Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Wine Every Day, part two

So you’ve decided to drink some wine. Excellent. You’ve taken the first and most essential step to a heart-healthy lifestyle. Now, how do you choose? Most of the time, when you pose this kind of question to a wino, they’ll give you a long, convoluted answer that gets into much more specific follow-up questions than you’re prepared to handle. Instead, stick to three things to ask yourself, which will help you on your way to experimenting with wine.

1. Red, white, or sparkling?
Not much is riding on this decision. Think of wine drinking as a long-term investment. At one time or another, you’re going to try them all, so what sounds good, off the top of your head, just for the heck of it? No, seriously, come on, just pick one. This is like the LSAT, there’s no penalty for guessing. There’s also no wrong answer.

This is another place where wine pros try to intimidate you (intentionally or not -- remember enthusiasm). They make you feel like you’re going to get it wrong. They’ll try to tell you at this point that you need to consider the occasion, what you’ll be eating with the wine (if anything at all), who will be there, and a bunch of other irrelevant stuff that helps prove to themselves that they know what they’re talking about.

You don’t need to give a good reason or even any reason at all. Maybe you want red wine tonight because there’s some red in the sunset tonight. Or you want white because it looks like the wine coolers you used to chug in high school. Or maybe it’s a sparkling you lean toward because it’s got bubbles and so does the beer you would rather be drinking instead of getting all this wine stuff. It doesn’t matter. This is about enjoyment.

Got your choice? Okay, good. Moving on.

2. How much do you want to spend?
You probably know this already, but you can buy wine for as little as $2 a bottle or as much as $4,000 a bottle — and we’re just talking retail price here. That leaves a lot of room for price variation. You need to decide how much you’re willing to spend, but don’t let anything other than your own budgetary allowances dictate that. You’ve got no one to impress with a label or a price tag. You’re in this for yourself, to see if this is something you’ll like. Why should you shell out a lot of money for a bottle of wine if you don’t even know you’ll want to finish it?

More expensive is not better when it comes to wine. The plateau on price-to-quality ratio comes rapidly. At about $50 per bottle, you basically pay a luxury tax on prestige or scarcity. There’s no reason to start at the high end.

If you decided you wanted to try out skiing, would you check into the fanciest resort, buy the most expensive ski equipment, and then test it all out? No. You would most likely go somewhere inexpensive, and you would rent your equipment the first time. Would you go buy a Corvette just because you liked the color? No, because your budget wouldn’t allow it. That’s the point: this is a testing phase for you. Start small, start slow. Get more adventurous as you go. It’s still going to be an interesting journey.

There is a lot of great value out there in wine. In particular, if you look for bottles from Spain, Argentina, Germany, and the Rhone, Loire, and southern France, you can make a killing on $10 wines. (California tends to do less well in the $10 range, where the market is dominated by bulk wines filled with residual sugar and flavored with oak chips.)

3. Where should you buy it?
This seems like a “duh” question. It’s not. There’s a huge difference between the $8 bottle of Australian Shiraz that you find at the grocery store and the one you’ll find at the best wine shop in town. It’s all about buying power and markup at the store you patronize. So do a little research. Find out who the best-regarded wine merchant in town is, then go to them.

When you’re dealing with less expensive wine, you want to minimize your price. A place like Spec’s, the mega-store here in Houston, has generally lower prices than a grocery store. They also beat the prices at smaller wine shops. If you can find a bottle that lists at $8 but only pay $6.50 or less, well, what price would you prefer? Buying power. Find the place that has it in your town. You’ll be rewarded with being able to drink more and fret a little less. Costco is another terrific place to buy wine, and they have a good selection for introductory drinkers.

It’s important to find the best prices possible, but not only because it’s easier on your wallet. If you buy a crummy bottle of wine at a supermarket, and it’s actually egregiously overpriced, you’re going to get a poor idea of what the market is like. You might begin to think you have to spend $20 to get even a mediocre bottle of wine, and that’s just not true. So go to the people whose passion is wine. They’ll sell it to you cheaper — which means you’ll get it at a reasonable price and are less likely to feel ripped off.

Putting it all together
So now you’ve got a basic plan of action. You want a red wine, for dinner tonight, that costs about $10, and you want to buy it at Big Choice Wine & Spirits. Good stuff. Should you walk into Big Choice, find the first red wine that fits your price range, and walk out? Not at all. But why risk information overload? If you have too many things to remember, you’re going to think there’s a right or wrong answer. There isn’t.

You do, however, have to face the reality that not all wines are created equal. If you’ve ever seen people order wine in a restaurant or buy a bottle in a liquor store, you’ve probably heard them ask about California Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot. There are fine wines to be discovered there. But there are much better options for people just starting to cultivate an appreciation for wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is kind of hard to drink — it’s a grape that makes wine high in tannin (that’s the puckering, drying sensation you get in your mouth on the aftertaste; it’s extracted from the grape skins, stems, and seeds; it literally “falls out” of the wine over time in the form of a grainy black sediment). So, most of the time, Cabernet isn’t very pleasant to drink young. Merlot, as it’s made in California, can be the same way. Worse, it can be vegetal tasting. And when you were a young kid, just forming your taste for food, did you want to eat all your vegetables? Probably not. Why start with Merlot, then?

Some wines are more suited to easy appreciation. These are the wines you should target. They emphasize the fruitiness of the grapes, have good balance between the acidity and tannin, and will give you a good sense of what better bottlings might have to offer. The key, though, is that easy appreciation: wine is not something that should be difficult to enjoy. The Wine Spectator tasters and Robert Parker types get caught up in flowery (literally) descriptions of the wines that defy grounding in reality. If you think food writers are bad, try reading wine tasting notes.

You want to pick out something that’s good to drink, won’t give you a headache, won’t be unpleasant, and will make you think, “Hey, this wine stuff is okay by me. I want to try it again.”

So where do you go from here? Take a couple of the major points to heart — pick a color and a price, then go to the best wine store in town and go from there. You’ll have hits and misses. But just drink wine and enjoy. You learn what you like by drinking. You’ll quickly realize what fits your taste. Experiment. Be open-minded. And follow the advice of a very smart man who makes some very tasty wine in his own right. John Holdredge has said this: If you like it? Drink it. If you don’t like it? Drink something else. If you really like it? Drink some more. Maybe that is the silver bullet of wine appreciation. Follow your own taste, and before long, you’re not going to need advice from anyone but yourself.