Sommelier Roundtable: Advice for Wine Newbies

Here’s what eight experts from Restaurant Award winners suggest for a strong start to any wine journey

Sommelier Roundtable: Advice for Wine Newbies
To jumpstart a wine education, wine pros recommend creating a tasting group with friends or family. (Getty Images/Arno Images)
Sep 8, 2021

There’s so much to learn about wine that, for those who are just beginning, it’s often difficult to know where to start. The countless books, tastings, classes and other resources available these days can be straight-up overwhelming. But with a little guidance, newbies can take advantage of the vast range of educational tools and find the ones that work best for them.

To help, we asked eight sommeliers from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners to share their wine-study advice. Though it’s meant for novices, even experienced wine drinkers can benefit from these expert tips.

Wine Spectator: What advice would you give someone looking to get into wine?

Jen Reyneri, co-owner and sommelier at Award of Excellence winner the Grove Pizza Cucina & Wine Bar in Hobe Sound, Fla.

Don’t be intimidated when you begin talking about and describing wines—it’s like learning a foreign language. You just have to jump in, and immersion is always the best. Nearly 20 years ago, one of my first wine teachers, Master Sommelier Cameron Sisk, gave me permission to be myself when tasting and learning when she shared an unforgettable comment: “If that wine tastes like the moon to you, it tastes like the moon.”

I also love in-person tastings and educational series. Find some events locally or get a group together and call a sommelier or a place like the Grove to put together a virtual tasting for your friends and family across the miles.

Mark Cartland, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Island Vintage Wine Bar in Honolulu, Hawaii

I have three simple words of advice: Write it down! It’s amazing how easy it is to forget details about a wine unless you write it down. It’s not surprising really. Wine is generally consumed in a social setting with many distractions and stimuli, so if you don’t take a brief moment to focus your thoughts and impressions, they will be fleeting at best.

And if you can’t write it down, at least snap a pic of the front and back of the bottle. It’s amazing how much information is often on the back label, including the importer, website information, grapes and even the increasingly common QR code.

Christian Shaum, beverage director at B. Hospitality Co. in Chicago, including Best of Award of Excellence winners the Bristol and Formento's

I always love feeding highly aromatic white wines to newbies looking to fall down the wine rabbit hole. Something like Do Ferreiro Albariño, Cantina Tramin Gewürztraminer or Max Richter Monopol Riesling. I think these wines have a structure that is hard to not love and aromatic intensity that’s easy to understand. White wine as a whole is a little easier for newbies to understand since we’ve largely taken tannin and anthocyanin out of the picture.

Natalie Tapken, beverage director at Bluepoint Hospitality Group in Easton, Md., including Best of Award of Excellence winners Bas Rouge and the Wardroom and Award of Excellence winner the Stewart

A lot of people get stuck in a rut of drinking all of the same varietal or all of the same region, so definitely expand beyond your comfort zone. And you’re going to have to kiss some frogs to get your princes; that’s going to happen, it’s part of the adventure.

When I’m learning, I love looking for wines that definitely have a sense of terroir and place from winemakers that aren’t trying to obscure the region, [so] you really get to know it first. The whole analogy is that Picasso learned to draw before he could paint, so it’s really just about knowing the bread and butter of the region and what it’s supposed to taste like before you go with the experimental wines of the area. Family-owned, small-production wines are a great place to start.

Katey Taylor, wine director at Award of Excellence winner the Essex in Centerbrook, Conn.

Start learning with the wine or wines you love that sparked your interest. It will lead your interest to other wine-growing regions where the grape you love is grown but is different because of terroir, or it will lead your interest to other wines grown in the region of your initial passion. For me, that was Pinot Noir.

Christopher Czarnecki, chef-owner at Best of Award of Excellence winner the Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton, Ore.

Taste, taste, taste! Visit wineries. The only way to learn about wine is by tasting it. Be brave and don't assume someone else's opinion or assessment is the "correct" one.

Steven McDonald, wine director at Grand Award winner Pappas Bros Steakhouse in Houston, Texas

Start reading and read a lot. There is so much more reliable learning material out there than there used to be. Also, try to supplement the reading with a part-time or full-time job that allows you to see bottles and talk to experts. That may be in restaurants or retail, but there's no substitute for getting your hands physically on bottles to learn.

Kuan Lim, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Lucky Palace in Bossier City, La.

The best way to learn about wine is to start with a mind free of prejudice and conditioning, if this is possible. Keep an open mind and be willing to explore the unfamiliar, the unknown. Read, and drink the wines you are reading about. Two essential books are The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil and The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.

Form a tasting and study group among friends. Select a specific topic to explore every week—a region, a grape variety, a style, etc. Drink and read together and share notes of impressions. Keep a journal to record tasting notes. And have fun!

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