Stop Being Intimidated
Stop Being Intimidated by Wine, America
NOVEMBER 12, 2015 / WRITTEN BY KATE THORMAN
America, we have a wine problem. No, this isn’t that kind of intervention.
When was the last time you felt embarrassed and clueless when ordering juice, ice cream, or smoothies? Now, how about wine? In much of the world, wine is a staple of daily life, the standard beverage that’s made nearby and served at every meal. So how is it that, in the U.S., so many of us find choosing a bottle of wine an intimidating ordeal? Wine shouldn’t be mysterious or scary; ordering it should be as fun as ordering ice cream.
A Culture of Fear
Let’s stop being scared. Our culture has somehow convinced us that you have to know a lot about wine in order to talk about it. Patrice Boyle, owner of Santa Cruz, California’s Soif Wine Bar & Merchants and 35-year industry veteran, notices trends of insecurity at her restaurants: “Some people immediately say they don’t know anything about wine and throw themselves at your feet. Others are defensive about what they do know and don’t want anyone to tell them anything.”
Between ratings systems (looking at you, Robert Parker) and insider lingo (“terroir” and “tannins,” anyone?), wine often seems like something you practically need a degree in to enjoy. It’s really more algebra than astrophysics, though; while a connoisseur can of course find plenty to study, what the average wine drinker needs to know is actually quite straightforward. But, acknowledges Sarah Jane Evans, chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine, “I also think there are people who have a vested interest in keeping [wine] complicated.” That is, some people like feeling that they’re part of a rarified club—and there’s money to be made from perpetuating this elitist approach.
Swirling your wine doesn’t release secret knowledge. It just opens up scents and flavors.
The European Approach
For all the international luxury market around it now, wine began as a safe alternative to contaminated water, a humble origin continued in the tradition of table wines. In Europe (and much of the rest of the world), people still tend to drink their local wines, and, outside major cities, it can often be hard to find those made elsewhere. Arthur O’Connor, the winemaker behind Codorníu Raventós, Spain’s oldest winery, points out: “In most restaurants in Rioja, you can’t get a wine from Ribera del Duero, which is two hours away—you get Rioja. And in Ribera del Duero, you get Ribera del Duero.” When O’Connor was based in Catalonia, he would regularly drive an hour across the border into France in order to get southern French rosé, which wasn’t sold in Barcelona.
This focus on the local product means there are fewer choices for wine drinkers—which, in turn, eliminates the need for rankings, reviews, and a certain preciousness that portends elitism. With these out of the equation, the most important thing becomes whether you like the wine or not. Johannes Selbach—of the Selbach-Oster and J & H Selbach wineries in southern Germany’s Mosel region, whose family has been in the wine business for 400 years—cites his father’s approach to wine as, “The best wine, when you have several choices, is the one where the bottle goes empty the fastest.” Well, if that’s what the professionals say…
Tastings are the best way to start figuring out what kinds of wines you like.
Find What You Like
But, in the U.S., where there’s a glut of choice, how do you know which wines you’re actually going to like? The experts agree that there’s only one way to find out: Taste as many as you can, figure out which ones you like, and learn how to describe those to a sommelier. You can use ratings guides or recommendations as a starting point, but those are based on someone else’s taste buds—in the end, your palate is the only one that matters. Evans suggests going to tasting events at your local wine shop or wine bar, and making a day of it tasting at wineries. Take notes about the origins and grapes of wines you like (or take pictures of the labels). And then, she says, “make friends with the people at your wine shop. Tell them that you had this wine and liked it, and ask what they would recommend for next time.” You don’t have to be an expert—you just want to be able to communicate what you like.
Any bar or restaurant will let you taste a wine before you order it, too, and you shouldn’t feel obliged to order it if you don’t like it. Nor should you feel bad for making them open a bottle just for you. According to Boyle, it’s no problem if someone changes their mind about a just-opened bottle, because “we can just pour it by the glass.” For wines by the glass, most places will let you taste several before deciding—although, an enthusiastic sommelier or bartender will try to make that first taste something you’ll enjoy.
In fact, most of the industry experts we spoke to said that they, too, order wine by asking the bartender or sommelier for recommendations. Alyssa Twelker, the retail manager at Soif, says, “I think people are afraid to ask, but I like a personal recommendation. I taste wines for a living and there are still so many I haven’t had. I don’t want to miss out on a good wine, but I wouldn’t order it if I haven’t heard of it.”
If the wine is making your dining experience better, then it’s good wine.
Good Wine, Good Food, Good People
When it comes down to it, says O’Connor, “what’s far more important is who you’re drinking the wine with and the conversation that takes place. The wine is secondary.” Selbach agrees: “I go by the mood I’m in, the food I’m going to have, and the company around me. Anything goes, as long as it is delicious.”
So, America, it’s time to stop being intimidated by wine. Next time you’re in a wine bar, taste a few things before you pick one. Don’t be afraid to say you like something your “knowledgeable” friend poo-poos. And, no matter what, enjoy it—after all, it’s only wine.