that is amazing!" response to the obscure Gaillac Blanc I might pour, then it's all worth while.

And right on, Harvey. Same thing I tell my customers at VINO here in Portland all the time. We all have smart phones, so just take a pic. One added thing you can do to help your retailer find the bottle is snap the back label with the importer's name.
Carol Cipollone
swan point, md —  April 2, 2013 7:31pm ET
Matt, You're right. You need to find someone at your local store that is willing to help you find those "off the beaten track bottles". I always look forward to tasting something new. I just take a few suggestions from Wine Spectator to my local wine guy (Fred at Nicks), and I'm usally taken care of. Thanks for your instites, keep them coming.
Steven Smith
West Springfield, MA —  April 3, 2013 8:59am ET
Matt as always you've hit it out of the park, 99% of this article is true, and fun to read. As a reatiler I did take excpetion to your comment basically referring that if retailers are pushing it it must be for something other than quality. At Table & Vine we pride ourselves on finding the best options we can for our clients. Whether that be the the best Muscadet or the best Chardonnay that their money can buy. It is pretty discouraging to hear you look down on us retailers, but I guess you may have learned that from the many wineries that don't want to see their wines sold in our shops either "95% restaurant sales please" they say. We can be a good resource, and again we pride ourselves on tracking down that wine that you had that you don't quite remember.
You visited us a few years ago for a Burgundy dinner, Michael Quinlan says "Hi!"
Scott Creasman
Atlanta, GA —  April 3, 2013 9:12am ET
Mollydooker wines have a perforated tag as part of their back label that is easy to pull off at a restaurant and take home so you can remember the wine. There are apps like Vivino and Hellovino that let you will take a picture of a wine label and find a retailer that carries the wine/give more info about the wine. Love me some Muscadet with raw oysters.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  April 3, 2013 9:59am ET
Let the buyer beware .....but informed. I am a wine lover, to a fault. My quest for new and different tastes has led to a cellar with 256 different wines totaling 700 some bottles. I try to buy smart, relying upon WS ratings and tasting notes while scanning over a dozen daily emailed offerings. I only make a couple of(prized) purchases a month in quantities of 3 or 4 bottles of each wine. I also rely upon peer group advice through my web based social wine clubs. When it comes to dinner guests, I prefer the two bottle approach as mentioned in a previous comment. More often than not, the middle of the road wine is prefered over a truly "original" bottle. Alas, so is life. Thank you for your spot on advice!
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  April 3, 2013 6:35pm ET
Great article...liked it and relate to it via my tennis aficionado status - meaning you never stop learning and the more you play the more you want to be good at it, even if you are a medium doubles weekend player like myself.
With wine, it is the same - I just want to keep on trying and learning with each sip on the glass....
R.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  April 3, 2013 10:31pm ET
I have noticed over the decades (yeah I just dated myself) that there is an axis of discrimination that can be defined at one end as "Just give me something comfortable that I don't have to think much about" and at the other end is the true wine aficionado who cares about wine and understands the need to explore, and really understand. I see this in the wine store I work all the time.

The real trick is to explain to the former what it takes to expand their horizons and how to do this in a satisfying way. It is always easy to converse with fellow aficionados because they understand the lingo and the reasons behind the passion. Talking to and helping the casual consumer is a lot more difficult.
John Lahart
NYC —  April 4, 2013 11:15am ET
The answer is in the piece. People (most anyway) enjoy wine not by place or grape but by style. Falvor profile.
There is NO such thing as typicity any longer. There are too many wines from too many grapes (plus blends) made in too many places(terrors) for anyone to grasp all of it!

Chardonnay can mean a range of flavors/styles. There are unoaked California versions that are minerally and crisp. Malo plays an important role in how chards taste. Even unoaked chards can have a creaminess often associated with oak. There are fruitier versions and drier versions.

There are plenty of non chardonnays that have similar traits--some Soaves can posses a rounder, softer mouthfeel--some see some wood as well.

Most people have stronger feelings about acidity. Some love it some do not. Some people prefer restrained fruit and others love loads of fruit flavors. Often consumers confuse fruitiness with sweet. Many will ask for a "sweeter" style wine and do not mean a desert wine.

A real problem is that many wine shops are not staffed with people who are good at sales. A dirty little secret is that many wine sales persons have not actually tasted a lot of wine let alone a lot of the wines they are expected to sell.

The better shops are adept at sizing customers up--asking a simple question like : what was the last wine you had that you really enjoyed?--reveals a wealth of knowledge and sets you on a course of finding out how adventurous that customer is and offering something they will likely find pleasing and maybe even "discover" a new wine.

Yet too many shops are staffed with wine geeks who are more intent on "turning you one" to the latest, obscure, trendy find rather than provide you with a great wine experience based on your preferences. Other shops are as noted busy pushing something management wants to unload or worse leave you alone to wander aisles aimlessly at the mercy of shelf talkers.

Thankfully, more and more places are doing a better job understanding customers and establishing trust which leads to: "you know I have something interesting that I think you will like...."
Richard Bradley
Lorain Ohio USA —  April 4, 2013 4:27pm ET
Matt,

Invite me over for dinner, open up whatever you feel appropriate for that evening's meal and you won't hear a peep out of me.

Why?

Because it is impolite to talk with one's mouth full!
Erik Forgaard
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA —  April 7, 2013 12:52pm ET
Matt,

Worked part time in retail for a couple of years as a result of my love for wine. I tried in vane to have the clientele try a different white wine other than the price point ($15) they were locked into. It became so discouraging by the fact that their wine purchasing was dictated by price, I eventually quit. I was able to have a few folks venture out of their comfort zone and they were always pleasantly surprised by my wine recommendation. Many times it took opening a bottle and providing a tasting for them to have that moment of discovery.

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