Log In / Join Now

7 Do's and Don'ts of Talking About Wine to a Non-Wine Crowd

What do people who aren't obsessed with wine want to hear about it?

Posted: Jul 25, 2013 12:00pm ET

By Jennifer Fiedler

It's no secret that wine people can come off as a little cultish, with their special vocabulary, tasting rituals and intensely focused gatherings. Yet it's an interesting hobby in the sense that it bumps up against the real world on a regular basis—at meal times, business dinners, and fun moments with friends and family. That means that wine people get to share wine with lots of folks who may not exactly have the same enthusiasm when it comes to talking about wine.

Having worked around wine and food for the better part of a decade, in such conversations, I hear a range of reactions from "Oh, I don't know anything about wine," to genuine excitement about learning something new.

But I was curious as to how these conversations sound to people who don't work in the wine industry, so I emailed some non-wine friends (promising anonymity) to see what they'd want to hear when talking to wine people. Most of their responses had to do with common-sense etiquette. Figuring it's always useful to have a reminder, I compiled some do's and don'ts from their responses.

Do be prepared for people to be intimidated. "I usually just run when people move beyond, 'This is good.' ... Despite taking tasting courses and spending more time than I should at vineyards, I never know what to say about wine, and I definitely don't have the right vocabulary or a sensitive enough palate," said L. of Portland, Ore.

Do come prepared with a story about the wine if you brought it or picked it out. "Personal stories about how they found the wine, or the vineyard history, are cool; I also like the science behind how certain wines are made and the history behind certain grapes and blends," said M. of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Don't get too technical or lecturing, and definitely avoid the jargon. "If the wine-speak is directed at me or someone at my ignorance level, and it's at all technical without the basics, I find it off-putting. [Wine] people need to be aware of their intended audience and put info into plain English," said I. of Toronto.

Don't go overboard with descriptors. A few are OK to get the ball rolling, but too many and you'll shut down the conversation. "Pick one taste that intrigues you ... That way, when you ask someone else who's not as knowledgeable what they think, they can also identify one thing and feel like they're on par," said M. of Honolulu.

Don't do the full-on evaluation of a wine (swirl, sniff, slurp) in social settings outside of a tasting, said M. of Boston. "I don't like to listen to people slurp." Save it for wine-obsessed company only.

Do find points of agreement on the wines you're drinking. "I just had a fun experience tasting wines to serve at my wedding reception. The store's resident wine expert gave us a few bottles of reds, whites and sparkling wines to try. It was actually really endearing to have the wine guy geek out on our choices," said P. of San Francisco.

Don't bring up price unless you're pointing out a value pick. "I get put off when people talk about how good expensive wines are and scoff at buying $10 bottles at Kroger," said C. of Houston.

Do you agree with these? Have any tips of your own? Leave them in the comments section.

Colonial Spirits
Acton, MA, USA —  July 25, 2013 12:50pm ET
Don't do the full-on evaluation of a wine (swirl, sniff, slurp) in social settings outside of a tasting, said M. of Boston. "I don't like to listen to people slurp." Save it for wine-obsessed company only.

Really!? What if it happens to be a small production, boutique, "cult", restaurant only, and/or winery only wine. Being in retail I have the opportunity to try a lot of wines, but there are those that I could only dream of trying. If given the opportunity I going to evaluate to death.
Karl Mark
Illinois —  July 25, 2013 1:31pm ET
Swirl & sniff is ok. Slurping is just obnoxious and disgusting to hear, I don't care who you are or how much better it helps you perceive the wine.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  July 25, 2013 1:54pm ET
I would suggest NEVER bringing up price.

For every one who obnoxiously states how superior expensive wines are, there is another who claims that "spending more than $15 on a bottle of wine is a waste of money".
Calgary, Canada —  July 25, 2013 5:27pm ET
Don't bring a top flight bottle or top Cru to a party where the wine knowledge will be lacking. The wine will just end up being an after thought and I cringe at the thought of someone chugging my aged Burgundy's or Bordeaux.
A good rule of thumb for me, nothing over $25 in that situation.
Jordan Feldman
Baltimore, MD —  July 25, 2013 7:34pm ET
I work in retail and I alter my degree of "wine-nerd" descriptors depending on my impression of the customer. Many times I'll point to a wine and say, "This one rocks.", or "That's a fun one!" and that's all that's necessary.
I may also spend minutes describing wines or exchanging vino thoughts with a customer. This customer may be well versed on the topic, or a rookie that's fascinated by the information.
Kevin R Barris
Houston —  July 25, 2013 7:37pm ET
I do my best to bring the under-$20 gems (in Houston we can get about everything) to promote a couple of things: good wine is out there we can all enjoy, and stop accepting that crap so many restaurants foist over on us by the glass. Sometimes I bring a jewel for host couple, but got burned once when the hostess -- wine running low -- popped open my Kosta Browne... Oh well.
Jennifer Fiedler
New York —  July 26, 2013 3:41am ET
Thanks for the comments everyone! Lots of good advice here.

