Friday, December 9, 2011

A beginner's guide to flawed wines

Sometimes, the bottle of wine you open at home or order at a restaurant is flawed. That doesn't mean you made a poor choice and bought a crummy wine. As a delicate, living product, wine can go bad, like milk, produce, meat, or anything else. People feel enough anxiety about wine to begin with, and deciding whether a particular bottle may be flawed could enough to induce a panic attack. But just as drinking wine is as simple as going with what you like, picking out flawed bottles isn't too tough. While there are a litany of possible defects and, as with anything involving wine, geeks can parse the nuances of each flaw until it induces you to drink even if the wine is spoiled, it is worth being familiar with a handful of common signs that a wine is defective. You'll grow more comfortable once you've encountered some of these bad characteristics, but hopefully you don't run into them too often.

1. "Cork Taint"
This probably is the most common flaw you'll run into. You may hear it called "TCA," which is an abbreviation for the chemical compound that causes cork to ruin wines. No need to bore you with the science; you can read more in-depth information for general audiences at the Wine Spectator. "Corked" wine is also among the easiest flaws to pick out. Have you ever smelled a cardboard box that sat in a garage during the humid, rainy Houston summer? That is basically what cork taint smells like. It makes the wine smell musty or like damp, moldy cardboard.

Your first indication that a wine might be corked is by smelling the cork itself. It is that plug of cork bark itself that imparts the TCA bacteria on a wine and ruins it. (A side note: it is possible for a cork to smell corked but for wine to be untouched.) If you smell that musty aroma coming from the wine in the glass? Send the wine back at a restaurant, which should bring out another bottle at no charge. Or put the cork back in and return it to where you bought it. Any self-respecting merchant will honor your return, even years after a purchase. You should get your purchase price refunded, receive store credit, or take home a replacement bottle of the same wine from a recent (if not the same) vintage. This is the same resolution a restaurant, retailer, or winery should give you for any flawed wine.

2. "Brett"
"Brett" is short for "brettanomyces," which is a bacteria that, not to be rude about it, makes a wine smell like crap. Literally. Some diplomatically refer to the aroma of brett as "barnyard," but make no mistake: brett is, at its core, a flaw. Some might argue a bit of brett in wine adds complexity -- and, indeed, it can be nice to have a hint of brett in wine. The French wines of Burgundy and the Rhone are most commonly linked with (and even renowned for, in some cases) moderate brett levels.

But brett is, without a doubt, a bacteria that can destroy wine. Perhaps you have a threshold for enjoying brett, which is most often found in red wines; perhaps you are as intolerant to it as you should be of cork taint. If a wine is too full of brett for you? Send it back.

3. "Cooked"
Cooked wine is a unique problem among wine flaws. This is one instance where, in most cases, you can't blame the winery. Whereas cork taint, brett, and the other faults listed here are without a doubt imparted at the time the wine is made or bottled, a wine is cooked somewhere in the supply chain -- either during delivery or storage. When a wine is cooked, it takes on aromas and flavors that are stewed and, yes, cooked. This can be somewhat difficult to ascertain in an era when wines are riper than ever before, but a wine that is cooked as opposed to simply overripe will display a dull, blunted palate presence.

Another sign that a wine may have been cooked somewhere between the winery and your glass again comes from the cork. When wine heats up, as with other liquids, it expands. Sometimes, the wine will saturate the cork or even seep out the top of it if the wine has been exposed to extreme heat -- like you might remember we get in Houston on occasion.

You can avoid cooked wines by paying attention to whether wine has seeped out of the top of the cork or capsule. In addition, think twice if you walk into a wine shop, and they're touting a "new arrival" in the summer months. Ask if the distributor or winery shipped the wine using climate-controlled delivery methods. If not, you may be set up for a cooked wine. Also, if buying wine direct from the producer, they should not ship when temperatures are 80 degrees or warmer. As a courtesy, most wines will hold your wine for shipment until the weather is suitable.

