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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I recently turned 21 and started serving at a higher-end restaurant. I have been studying wine, but I really want to know what people want to hear when they ask questions like, “how does it taste?” All wine sorta seems to taste similar to me, so I’m wondering how to describe wines and what to say about them to better help at work.
—Taylor, Napa, Calif.
When you’re first learning about wine, it’s not unusual to have trouble distinguishing wines from each other. The world of wine is so big that I think you should start by just focusing on the list at your restaurant—don’t try to learn everything all at once. Let the person in charge of putting the list together know that you’d like some pointers. Ask the chef about how the wines on your list pair with your restaurant’s food. I like it when a server can suggest a wine or two, so see if you can figure out a couple of favorite pairings, and talk to your coworkers about what they think makes those wines special. Perhaps the management could work some wine basics into your training, or let the staff sample some of the wine list.
If that’s not an option, there’s nothing stopping you from tackling the list yourself. Take one wine a day, and do some research on your own. Look up its website, learn a little about it, see how winemakers describe their own wine, and then maybe check out how an independent critic describes the wine ... like, say, Wine Spectator, which has tens of thousands of reviews available on our website, or in our handy new iPhone app.
From there, the world is your oyster. If only you lived in a culture immersed in wine ... oh, wait, you live in Napa. Wine is your backyard. Take advantage of the hundreds of wineries within a few miles of where you live—go to tastings, take tours, start reading, join a tasting group, and maybe even take an online wine course.
As far as what people want to hear when they ask questions about how a wine tastes, that will vary for everyone. I think for most people, you really just need to stick to the basics, especially until you develop your own wine vocabulary and comfort level. For reds, I’d stick to describing the body, level of tannins, and how oaky the wine is. For whites, I’d mention the acidity level. You can admire a wine for its pure fruit flavor, its spiciness, or its floral aromatics, but I wouldn’t venture too far outside of that for now. Good luck!
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