We all started out as wine newbies, and even if you know a little, there's always more to learn. Whether through reading, taking classes, or tasting, tasting and more tasting, there are plenty of ways to educate yourself about wine.
Which are most helpful? We asked these seven sommeliers whose wine lists have earned Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards what advice they give to wine newbies who want to become wine nerds, whether they're employed in the restaurant business or just looking to drink better on their own time. Some of the tips are familiar, others more unusual, but all are useful. Here's what the experts recommend—you might learn something, even if you're already a wine ace.
Wine Spectator: What advice do you give newbies interested in getting more involved in wine?
Wendy Heilmann, wine director at Pebble Beach Resorts and its three Best of Award of Excellence winners, in Pebble Beach, Calif.
There’s nothing to be afraid of, so go out and explore the world! From Aglianico to Zweigelt. Hopefully you live somewhere where you have a well-respected wine bar. Get to know your server, and taste through all kinds of different wines. If you like Pinot Noir, you may also enjoy Gamay, Etna Rosso or Dolcetto. If you like Viognier, try Muscat or Gewürztraminer. Also, don’t be afraid to give candid feedback. We didn’t make the wine, and everyone’s palate is different. So, if you don’t like the wine we poured for you, let us know. It’s OK! When I managed a wine bar in San Francisco, I used to say, “Is it yum or is it yuck?” Only through guest feedback can we help steward a great tasting experience.
Finding your favorite wine bar or shop is like finding a great hairstylist—it might take a few tries for that person to learn how finicky your follicles are, but once (s)he understands you, you can sit in the chair and trust to have a great experience and walk out feeling glorious.
For a newbie, you must taste as much as you can. If you are in the industry, then go to as many trade tastings as you can. If you are a consumer, start or join a tasting group with friends and attend as many retail [store] tastings (usually free) as you can. Educate yourself by reading as much as time allows—books, publications and blogs are all good. There is so much more information available now than when I started out. It just takes time and patience.
Drink with purpose. If you want to understand a region you need to read about it and drink the wines from it. Want to learn about Barolo? Buy a mixed case, open a book and get started.
Taking classes is always a good idea as well. While I always recommend the Introductory Course from the Court of Master Sommeliers, there are also lots of regional classes through WSET and such. I think it is incredibly valuable to study with people who are not only very smart about wine, but educated about how to codify and simplify your studies. Wine as a topic is quite overwhelming; it helps to have someone keep you between the lines as you get started.
Listen to some podcasts! I'll Drink to That is my fav; it is a great way to get immersed into the finer details of the wine world. And seek out retail stores that carry eclectic wines. If someone cares enough to select and sell artisanal wines, you are bound to find someone at that store willing to share some insight. Wine industry people love to talk about wine: You can get so much insider information without spending much at all.
Work in a restaurant with a comprehensive wine program. Be willing to take any position and pay in exchange for learning. Take advantage of all the training and extracurricular activities that the restaurant hosts for its staff. Let the manager/owner know you are interested in learning. Come in early; ask lots of questions; ask if you can attend a tasting or sit in on a distributor tasting; practice opening bottles before service; read any books they have available; and finally, see if they are willing to sponsor you in any wine courses offered in the area.
Read everything you can get your hands on: books, maps, blogs and current events. You must find time to travel and talk to the locals. There is so much valuable information that can only be gained by getting your feet on the ground.
Erik Segelbaum, wine director for Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants, including Best of Award of Excellence winners Le Coucou in New York, Upland in Miami Beach and Le Diplomate in Washington, D.C. These are several points of advice he gave to the waitstaff of a new restaurant in New York shortly before opening, during a wine-service training session.
This is about being confident and comfortable talking to guests about wine … because if it’s easy for you, you’ll be more comfortable with our guests, thereby doing it more, and if you do it more, that will reflect in their experience and your paycheck. Psychologically, when you push your passion combined with knowledge, guests will automatically like it. Human nature predisposes you to like something somebody is excited about. Guess what happens when people like things in restaurants?
Don’t ever make [information] up. People know when you’re making it up. Be honest. Always assume that the guest knows more than you about whatever subject you are speaking to.
There's two Drouhin red Burgundies [on the list]. Please, please, please, when you're ringing these bottles in and when you're selling them, recognize what the difference is between the two. They live near each other in the cellar, they're both from Drouhin, they're both red Burgundies. But one is going to be $495 and one is $88.
When a guest rejects wine: We don't benefit from forcing a guest to drink wine they don't like, whether it is flawed or it isn’t. The dollars we make on that interaction are far less valuable to us than the goodwill we lose on that interaction. Even if the Joseph Drouhin [Clos de la Roche] is perfect and they reject it.
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