4. "Premature Oxidation"
You might also hear the term "maderized" to describe a wine that essentially has aged before its time. Maderized white wines -- the most common victims of this flaw -- are easy to spot. They'll generally have a surprisingly dark yellow or even brown color. And they will smell and taste like Madeira. This flaw is a particular problem in the white wines of Burgundy from 1996 to the present, but any wine can suffer from oxidation. You shouldn't have to drink a wine that has died before its time, so send it back.

5. "Reduction"
Have you ever stuck your nose in a glass of wine only to be greeted by an unpleasant burnt rubber smell? That is reduction. Often a side effect of a wine not being exposed to enough oxygen during the winemaking process, reduction also seems to be more pronounced in wines sealed under screw caps. Screw caps seal the wine almost flawlessly, causing reduction to take much longer to resolve. (And most of the time it does resolve with time in bottle.)

But the truth is that a reduced wine is as much fun to drink as a grilled tire is to eat. Reduction dominates a wine's bouquet and blunts the palate. It makes it undrinkable, and you should send it back.

How to handle returning the wine
It's understandable that you might feel apprehension if you believe something is wrong with a wine. If you're at a restaurant, you should be able to consult a sommelier for his opinion. Be mindful, though, that sensitivity to cork taint, or any other flaw, is individualized. Even very experienced, passionate, and knowledgeable wine drinkers may have less keen sensitivities to these flaws. Trust your own palate. If something seems amiss, ask for a second or third opinion.

You may encounter an unprofessional wine shop or waiter or sommelier who refuses to acknowledge an obvious flaw or tries to belittle or bully you about a bad bottle. Good wines are sometimes bad. Anyone in the business consumer knows this. Flawed wines also are returned or sent back with regularity. Depending on which estimates you trust, between 3 and 8 percent of wines are faulty, and wineries, wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants know that dealing with flawed bottles is a cost of doing business. Ultimately, it is your discretion and any important circumstances on a given occasion that determine how hard you push the issue, but bringing an establishment's attention to flawed bottles is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Houston Restaurant Weeks: More than just food

You find a number of divergent opinions on Houston Restaurant Weeks. The hip position seems to be one of begrudging acceptance mixed with condescension. It's easy to pick out the event's weaknesses -- a gimmick to lure customers during a traditionally slow month for restaurants, getting them to eat high-margin meals. But, aside from the notably worthy purpose of supporting the Houston Food Bank, some restaurants and consumers miss the tremendous opportunity that this high-profile event presents.

From a food standpoint, the benefits are obvious. Chefs get to show off their ability to craft cohesive menus -- something that's too rare in Houston, even if only for three or four courses. A restaurant also gets the chance to showcase its food to parades of new customers with limited risk. The set menus are designed for easy success; they're short and sweet and ought to be easy for a professional kitchen to crank out consistently. HRW has the hallmark of a golden opportunity to expand the customer base of Houston restaurants for the long-term.

As a result, the hemming-and-hawing about HRW is head-scratching. Recent debates online have focused on whether HRW customers deserve the same level of service as those ordering off the regular menu or whether it's valid to base a Yelp review on a HRW visit. That's the wrong discussion. There is nothing to be gained in knocking an event that brings new customers in the door and, therefore, creates an opportunity for a restaurant to show its best.

A more valid criticism, however, might be that some Houston restaurants don't embrace the potential value of HRW. Plenty of keen observers have noted a few half-hearted menus. Other restaurants simply lack imagination. What is often missing are respect for HRW customers and, more frequently, smart beverage pairings. An important way to view HRW is that it showcases the whole restaurant, not just a chance to come in and eat a set menu at a value price. Wipe that feeling away -- a paying customer is a paying customer. What's more, this month provides a superb opportunity to educate new diners and turn them into regulars.

What better way to educate than with showing off how complete the restaurant experience can be? Houston has been full of craft beer and cocktails dinners in recent months, but only a handful of restaurants have bothered to devise beverage pairings with their HRW menus. This is a missed opportunity to showcase an imperative skill for restaurants and their staffs: to come up with wine, beer, and cocktail pairings that enhance and elevate their food. Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe have come up with menus where complementary beverages are an integral part, no surprise given the deft skill of sommelier Sean Beck in elevating food by finding the right drink to go with it. Mockingbird Bistro and the Glass Wall, along with too few others, also offer thoughtful pairings with their HRW offerings.