Jennifer Fiedler
Wine Spectator
Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  July 26, 2013 2:21pm ET
Price is almost impossible to avoid addressing - I'm talking about a particularly good glass of wine you have in your hands - what I've learned to do is give a brief explanation on the old equation of supply and demand.
Plus the fact that some aging in a barrel and then in the bottle results in money sitting, waiting, and getting more expensive as time goes by.
The rest...is the one you like the best for your palate.
Joseph Byrne
CA —  July 26, 2013 3:36pm ET
I have found the best is to say "What do you think of the wine" and let them tell you what they think. You can learn a lot by listening and seeing why they like it. Then if they ask you about it, you then know how deep to go into or not to go into the wine, by their answer and question.
Dan Merry
Suffolk, England —  July 27, 2013 6:12am ET
I love the topic, and the added comments -- you hit on a subject that us wine geeks often come across. Here are some of my thoughts:

DON'T: criticize or put down any wine.... any wine. I was at a party where a couple of people ganged up on Yellow Tail and when I went into the kitchen the host had plenty of it...

DO: bring a bottle of Kosta Browne to any of my gatherings.

DO: give a bottle of an entry- or mid-level wine from your collection to any guest who genuinely seems interested, and ask them to enjoy that at home and get back to you with their thoughts -- they will be hooked.
Megan Clemans
Albuquerque, NM USA —  July 27, 2013 12:49pm ET
Good little article...hit on areas which I encounter daily as a sales rep/Wine Consultant.

I have found for me that in a tasting situation my clients (geek or not) enjoy straight forward information sprinkled with stories.
And my key phrase at all my tastings "Drink what you like...who cares what others say." This opens wines to everyone.
Finally; enthusiasm!! When we geeks are truly enthusiastic about a wine that is what comes across and what people will remember.
Thomas Matthews
New York —  July 29, 2013 10:40am ET
I second the comment from Joseph Byrnes. People often want to know my thoughts on wine, but I always ask them in return; it's amazing how much you can learn even from people who profess to know nothing. And in a relaxed setting, most people actually enjoy talking about their perceptions and their feelings.
Jeffrey Matchen
New York, NY —  July 29, 2013 1:44pm ET
I particularly like the recommendation to have a story about the wine. Stories about a cool winery, or meeting a TV chef, or the eccentric (crazy?) retailer who knows everyone in the business -- are a lot more likely to get others interested in wine than talk of "legs" and taste descriptors. Wine is a sensory experience, but also a social experience.
Bernard Sun
New York —  August 1, 2013 10:35pm ET
To be a good sommelier or any service professional for that matter, you have to be a good listener. Your guests will always tell you how much they want your advice and where their comfort level is. All one has to do is to listen closely and not get caught up in one's own knowledge and pride. It's okay to keep things simple. You'll always get a chance to geek it out with someone somewhere down the line.
Rich Mora
East Setauket NY, USA —  August 5, 2013 6:14pm ET
As a member of the trade (Mora's Fine Wines), I am surprised at how many people don't trust their sense of taste and smell.
I am very easy about taking back the rare bad bottle a customer returns because I've seen so many people taste and drink bad wine without any qualms. I've even been to trade tastings were a half empty bottle is clearly corked. That means a number of wine professionals tasted the wine and thought nothing of it. So my suggestion as a pro is to encourage the casual drinker to just give some thought to what he is drinking instead of just knocking it back without a second thought. I think the only thing that differentiates us experts from the amateurs apart from experience is just paying attention to smells and tastes in our wine. Palates are definitely made and not born.
Marsh Moore
San Diego, CA —  August 7, 2013 9:08pm ET
All of the comments have merit but I find that in the last few years there are more and more of my friends that like to learn more about wine, and the vocabulary is part of it. I love sharing good wine with people that have a desire to understand the elements that make wine enjoyable. There are good values at every level so price shouldnt be discussed, but I, like everyone else, love an exceptional deal! I will tell my friends so that they too can get something great without a big pricetag!

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.