People frequently ask me what the best approach is to learn wine, which is analogous to asking me ‘what’s the best wine ever?’ I’m sure there are many ways to learn about wine but I definitely have an opinion about it. There is no shortcut when it comes to learning about wine or probably anything for that matter. While learning wine is probably not on the same plane as learning rocket science or neurosurgery, it nonetheless requires some of the same strategies that most subjects require for retention and competency. Most subjects are learned with basic building blocks, by breaking down more complex topics into smaller steps and later, adding reinforcement of what has already been learned. Wine is not that different but I believe the sequence of topics is a very important component to really learning wine. If you have made up your mind and swear that you will never spend more than $12 dollars on a bottle of wine (it’s surprising how many people I’ve met that tell me that), then there is a somewhat different trajectory for your wine education. You will never really learn wine with that limitation. I’m not saying you won’t learn anything, but in this case your wine knowledge would be so severely incomplete that it would beg the question, ‘why bother?’ It’s just that we live in a huge and amazing wine world these days so I hope you never paint yourself into a corner with such notions.
There are others, however, that just want to learn about wine and implicitly understand there will be some challenges along the way and accept or even embrace that reality. A couple of things first: it will demand your time and, unless you have a dear friend that has given you unfettered access to his or her encyclopedic wine cellar, it is also going to require money. If you are a typical college student for example, your wine education will be hindered or delayed by the lack of pecuniary resources and there is no easy way to get around it that’s not criminal. No matter how bright you are, the two things that are not negotiable when it comes to wine knowledge are time and money – a lot like other challenges in life. If you want to go further to eventually receive, say, a Master of Wine qualification, it will consist of the formerly mentioned two requisites, times a multiple of many to achieve the status that is conferred upon about 350 people in the world. Most people are not that interested, me included, to relegate oneself to the excruciating educational regimen that few ever actually successfully get through to attain the coveted title.
Only you can decide the level of wine knowledge that will be satisfying for you but recognize upfront that that goal can change over time; you may get in deeper than you initially intended or you might bail sooner than you thought for any number of reasons, but in any case, anything is better than nothing. If you’re reading this post, most of us fall between the two extremes in terms of our goals and how to manage our time and money. The good news is that while learning wine, you will taste through a formidable volume of it. The bad news is that monetarily, you’ll pay for it. Regardless, any of it has to be more fun than studying actuarial science or taxation law.
It seems there are almost as many resources out there as there are bottles of wine, many available for free online, but also in book form. Not all sources are equal and there is a lot of specious and erroneous information out there, especially online. Subscribing to wine publications such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Stevan Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar are all great resources for every level of knowledge unless you have the time and resources to taste through about 10,000 bottles per year. Wine Spectator offers a great iPhone app for $3 per month too, that has vintage charts and their entire database of wine ratings on tap. Even if you don’t agree with wine scores, these resources are always good tools to have on hand as a guide.
Consider learning the following subjects in this order:
– the importance of using the proper wine glass for the wine being served
– how to hold a wine glass and why
– how to take in aromas
– how to taste wine
– how to describe what you see, smell, and taste from your glass (learn wine vernacular)
– wine etiquette
– taste through noble grapes from various regions; learn where they are grown, and their flavor/aroma profiles
o Sauvignon Blanc
o Pinot Noir
o Cabernet Sauvignon
– wine serving temperatures
– the concept of terroir and its importance to wine
– the main elements wine consists of
– the importance of balance in wine (fruit, acid, tannins, alcohol; sometimes sugar content)
– which wines age well and which wines will not benefit from age
– storing wine
– wine faults
After Wine 101 is completed, then begin to learn Old World vs New World wine and the major wine regions of the world, which include important wine regions located in the USA, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. Book knowledge alone won’t serve you well because tasting is required (and at various price points) to really understand these regions and topics. While exploring these regions and wine styles (Old World and New World) you will also get acquainted with grape varieties other than just the noble grapes, such as Italy’s Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Barbera grapes, Spain’s wonderful Tempranillo, and much, much more. This will take some time so be patient, but things really start getting interesting here.
Once the previous subjects are mastered, delve into vineyards, soil types, weather, vines and species, growth cycles, vineyard strategies, management, and methodology. All of this is fascinating, even amazing, and helps us to understand where it all begins and how everything from the vineyard translates into what we have in our glass. I was actually blown away with some of the information while learning about vines and vineyards. There is real evolution going on in today’s vineyards that contribute enormously to the high quality wines we enjoy in these modern times.
Then continue learning about various winemaking techniques and practices, from vineyard to the sorting table, maceration, yeast, fermentation, secondary fermentation, cooperage, wine chemistry (at least the basics), barrel aging, blending techniques, and so on. Winemaking has been going on for thousands of years so it’s easy to think, ‘what’s the big deal? You crush some grapes, add some yeast and something will happen that at least resembles wine.’ There is so much more to it and again, winemaking has evolved in both a good way and also in a questionable way, as many wine regions use technologies and processing methods that were unavailable not so long ago.
Wine 201 and beyond
Moving forward from here gets you into smaller and lesser-known regions and appellations, less common grapes, and really learning your vintages. This can all seem daunting but it’s not if you break it down into small steps. In a year or two you’ll be surprised how much you know if you actively work at it.
But in the end (if there actually is an end), what’s really in for you? Confidence for one thing; you will know absolutely that you can walk into any wine merchant or restaurant in the world and have a very good shot at selecting the best wine for any given occasion. You’ll also be able to have meaningful conversations about wine with nearly anyone, including wine professionals. That’s huge all by itself but there are many other benefits too, such as really understanding why what you are drinking is so good, flawed, or just average and forgettable. Every single taste of wine becomes a lesson that contributes to your catalog of wine knowledge. The deeper you go with learning, the more rewarding it is. And remember that wine is a very social medium so at the same time you’re learning you will attract like-minded people into your social sphere, especially if you attend many wine tastings that happen on a regular basis in almost every town.
I will share with you one last thing I did in my earlier days of wine education. I highly recommend this, and although I recognize it’s controversial, this one thing turned out to be an enormous contribution to my understanding of wine and changed everything for me. After more than a year of reading everything my head could comprehend and after tasting through many, many bottles of wine (a few good but many not so good), I bought a 100 point First Growth Bordeaux that was in its perfect drinking window at the time, opened it, and took it in. Every little detail about what I had been studying came together for me and I understood exactly what great wine should be. Everything I had learned seamlessly converged at that moment like some prodigious epiphany of ‘wow – I get it now!’ Virtually everyone that’s reasonably deep into wine has experienced that moment in one form or another. It’s what makes us want to keep going, but more than that, it completely explains the rewards of knowing about wine, experiencing it in all of its glory, what makes wine great, and why we want more.
Photo: Just a few of the many books I’ve read cover to cover, and have used for reference many times over. Get some.