The bottom line, simply put, is this: Restaurants in Houston offer more than just food. They offer an experience, an escape from your own kitchen, and a chance to enjoy one of the most exciting restaurant scenes in the country. In the first tier of restaurant cities in the United States -- New York, San Francisco, Chicago -- part of the joy is that you bask in the escape of the full dining experience, of which food is only one (very important) part.

To maximize a customer's exposure, Houston establishments need to put their arms around HRW and give it a big bear hug. Ensuring service is spot-on and the talents of their beverage experts, in particular, would be a good start. Show off the menu you've put special thought and effort into and get customers to come back by making them feel at home and, maybe more importantly, help them carry on merrily with the right glass of wine or other drink in their hands.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lessons from Paris

It's easy to get caught up in the humdrum of everyday life, getting tunnel vision and too comfortable in your daily existence. Every once in a while, it's essential to get out and remind yourself what the world at large has to offer. It's easy to forget in a food city as diverse as Houston that there is much to learn from the broader globe. A recent trip to Paris reinforced that. Here are some lessons learned, perhaps running the danger of veering into generalities. For ease, exceptions to the general rules are left out.

1. Seasonal still rules the day, from Michelin Three Stars to bistros

Paris in April? Prepare for showers of morels and asparagus. But the refreshing thing is how deeply entrenched seasonal eating is in this culture. Restaurants don't trumpet the fact that they're serving what's local and of-the-moment. It's understood. This is the level of food appreciation -- an innate devotion to the freshest and best -- that has defined French food since the time of Marie-Antoine Careme and even earlier. (For a terrific discussion of this subject, and generally good writing on an array of topics, consult Mike Steinberger's excellent book Au Revoir to All That and his blog.)

This dedication to seasonality and freshness is the foundation of an admirable respect the French have for their food and the act of dining. And it is this fundamental and powerful building block that arguably is France's greatest culinary export right now. Take, for example, the two dishes pictured below. First, a glorious salad of fresh morels and asparagus from Le Bristol, the stunning three-star Michelin restaurant on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It is a testament to seasonality, the finest ingredients, and artistic presentation.

Second, an equally delicious and seasonal preparation of morels, this time from the superb Bistrot Paul Bert. It's nothing more than fried eggs with morels and mushroom cream. Simplicity on a plate, yet providing a depth of flavor that, without supreme freshness of ingredients, would come across as heavy and plodding. Seasonal cooking doesn't only allow a chef to honor place and freshness; the right ingredients at the appropriate time inform the texture and weight of dishes.

2. It's about technique, not gimmicks
Look back at those stunning fried eggs from Bistrot Paul Bert above. It's all well and good to have the best ingredients, but they won't be worth a damn if you can't cook them properly. To cook simply and to showcase your ingredients is a risky proposition because, without expert technique, the food doesn't stand a chance. One striking thing about restaurants in Paris is their unwavering adherence to technique. You expect and demand perfect execution of basic preparations in high-end restaurants like Le Bristol, but the high quality of technique across the board is impressive. Just because a dish may be humble doesn't mean it isn't worthy of respect that borders on reverence.

Take boeuf bourguignon, the king of peasant dishes (now that's a paradox). Shown here in a faultless preparation from Christian Constant's inviting Les Cocottes, there was notable care in crafting a pure sauce that spoke of the beef without being tarted up with any gimmicks. The meat was cooked to that easy-to-know but hard-to-reach point of being fall-apart tender without the chuck toughening up again. Too often, simple dishes like this come out with tough meat, as if the cook has assumed he could braise it indefinitely without fault. Or by needlessly cooking the beef sous vide for days to make a splash by writing "72-hour boeuf bourguignon" on the menu -- there are places for advanced techniques, but they aren't always necessary.

