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How to be a Wine Expert

snob

Recently, as I was flipping through the February issue of Food and Wine Magazine when I came across the title of an article that sent my heavy sense of sarcasm flying, become a wine expert in 28 days. “Yeah”, I thought to myself, “if they hold the secret to make anyone a wine expert in 28 days, I’m Jancis Robinson.” Let’s be honest, this is an absolutely impossible and unrealistic expectation that is completely based on shameless marketing techniques. I don’t care if you’re Robert Parker’s prodigal son, no one can be molded into a wine expert in less time it takes to actually make a bottle of wine.


Your Wallet Please

Although the article had several redeeming qualities about it, I felt by the end of the piece, it merely wanted to pitch advertising to the wealthy. Now, if you have money coming out your ears, this might be a fantastic article for you, but for the rest of us average wine drinkers, you may want to reconsider not only its intention, but also their recommendations.

Day 1 (taken directly from the article):

“Buy a small notebook to keep track of all the bottles you’ll be uncorking over the next 28 days. (The small black oilcloth-covered notebooks from Moleskine, favored by Matisse and Celine, make classy journals.) The first wine for your notebook: the ethereal 1996 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne ($140), a top Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay) Champagne.”

First day of learning about wine and I need to buy a Moleskine notebook and a $140 bottle of Champagne?

Day 7:

“Draft your 2007 wine budget. Think about how much money you’d like to spend, then parcel it into three categories: everyday bottles, special occasion bottles and bottles for long-term cellaring. Hold a calculator in one hand and a glass of the fruity 2005 Guilhem Durand Syrah ($12) from France’s Languedoc in the other – proof that living frugally doesn’t mean drinking poorly.”

Now, if you are a beginner or even intermediate wine taster, who would ever suggest to you that in order to be a “wine expert”, you need a classy oilcloth notebook? I’m lucky if I remember to record my wine notes on a piece of coffee stained scratch paper. Although the idea of purchasing a wine notebook to record the wines you’ve tasted is a wonderful and practical idea, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to buy something that you’ll actually use rather than something you’re terrified to lose?

Additionally, why would your first bottle you try be a $140 Taittinger? How does this help you to be a “wine expert” if you are clueless as to the first thing about wine? Now, maybe the author was marketing this article to those who have several years experience of wine drinking under their belt, but there is absolutely no mention of this. Therefore, I would have to wonder how this suggestion would even remotely aid the average consumer off the street? Personally, I would start my quest in becoming a wine expert by evaluating how much I can even afford for the year. It’s not to say there isn’t a time a place for an expensive bottle of wine, but let’s be clear we know how to evaluate the bottle before making such an investment.

Day 6:

“Taste a Bordeaux from the excellent 2003 vintage with famed wine critic (and F&W contributing editor) Robert M. Parker, Jr., at New York’s Executive Wine Seminars. For $670.00 a head, a limited number of people get to try 14 of the best 2003s, including Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Ausone, and hear Parker’s insights into the vintage”.

Do I need to say more about this suggestion? By Day 6, not only have you spent close to a grand without considering your wine budget for the year, but you haven’t even embarked on anything reminiscent of formal wine education. Instead, they suggest you spend $670 on a posh tasting event that may give you some fantastic contacts in your business ventures, but will most likely keep you clueless as to what you’re looking for in a good bottle of wine.

A Practical Guide

I can go on and on about how erroneous I found this article to be, but I won’t. Instead, at this point, I’d rather point out some suggestions in the article that we feel can give you a solid base in your wine education.

DAY 1: Buy a Small Notebook: Absolutely! I couldn’t suggest this more even though my husband can attest to the fact that this particular habit is not my strong suit. Although I have several notebooks dedicated to the subject, I have found that I fall back on my husband to remind me which wines I thoroughly enjoyed and those I didn’t. However, you don’t have to follow my poor example. Get out there and buy yourself a notebook that calls to you. Then, figure out a system that helps you decipher a wine sensually: sight, sound, taste, texture, aroma and overall impressions. In the long run, I think you will truly appreciate the time you took in creating this habit, because it allows you the hindsight to evaluate how you have grown as a wine taster, in addition to how your appreciation for certain wines has changed.

