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Drinking Out Loud

A Beginner's Guide to Wine Expertise

It’s not what you know, it’s how you go about it
Matt Kramer has some advice for talking about wine: Be concise, and be positive.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer has some advice for talking about wine: Be concise, and be positive.

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 20, 2018

I’m professionally obliged to say this from the outset: I’m not joking here. Wine has a vast array of jokey articles, essays, even whole books devoted to “faking it.” In fairness, some of these efforts are witty and take deadeye aim at wine’s always-lurking pretensions. Most such skewering efforts are, however, predictable and/or limp.

What am I serious about here? First, there is such a thing as wine expertise, in the same way—and from the same sort of effort—as there is about, say, basketball. It comes from long experience and repeated application.

But the thing about expertise—any expertise—is that it’s really a way of looking at something. Those with expertise know what to look for. Wine expertise is no different.

Even if you haven’t yet acquired the long experience or achieved the repeated applications that experts can offer, you can still equip yourself in wine with at least the savvy approach of expertise.

For example:

Tasting Wine. Nothing is more daunting to those starting out in wine than tasting the stuff. This is because most wines aren’t immediately seductive upon first sip.

You want someone to like wine on their first try? Serve them Moscato. It’s sweet (we’re physiologically hard-wired for liking sweetness); there are no gritty, mouthpuckering tannins as in some red wines; and the honeysuckle perfume of Moscato is what the springtime scent in Paradise itself must be like. You can’t miss.

Once beyond the wine-on-training-wheels ease of Moscato, tasting wine becomes a little more wobbly for most of us. So how do you approach wine tasting with expertise?

For starters, don’t ask yourself, or anyone else, “Do you like it?” Here’s the expertise part: Set aside “like” (for the initial moment anyway) and instead ask yourself or others, “Can I understand everything about this wine in just one sip?”

If your answer to that question is “yes,” then move on. The wine holds nothing for you. But if you conclude that, no, there’s more here to be explored and examined, then you’ve arrived and applied just the sort of expertise—which is to say, methodology—that all experienced and knowledgeable wine tasters employ.

Here’s the interesting part: At precisely this “expertise juncture,” no matter how new you may be to wine, there are then only two differences between you and anyone who’s had vastly more experience.

One is that more experienced tasters can compare the wine in hand with a catalog of taste memories that helps put the wine in a larger context. That’s mighty handy.

The other is more knowledge-driven: The really experienced can tell you why a wine is better or worse. Teaching wine-tasting classes has shown me that most newcomers to wine, most of the time, will identify with surprising sureness the better of two wines—if they’re paying attention. But they can’t tell you why it’s better.

Sports offers a good analogy. I’ve never played tennis, but even I can see that Roger Federer is incredible, and not just because he gets the ball across the net. (After all, the other guy does that too.) My tennis-savvy pals can go into all sorts of details about what makes Federer so extraordinary—even when he loses. I can’t.

Talking About Wine. More than any other subject, talking about wine invites—often justifiably—more derision and scorn than anything. Seemingly not a week goes by when one writer or another mocks the pretensions of winespeak. Often it’s richly deserved.

So what, then, are we to do? Silence is no answer. A good wine drunk without comment is like a prayer without an “amen.”

Wine demands words if for no other reason than that if we don’t put words to wine we really don’t know what we’re tasting. Articulation is explication.

So what’s the real expertise in talking about wine without coming off as a pretentious jerk? I would submit that three things are required:

  1. Concision. Keep it simple and, above all, short. Most wine jerks (all male in my experience, I’m sorry to say) go on and on and on. Don’t.
  2. Steer clear of descriptors. Yes, I know that my colleagues rely on an abundance of flavor and taste descriptors in their tasting notes. But that’s just it: They’re writing tasting notes. You’re not. Describing a wine that everyone else is also drinking is about as welcome, and as appealing, as giving a running commentary while watching a movie.
  3. Don’t compare the wine in hand with a different vintage of the same wine, as in, “This 2014 is good but the 2010 was more dense.” That may well be true. But so what? It’s geek stuff—and you come off as (and likely are) self-aggrandizing. If no one asks, don’t tell.

So what should you say? My advice is to keep it uncomplicated and positive, if you can. Again, the company is everything. In non-geek company the expertise is to emphasize the pleasurability of a wine. And if it isn’t quite so tasty as a sipper on its own, suggest that it might be more appealing with food. Or at a cooler temperature. Or in a different size or shape glass. Is this cowardly? Maybe. But isn’t that better than coming off as a wine jerk?

So what then, should you say in more specialist company? Ah, here you can give your inner geek free rein: vintage comparisons, discussion of the structure of the wine (dense or dilute; supple tannins or gritty), speculation about winemaking technique.

Bottom line: Context is everything. Choose your words based on your company. Even then, the best advice is always “concision.” You can never go wrong by saying less.

Choosing Wine from a Restaurant List. This is a perennial trial for anyone, not just beginners.

Restaurant wine lists are minefields, with explosive prices, booby traps of vintages and vast swathes of uncharted-by-you wine terrain. In today’s globe-circling wine selection no one—and I mean no one—can suavely navigate a large or adventurous wine list with sure and certain knowledge.

What’s the expertise in negotiating a restaurant wine list? Ten years ago I would have suggested sticking with something you know, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet. But today I would say that the real expertise is actually seeking expertise.

First, take a quick look at the list simply to see if it offers a genuine range of prices. That’s the giveaway to a creative, insightful wine list. If that’s confirmed, then do what all good business owners and managers do: Use consultants. Ask the sommelier for advice and counsel.

The expertise here is employing their expertise. Your job? Don’t be embarrassed. Tell the somm how much you’re willing to spend on wine overall. And, if you can, give her or him at least a hint of your interests, either in particular sorts of wines (“I really like red wines without a lot of tannins”) or your adventurousness (“I’d like to try anything you’re really excited about”). Then sit back and let them do their job—and enjoy the ride.

So that’s a start. All sorts of expertise exists on other subjects, such as building a wine cellar, visiting wineries, even choosing wineglasses. Any thoughts? Suggestions? Encouragements? All expertise is assuredly welcome.

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