Another good example of the triumph of technique over gimmicks comes from Chef Jean Louis Nomicos, whose Les Tablettes recently opened in the 16th arrondissement. This appetizer course has several moving parts: a glorious mushroom puree that relies on just a hint of richness that doesn't interfere with its pure flavor, perfectly sauteed white asparagus, freshest morels, and gloriously crisp sweetbreads.

3. A meal is an opportunity to be exploited, not an obstacle to overcome
How many times have you eaten a bowl of cereal or a sandwich while standing up? Maybe had lunch at your desk? That's not enjoying your food. Sure, sometimes it might be necessary, but it is hardly any way to live. It's important to realize that just because you won't necessarily eat high on the hog doesn't mean you can't eat well. The dish pictured below, "Best of Cod," is another superlative creation from Le Bristol. Essentially a sauteed piece of fish with a bit of citrus over it, this is an over-the-top example of how basic food can become a celebration, even an exercise in genius. The cod was cooked perfectly. A parsley jus and shellfish surround the plate. On top? Nitrogen-frozen pearls of lemon and orange and slices of spring onion, which give the dish an uncanny bit of texture and temperature -- all simply enhancing the fish as easily as a squeeze of lemon would.

Meals are a great social occasion. You can spend twelve hours at the office, but at least do yourself the favor of, once a day, sitting down to a proper meal to reconnect with friends or family. Shoveling in a bowl of pasta or wolfing down a 24-ounce steak to refuel the system isn't living anymore than eating a sandwich standing up. Take a moment. Have a pan-seared filet mignon with a slice of lightly sauteed foie gras on top and savor the people around you. You don't have to geek out about the food. Use the food as a vehicle to connect with those you love and your own life.

4. Like writing, food needs editing
So many dishes suffer from too many flourishes -- a gastrique that muddles the overall flavors of the food, an extra dose of potent and unnecessary ingredients give a plate an overinflated sense of self-importance. Too many ingredients in a sauce end up competing with one another, rather than allowing the sauce to sing and complement the food. There is a powerful temptation to believe more is more, particularly in this Super-Size-It society. Once again, Christian Constant -- this time at his Cafe Constant -- demonstrates the opposite is true. A simple roasted chicken with sauteed potatoes and a bit of lettuce as a garnish is satisfying, utilizes the best ingredients, and doesn't try to be more than it is: good, hearty food that lets you nourish yourself and enjoy the company around you.

More to the point, if you are cooking with the best ingredients, they need very little to bring out their finest qualities. Bistrot Paul Bert again serves as a fine example, with the roasted root vegetables and braised beef cheek with bearnaise pictured below. Basic, even humble, ingredients cooked with fine technique. You rarely need more ... well, maybe some wine.

5. Humble wine is just fine
The American wine press always seems to be abuzz about the next "cult" wine from California or futures prices of increasingly out-of-reach classed growth Bordeaux. There is talk about value, but it's surprising how few true value wines come out of California. When is the last time you had a meaningfully good wine for $10 that was produced domestically? It tends to be the exception rather than the rule. There's Two Buck Chuck and Gallo plonk that predominates supermarkets. But why isn't there something the equivalent of French vin de pays coming out of American wine regions? Even reasonably good, less expensive wines on Houston wine lists tend to be from Spain, New Zealand, and Italy.

One of the beauties of restaurants in France is that, for 15 to 20 euros, you get a solid wine with genuine varietal character. It's not laden with oak or trying to pretend to be more than it is. Sometimes it comes to the table in a multi-use bottle that has no label and no cork. It's refreshing and enhances the food -- and epitomizes that wine is an indispensable part of the meal.

There is a beautiful sense of security about wine consumption that the French have on a daily basis. Wine is part of setting the table, like a knife and fork, a social lubricant and celebration all in one.

It is the ease with which the French still approach their meals that can give Americans a goal to strive for: slow down, enjoy your food. It's a good thing to appreciate your food -- the quality of what you put in your body and also the manner in which you consume it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wine of the Moment: Numanthia Termes

Spanish wines have gotten a pretty good amount of press the past few years. There are those, like Alice Feiring, who push the supremely traditional wines of the Rioja made by Lopez-Heredia -- and very few others. And there are those like Robert Parker (or, more truthfully put, his ethically questionable employee, Jay Miller) who trumpet highly modern, highly oaked wines from the Priorat, Ribera del Duero, and Toro.

