Generic Tips for Becoming a Casual Wine Snob
You too can learn to detect hints of petroleum or dusty mushrooms in your fermented grape juice.
A few years ago I gave a presentation at a Lunch and Learn about wine. The presentation was a collection of slides with as many tips as I could cram on each slide, and the goal was to show someone that they could go from knowing nothing about wine to being able to describe the taste of a Cabernet with somm-esque vocabulary in a very short amount of time. Obviously being a sommelier takes lots of training and work and probably money, I just like the idea of a bunch of us regular folk describing scents of ‘freshly cut garden hose’ and ‘a banana in a hot room’ when we drink wine with our friends, so I’m trying to help make that a reality.
I decided to dig up the presentation and rework it into complete sentences and paragraphs. Most tips in the presentation are a blend of jokes, falsehoods, and sarcasm with helpful information sprinkled in. Think of each tip as a sip of wine, where you’re looking for ‘tasting notes’ (aka helpful hints) while also enjoying the fact that you’re drinking wine (aka reading dumb stuff on the Internet). Oh, and these are in no discernible order whatsoever.
#1: Wine aged in oak tastes different than wine aged in not-oak.
Lots of wine is aged in oak barrels. Snobs prefer French Oak, and Republicans prefer American Oak. Not really. Arguably the biggest difference in French versus American oak is how they affect flavor: French oak tends to contribute less obvious flavors to the wine than American oak (there is a joke in here somewhere, I know it).
If you’re a regular human like me, the differences in the taste of the two kinds of oak is not something you’ll notice until you read which oak was used on the back of the bottle. If it doesn’t say which oak they used, go ahead and assume it wasn’t French. French oak is expensive, and there’s no way the winemaker would pass up the opportunity to brag about it. What you would notice more readily is whether a wine has been “oaked” or “unoaked”. Here’s a fun taste experiment: go grab two bottles of Chardonnay, one that wasn’t oaked and one that was, and see if you can tell the difference. I bet you can: one will have a calmer fruity taste and and some smoky vanilla notes, and one will be much brighter and acidic.
Whoa, look at those wine words I just used. I sure hope you were impressed. That leads us to tip number two.
#2: Use better words.
Being able to wield pretentious wine words is the easiest way to convince someone that you’re in-the-know. This ‘aroma wheel’ will help you create a word bank for impressing and alienating your friends whenever wine is shared. Remember, not every wine will taste of brambleberries and chocolate (save those for when the wine is boring).
#3: Open wine doesn’t keep.
Opening a bottle of wine exposes the wine to oxygen, which results in science happening. Oxygen can help open up the aromas of certain wines or soften the flavors, but over a very short period of time it can also kill those flavors.
Decanting wine is the process of pouring wine from the bottle into a big, expensive jar that may or may not resemble a vase. You can research decanting if you want, or you can do what I do and not worry with it. Your wine will likely get all the oxygen it needs as it sits in your glass.
Also, don’t worry yourself with a fancy wine preservation device, they’re a waste of money and don’t work that well. Just finish the bottle within a couple days and you’ll be fine.
If you do want to try preserving a bottle, grab a can of argon. It’s not likely to help very much, but will afford you an opportunity to explain density of gasses to your guests.
#4: Sniff, swirl, snobbery.
Smelling the wine is important, and while you may feel overly snooty when you do it, it does actually increase your enjoyment of the product. You’ll start to notice how oxygen affects wine if you give it a whiff straight out of the bottle, and continue to take ‘sample sniffs’ throughout the time it takes to finish your glass.
Give the wine in your glass a swirl. This exposes the wine to more oxygen, and therefore serves a purpose beyond making you look debonair.
I like to sniff, swirl, sniff, sip, swirl more, sniff more, let it sit, then repeat. After my first glass, I like to do none of these things.
After my fourth glass, I like to spill the wine when I swirl it.
#5: Wine with food is hard.
Not so much a tip as a statement, but the tip is that you shouldn’t feel responsible for making sure every bottle you serve your guests matches perfectly with the food you’re serving. That’s the job of a trained professional called a sommelier.
Being a sommelier means you’re good at knowing what flavors pair well, and it requires a really sensitive palette and an unwavering commitment to bullshitting everyone around you.
That said, there are some general guidelines to follow when considering which wine to serve:
- Dry whites or dry, slightly sweeter reds can be served as an aperitif.
- Hearty reds (cabernet sauvignon) need hearty meals (steak).
- Lighter reds (rosé and some pinot noirs) go well with fish.
- You can’t go wrong with a Sauvignon Blanc if you’re not having meat (pairs well with medium/light pasta sauces and most veggies).
- Sweet white wines have a purpose, but I am unsure of what it is.
#6: Ask for help.
Don’t buy wine by the label, even though that’s tempting when you’re in a rush. I think you’ll find talking to an employee at the wine store will actually get you a great bottle faster than label-shopping. If the wine store you’re visiting is decent, the employee hanging around the wine section will be knowledgeable and more than happy to help you.
If the wine store you’re visiting is not decent, leave and go to a decent wine store.
Before you go, you should know what you like and what you want to spend. Try using some of the fancy words we talked about earlier. The wine store employee knows wines that match the fancy words and will be much better at assisting you if you’re both using fancy words.
#7: Don’t be intimidated by wine.
Wine is fun. It seems intimidating because there are lots and lots of options and styles and words that sound like drinks from Starbucks. Start with these standard varietals to help you figure out your palette:
- Cabernet Sauvignon (red)
- Merlot (red)
- Malbec (red)
- Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Pinot Grigio (white)
- Chardonnay (white)
- Zinfandel (red, white zin is lame and also not really white)
- Rosé (reddish)
In my last post, I mentioned that I think wine is less complicated than beer; I thought it sensible to then write a thousand words about how wine is complex. To me, adding complexity increases enjoyment because there’s something to learn and more to explore. However, there’s still much to love about wine whether or not you care about the aging process or describing tastes. The glass of wine you have on a patio with your significant other after a long day will tell you everything you need to know about wine, and that’s why it’s not all that complicated.