DAY 16: Take time to learn CellarTracker.com: Now that you’ve put your thoughts to paper, you have a great way to both record the bottles you’ve drank, while having a fabulous resource to compare your tasting notes with other people. Plus, Cellar Tracker offers you a wonderful way to inventory your personal cellar.

DAY 7: Draft a Wine Budget: Obviously, I think this is an absolute. Your child’s dental appointment comes before a $140 Taittinger….well, then again, their teeth are going to fall out anyway, and really, how often do you get a chance to taste a fantastic bottle of champagne? In all honestly, sit down with a pencil and your new wine notebook to figure out how much you want to spend. We suggest breaking your list down in a similar vain as the article suggested: everyday bottles, bottles you was to spend a few more bucks on for special occasions, and bottles you want to reserve for long-term cellaring. One side note: although we support spending a little extra money on those special occasion bottles, we feel the “special occasion” should be the bottle itself more than it should be event surrounding it.

DAY 8: Find an Internet Wine Discussion Forum: I couldn’t agree more. Talking with people is a wonderful way to evaluate your wine knowledge, and it provides a way for you to increase and expand your vocabulary by reading what others say about a particular wine. One Iberian forum we really enjoy is Roy Hersh’s “For the Love of Port”. Not only is this site incredibly friendly and insightful, but Roy is a sweetheart and will happily answer any question you may have no matter how basic.

DAY 9: Visit a Wine Bar: I love this suggestion. Get out there and see what people are serving. Ask questions of your bartender or waiter and get the scoop on the street. Don’t be shy and ask to see if they serve flights of wines so that you can compare and contrast a variety of different grapes and styles. And with your handy-dandy wine notebook, you can record your thoughts on the entire experience. Then, go back in six-months to a year and see if your notes compare with your last experience. This, my friends, is the true definition of applied-learning. Plus, we’ll let you in on a little secret. Whenever Ryan whips out his notebook, he typically gets better service because the staff thinks he’s a professional wine writer. Why not bank on that possibility yourself, and take your little book out whenever the chance presents itself. Who knows what kind of treats you may get yourself!

DAY 10: Take a Day Trip to a Local Winery: Another fabulous idea. There are wineries in all fifty States. Get in a car, bus, train or plane and see the world from the perspective of a grapevine. See how a winery ticks. Experience the smells, the sounds and the taste of a winery. Ask questions and get hands-on learning from the ground up. If you can do it, I would even suggest getting into the winery during a harvest. Granted, they might not have time to wait on you hand and food, but if their big enough, they will have plenty of employees to tout you around to see the facility. It’s worth it and beyond memorable!

DAY 11: Listen to Wine Podcasts: There are more hitting the cyber-airwaves everyday, and you will learn volumes by listening to these. Additionally, they are easy to download and can be played anywhere. So, why not increase your wine knowledge by plugging in and downloading one such as Catavino’s own podcast or our friend Tim over at Winecast.net.

DAY 12: Read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon: How can Catavino say no to a suggestion that both incorporates one of the most famous authors on Spanish culture in addition to being an avid Spanish wine supporter. Although we, ourselves, have not read this particular book, don’t think we aren’t going to actively seek it out. If you have read it, please don’t hesitate to send us a note on your impressions~!

DAY 15: Organize your Wine Cellar: Great idea and one that I know many of your have been putting off for quite some time. The W&F article suggests that you arrange by both region and vintage, and then by now bottles and later bottles. I support their idea and would highly suggest you do it sooner than later. Why? Because you don’t want to find out later that you’ve been drinking wines that should be cellared versus wines that should have been drunk now.