Spanish wines can be hit or miss. You definitely get a lot of value in them -- particularly the whites, such as Albarino and Verdeho. But often the reds shoot too high and miss, like a cheap California Cabernet. One of the most standout wines of Spain's new school, missing all the pratfalls of the heavily oaked, high extraction crowd is the Numanthia Termes. Current release is 2008, and it's a steal at $24 or so. You can find it at Spec's quite readily and, also most of the time, at Central Market in the Houston area. It's a wine that gives a bit of a nod to Russian River Valley Zinfandel: pretty, spicy fruit flavors with ramped up acidity and noticeable tannic structure. It will satisfy those who crave nice fruit and the drying sensation you get from the young Cabernets that are so popular yet so heavy for Houston's brutal summer.

Termes is aged in once-used oak barrels, meaning there is less toast and vanilla for the wood to impart on the wine. The result is a surprisingly fresh, vibrant red that stands up well to the grilled red meat and barbecue that comes across summertime tables. Have at it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What will be the ultimate legacy of the "local" food movement?

You can't pick up a fork without tripping over the hottest buzz words in food today -- the "local" food movement or "eating local" or any of the myriad variations on the theme. The essential elements of eating local seem to include (1) eating as much food as possible (not only vegetables, also meats, cheese, bread, etc.) from "local sources;" (2) preparing food that is seasonal; (3) purchasing food that is sustainably and/or organically farmed; and (4) placing a premium on knowing the sources of what you consume.

Obviously, there are a number of threshold questions to overcome in order to begin this discussion. First and foremost, how do you define "local"? Is it a 10-mile radius? 25? 50? More? Until the Industrial Revolution, this was easier to answer. Modes of transportation were much more restrictive, forcing food to come from relatively nearby. Railroads and airplanes have changed all that. Now you can get organic asparagus year-round, either from a farm down the road, California, or Peru.

But there are larger questions at hand, too. Is food sourced from a local source necessarily good simply by being local? What if you live somewhere without the possibility of thriving local agriculture; are you left out of the local movement entirely? How will "local food" evolve and sustain itself? In essence, what will the lasting impact of this local emphasis be?

It is that last question that holds the most interest. Fundamentally, the "local" movement, in part, is chasing a myth. It isn't practical -- perhaps, isn't even possible -- to return the United States to an agrarian ideal. That Jeffersonian moment has passed. So what, ultimately, will this movement become? This question is worth exploring because the local food movement has genuine value and will leave a meaningful impact on the way this country eats.

At some point down the road, looking back on what started as a revitalization of boutique food sources, these times will mark the true beginning of when Americans started truly caring about what they eat. For most of the twentieth century, culinary history in the United States was marked by technological advances: frozen foods, the microwave oven, fast food, ways to engineer "natural" flavorings, and other things that were meant to make eating easier. The problem with emphasizing technology in this way was that it resulted in the consumption of unhealthy, poor quality food. Instead of enjoying meals, they became obstacles to be overcome, met and discarded in the fastest, cheapest way possible. That results in a lot of issues, including creating a culture that doesn't value the food it consumes -- an odd situation when food, when it comes down to it, is the fuel to make our bodies go.

This lack of appreciation for food -- taking the easy way out -- has offered the local movement its greatest opportunity and in which lies its greatest hope. Eating well is not something for "foodies." It is not something for the rich. It is not something for the person who saves just to experience one meal at the French Laundry. It is for anyone who's willing to embrace it. Good food takes care and attention, which are two things that precisely are hamstrung by the prevalence of technological food, with its dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.

