By J. Eric Eckard. Photography courtesy of theculturetrip.com, wineonthestreet.com and southfork.com
With nearly 200 different types of wines by taste and style, picking the right bottle often can be overwhelming and intimidating – particularly for a novice. With thousands of wineries in the United States alone, a good wine store or a fine-dining restaurant might have hundreds of bottles from which to choose. How does a fledgling wine drinker pick the right one?
“Early on, you might have this idea that if the wine is expensive, it’s supposed to be good,” said Scott Fernandez of Hernando, Miss. a self-taught wine connoisseur. “When it’s not, that can be disappointing.One of the most satisfying things for a wine drinker is to find a good, inexpensive wine.”
So, here are a few tips when searching for a bottle to take to a dinner party or trying to impress your date at a nice restaurant.
Rely on the experts
A good wine shop or nice restaurant will have well-trained staff and often a certified sommelier to help you overcome the immediate confusion of bottle shock. Lesley McHardy, a certified sommelier for 17 years, runs Briarwood Wine & Spirits in Jackson, Miss. with her husband. She also serves on the committee for the Santé South Wine Festival, the largest wine festival in Mississippi, which raises money for Alzheimer’s Mississippi.
“I’ve mentored a lot of employees over the years, and the first thing I tell them is ‘Don’t be a wine snob,’” McHardy said. “It seems that there are more and more wineries popping up every year, and the different types of wines available seems to be endless.
“There’s no way anyone could ever try them all because every year there is a new vintage.”
McHardy said she starts with the basics when determining what wine to recommend. White or red; what price point; any food pairings; and what wines they’ve tried in the past are a few key questions McHardy asks.
Read, read, read
Shelf talkers, notes wine stores use to describe wines on the shelf, can be a great resource for both novice and experienced wine drinkers. Many shelf talkers offer buyers the wine’s rating, a scale used in the wine industry to grade wines. McHardy said anything with an 85 rating or higher typically is good wine.
Google or a wine app like Vivino also are good resources when picking a wine. You’ll get reviews from a wide range of wine drinkers, who have posted online about a particular bottle.
A novice beer drinker is not going to start with an imperial stout from Germany or even a Scottish double IPA. And so a neophyte wine taster probably would be turned off immediately with a Portuguese Madeira or Spanish sherry – both strong wines with high alcoholic content.
“Most people who haven’t tried a lot of wines are not going to like a dry wine that smells like a barnyard,” McHardy said. The main goal is to drink what you like.
“I don’t want people to be embarrassed by what they drink. There’s a reason why Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors.”
Taste, taste, taste
Drinking what you like might be the main goal, but McHardy also encourages people to branch outside their comfort zones to find other wines they might like. She said she likes to baby step people into other wines.
“Never be afraid to try something new,” McHardy said. “Show a sense of adventure.
“If you’re at a wine-savvy restaurant, they’ll usually let you try something by the glass, just to get a taste. But you are going to kiss a lot of frogs.”
Play the wine game
Fernandez, who participated in his first wine tasting 30 years ago with his wife, said he likes to play a wine game at restaurants. He said many restaurants keep a cheap bottle of wine on the menu for the price-conscious diner, and it’s often not the best wine.
“So, we like to pick the second-to-least expensive bottle,” he said. “Generally, the next one up is pretty good. We hit on a real good Pinot Noir in New Orleans by playing the wine game.”
Join a wine club
Try to find like-minded people in your exploration of wines. Fernandez and his wife belong to a club that has about 40 members. Small groups often meet at members’ homes to try different wines. McHardy has accumulated a vast collection of bottles over the years as a wine store owner, so she and her husband have been holding impromptu wine tastings at her home in recent months.
“I sample a lot of wines so I can understand all types, and then I can find the right wine for our customers,” McHardy said. “Whether I like the wine or not isn’t important; I can understand it and explain it.”
Fernandez said other alcoholic drinks often are seasonal. A gin and tonic tastes good on a hot day in some downtown bar; three fingers of Jack Daniel’s on a cold winter day will warm your cockles; and a cold beer quenches your thirst after mowing the lawn in the summer.
“But wine is not some monolithic thing,” he said. “You can find a wine that fits into each of those categories.”
Drink, drink, drink
“The best way to learn about wine is to drink wine – and not the same wine over and over,” McHardy said.