10.DAY 19:Try a Wine and Cheese Combo: Being that I adore cheese, I couldn’t support this idea more. Get out there and buy some fantastic Spanish Cheeses like: Cabrales from the Northern coast of Spain, which you can pair with Port, Moscatel or Pedro Ximenez; Idiazabal, a traditional Basque Cheese that can be paired with a Crianza wine or a white wine that has been fermented in oak like the Bodega Miquel Torres, Gran Vina Sol Chardonnay; or the famous Spanish Manchego from the center of Spain in DO La Mancha, which pairs beautifully with light reds, slightly oaked whites or an amontillado. If finding a Spanish cheese is difficult in your area, check out the Spanish Table website. They not only have several great Spanish wines, but also cheeses that can be directly shipped to you.

Great suggestions from the article and ones that I would highly advise anyone to do in order to become more informed about wine; however, I would also suggest some very practical ideas not offered in the article.

1. Create a Wine Tasting Group: At least once a month, gather people like yourself who enjoy tasting wine. In light of Iberian Wine, I would suggest taking a region, a grape or a style within a given price-point and making it the theme for the month. Make sure everyone brings their bottles wrapped in a brown paper bag, label each bottle numerically or alphabetically, and taste the wines before the food and with the food. Throughout the entire experience, record your thoughts. After the second tasting with the food, take off the bags to reveal each bottle of wine. It is a wonderful way to both learn and to gain more experience with wines you may not have bought yourself.

2. Take a wine tasting class: Why not? Take a weekend course to see what an “expert” can teach you about tasting wine. Get a better idea about wine descriptors, what to look for in a wine, and how to read a wine label. What a great way to spend an evening or a weekend.

3. Read! There a hundreds of interesting books, magazines, articles and websites on wine. Find one style you like and hit the books. Even if you’d rather read a romance novel than a dry wine making guide, don’t think they’re not out there. There are several books on romances over wine. Get into your local book shop or do a google search and find them! Here are a handful that we have appreciated: Brian Murdock’s, “Let’s Open a Bottle“; Graeme Chester’s “Shopping for Wine in Spain”, or a book that has zero to do with Iberian wine, but everything to do with romance, “Love by the Glass” by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher.

In the end, the only way for you to be wine savvy is with both curiosity and passion. A wine expert cannot be created in a month, a year or even a lifetime; however, a wine lover need only an open mind and a desire to learn. So get out there, drink some Iberian wine and fire up your palate, passion and persistence on the subject!

Gabriella Opaz

  • Erin

    I also read that piece and thought it was absolutely absurd. If you wanted to call it "how to become a pompous ass in 28 days", then perhaps it was right on the money. To expect that anyone, even if they are willing to fork over hundreds of dollars just because they can, would appreciate the Tattinger (using it as an intro to wine? PSHH!) is ridiculous. The article is essentially turning happy followers into money-tossing dopes, who still know very little about wine other than what is the most expensive (and hence best right?), and who they should listen to (RP). It takes far more skill to recognize value, and I'm not talking just dollars. Moleskine…honestly.

  • Bill

    G, a thoroughly enjoyable article. You do indignant outrage and humorous sarcasm with the best! Nice photo at the top. Did Ryan take it?

  • http://www.blogit.dodgy-at-best.com/grapejuice/ Erin

    I also read that piece and thought it was absolutely absurd. If you wanted to call it “how to become a pompous ass in 28 days”, then perhaps it was right on the money. To expect that anyone, even if they are willing to fork over hundreds of dollars just because they can, would appreciate the Tattinger (using it as an intro to wine? PSHH!) is ridiculous. The article is essentially turning happy followers into money-tossing dopes, who still know very little about wine other than what is the most expensive (and hence best right?), and who they should listen to (RP).

    It takes far more skill to recognize value, and I’m not talking just dollars. Moleskine…honestly.

  • Janelle

    Well, maybe they have got THE formula to becoming a wine expert. Have you actually tried it? Maybe if I followed their advice I really WOULD become a wine expert in just 28 days! You never know if you dont try it! Thanks for the Moleskine link, I'm gonna get one!

  • Janelle

    Well, maybe they have got THE formula to becoming a wine expert. Have you actually tried it? Maybe if I followed their advice I really WOULD become a wine expert in just 28 days! You never know if you dont try it! Thanks for the Moleskine link, I’m gonna get one!