How does the local movement become the savior, pulling the country out of its grease-laden, deep fried, engineered obsession with packaged food? For starters, locavores care about what they eat. That is not a hallmark of technology foods, to put it mildly. With reflection, this desire to do well with good ingredients is the logical progression from Julia Child's grand (and deserved) legacy. Julia frequently preached doing better with what you have -- even if you had to use frozen spinach or come up with a substitute for French flour. Locavores, more so than foodies as a class, do not tolerate compromise. They are specific and passionate in their desire to acquire the best ingredients available.

At this point, you could run into road blocks. What if the best ingredient isn't available locally? Do you really have to stay within a 5-mile radius? Ten? More? To a certain extent, those issues are semantics. It's about what "local" means to you. But this emphasis on quality ingredients and caring about food are the the true heart of the local movement. It is about finding the best ingredients from people who are passionate and skilled. There's no need to go furtherthan that. The essential step is eating well and putting love and attention on your food. This is about rejecting the technology food culture that has given us blue raspberry flavoring, cheese in a can, and Kraft avocado-free guacamole.

Doing so pushes American food culture in a better direction, largely rejecting a look-what-we-can-do infatuation with technology (molecular gastronomy saved for another time) and toward an emphasis on quality and good food. Regardless of anything else, this is a genuine revolution and may determine the most significant legacy of the local food movement -- and a glorious one it would be. A country that embraces meals as an opportunity to be exploited, to bring people together on a daily basis and not just at Thanksgiving or Sunday supper? That is worth striving for.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wine every day, part three

Hopefully by now you think wine is something you want to try. But a basic task remains: how do you drink it? That’s a stupid thing to ask, isn’t it? Open up and swallow it down. Well, it’s not quite that simple if you want to maximize the enjoyment of this wonderfully layered and complex beverage, but it doesn't have to be overly complex, either. Tony Soprano put it right during season five of The Sopranos when, after he uncorked a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate reconciling with Carmella, he scolded Anthony Junior for gulping it down like beer. “You gotta savor it,” he said. One thing that makes drinking wine such a pleasure, as with many things we enjoy in our lives, is the ritual that surrounds it. By no means should the ritual subordinate the actual pleasure of swilling it down, but a few small steps can maximize the experience.

Opening the bottle

You’ve done this before, but there are a couple tips to remember. First, your corkscrew makes a difference. Much like wine itself, they come in a lot of varieties, from the cheap to the ostentatiously expensive. The basic styles include the waiter’s corkscrew. These can be a challenge if you don’t have a lot of experience, since they don’t always go straight into the cork. There is also the “drill” type, which covers the top of the bottle and screws into the cork while a pair of arms raise into the air. Push the arms down, and the cork comes out. This is a great corkscrew, but make sure you get one where the tip that goes into the cork first is straight, not curved, or you can have the same problem as with the waiter’s corkscrew.

The easiest entry-level corkscrew to use is a Screw Pull. It’s also sometimes called a “rabbit” style wine opener. A good one will run you about $100, but it makes opening wine — young and old bottles — a breeze. You can also get a solid one for $20, but expect to replace it in a year or two.

Once the bottle’s open, do this: Smell the cork. A lot of people dismiss this as pretentious and unnecessary, a relic of past, unenlightened times — just the sort of thing it’s important to guard against. But the critics are dead wrong. Smell the cork. If it smells musty or like wet socks or mold, it is the first indicator that your bottle might have “cork taint,” which is what winos say when a chemical compound known as TCA, found in corks, ruins a wine. There are degrees of cork taint, and the cork is the first place where the off aromas will show up. Consider it the wine bottle's canary.

Last, pour a small amount of wine into your glass and take a taste. The wine may well need to have more contact with the air (called “opening up” or “aerating”) to fully develop its aromas and flavors, but the initial sip will let you know if the wine is flawed.

What kind of glass?

The key word here is “glass.” Fundamentally, you don’t need to worry about anything else other than drinking your wine out of a real glass. It doesn’t matter what shape it is. It’s just important not to be drinking out of plastic. You’re not going to basement keg parties anymore. (At least not to drink wine.) Down the road, you’ll want to invest in some inexpensive but good wine glasses. Target carries an excellent line of reasonably priced Riedel glasses. You should certainly consider three varieties: one for red wine, one for white wine, and a flute for champagne.

You want wine glasses to be clear — no color at all, without etching or cut glass. You want the lip of the glass to be thin, not thick and clumsy, which will negatively affect how you taste the wine. Other considerations change depending on the type of glass. For example, for red wines, use a large glass with a wide bowl. This allows you to swirl the wine in your glass and aerate it, making for a more aromatic bouquet (as winos call the aromas). For white wines, the glass is similar but smaller, without quite as large a bowl. Champagne flutes are probably old hat. But when you pick one out, simulate taking a sip to see if the tip of your nose hits the side of the glass. Many flutes these days are made with too narrow an opening on top, and if your nose makes contact, the oil will come off your skin, and that will inhibit the bubbles. What fun is champagne with no bubbles?


This isn’t hard, but promise to keep one thing in mind: Don’t pour too much wine into each glass! Two or three ounces are plenty. This allows you to enjoy the wine and see how it develops as it has increasing contact with air. Many restaurants, if a party of four orders a bottle of wine, will empty it in one round of pours. What good is that? Pour in moderation, please. It’ll still be left in the bottle.

Drink up … but be sure to sniff first

Let’s be frank. Wine enthusiasts often are at their most obnoxious about giving advice on how to drink wine. There are three basic factors to examining a wine: looking at the color, swirling it in the glass and smelling the bouquet, and taking a sip. Look at the color for signs of age and to note how widely varied the colors are for different grapes and different wine styles. But remember: darker does not mean better. It is mostly an indicator of age and grape type.

Smell the wine to ensure there are no warning signs of cork taint (that musty aroma), as well as to get an idea of what the wine will taste like. Almost all our ability to taste comes from the olfactory. So inhale, then take a sip. It’s what you’ve been doing your whole life when it comes to drinking. Go with what works for you.

There is a terrific three-part tasting method printed in Gourmet magazine decades ago. After your initial look at the wine’s color — done by holding it toward white light or against a surface that is as nearly white as possible — and first sniff (which doesn’t have to be over-dramatized like Miles in Sideways; just a good, regular sniff), take a sip and work it around in your mouth. This doesn’t have to be loud or overt, either, like a child reaching the end of the soda he’s drunk through a straw. Just try to get the liquid to coat your tongue. Swallow. You’ll get an expanded array of flavors from the simple effort of holding the wine in your mouth for a few seconds.

Second step: take another sip, but this time just swallow it down. No coating your mouth. Just drink it on down. Final step: take one more sip, move the wine to the back of your tongue, then lean your head back and take the wine into the back of your throat. After you bring the wine to the back of your mouth, return your head upright and let the wine come to the back of your teeth. Inhale over your tongue. This will give the wine serious aeration. Swallow. This is the best way to get a total view of the flavors in the bottle. All the wine's flaws will be exposed, but all the good things will be amplified as well.

This three-step tasting method is pretty simple, once you have a little practice (particularly on that final sip), but it’s not pretentious. It allows you to taste the wine fully, and it is a terrific way to find out what types of flavors you like. You don’t need to do it on every glass. Most of the time you’ll probably just want to drink away, like normal. But this way you can bond a little more with the beverage.

Final thoughts

See, that’s not so hard? There aren’t rules, merely suggestions. In the end, the best way to experience wine is to drink it. The more you drink, the more your knowledge will expand, the keener your palate will become, and the less daunting the whole experience will feel.

You might have a final question about serving temperatures, which is something to consider. Serve red wine at room temperature, perhaps with ten to fifteen minutes in the fridge during those sweltering Houston summer months. White wine is fine at fridge temperature, same with rosés and champagnes. But you can experiment with this, too. Maybe put more of a chill on high-alcohol reds to dull some of the alcoholic burn on the back end. Maybe drink a white wine at room temperature to see if it really is as seamless as it seems to taste. The bottom line is, nobody has to drink the wine but you. Conventions are mere guidelines, but the ritual of drinking wine adds to the romantic notion of it. Personalize that ritual however you like — it’s all about pleasure and getting out of wine what you want from it.