Wine is fun. It is pleasant to drink. It is great for parties. Wine is not Dale Earnhardt, The Intimidator.
For too long and for too many reasons, innocent consumers have walked toward the wine aisle or gazed upon a wine menu and felt like the ol’ Goodwrench emblazoned Number 3 was quickly approaching in the rear view. It is time we cast aside this false sense of intimidation and snobbery that ruins the whole wine experience. This is a rant. One that has been a long time coming. I would call it a contribution piece with my colleagues at Dale Hollow as these are wine topics we discuss, usually as a scathing retort as we balance (drink) our own wine. You have been warned.
1. Don’t be intimidated by Drinking Wine
Drinking wine is super easy, don’t let anyone conjour up ideas in your head otherwise. If you like a certain wine, you drink that wine and pair it with whatever you want to. Go wild. Personally, I drink dry and sweet wine and everything in between. There are only a handful of other products that get this snobbery treatment. No one hassles you at a picnic if you grab a watermelon slice instead of the fresh pineapple. I like my steak a little on the rare side, others like it more well done. It’s called personal preference and it applies to wine too. The idea of “better” is entirely subjective. Granted, a dry wine grown in the right region under the right conditions can develop into a wonderfully complex wine that many will adore. Except people that like sweet wine, they will probably still hate it. This doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means you prefer sweet wine.
2. Don’t be Intimidated by Wine Experts
This includes sommeliers and wine writers alike. These are the cream of the crop for people who know wine and are revered by the industry for their knowledge. Sommeliers undergo extensive training and take levels of tests that require blind tastings whereby they must name the region, type of grape, and if they are really good, the year (vintage). Sommeliers work in many restaurants and wine bars and manage the entire wine operation (buying, storing, selling, serving). The best ones help a customer identify which kind the customer would enjoy based on preferences that come up in conversation, especially given a menu that could be tricky for a wine beginner or novice. You tell them you prefer semi-sweet whites or dry reds, or simply ask what pairs with the food you are ordering and they recommend the perfect wine. The worst ones simply make it known how much they know about wine and wow you with their extensive knowledge while recommending an expensive wine which they adore. This doesn’t help you and they have failed their job.
Movie critics are people who have never written a script, directed, or acted but judge the movie. Art critics have had extensive schooling and know all the great artists of every time period along with all the most trivial details but they never pick up a brush. A sommelier can nearly pinpoint the plot of land a certain wine comes from and provide all the subtle and trivial details of the soil, the climate, the wind speed, and every obscure notion of pairing and tasting under the sun. But they have never grown a grape. They haven’t literally been on their hands and knees planting, pruning, and praying through blood sweat and tears and all the ravages of nature that the grape will actually make its way into the harvesting bin, the crusher, and the bottle. The sommelier is there to direct you. Anything other than that, including a show of their expertise, means they have not done their job. Don’t be intimidated by them, use them to your advantage.
3. Don’t be Intimidated by Wine Menus
Wine menus run the gamat of simple to frustratingly massive and complicated. With the thousands of wines available in the world, it’s a long shot that you will see one on the menu you have had before. You should see; however, varietal names (Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.) that you know of or regions you are familiar with (Napa, Burgundy, Chianti) If so, great! Try one you like in a price range you are comfortable with.
If it looks like the menu is in a foreign language, don’t hide it under the table as quick as you can and order a domestic light beer like the wine menu never happend. This is exactly what waiters and sommerliers are for, it is their job to make this a pleasant experience. Just like you can ask how different dishes are prepared, you are encouraged to ask about the wine menu. Ask them what they recommend based on your preferences or for the food you are ordering as a nice pair. Heck, ask them what they would drink if money were not an issue (they would love that!). If money is a concern (because mostly all wine at restaurants is universally ridiculously overpriced-everywhere, always), ask the above questions but instruct them on the price range you are looking for. They actually prefer to know this upfront because it avoids the awfulness of them recommending one outside your price range and the “well, where do we go from here” awkward glancing exchanges. Then you order a more expensive bottle than you intended in order to save face, a cheap burger to keep the bill what you had hoped for, and everyone has an unpleasant experience. Nobody wants that. I know because I have been there and I have done this. Rookie mistake. If you are worried your date will be turned off by this or if he or she expresses embarrassment over price being an issue, you are with the wrong date. Wine doesn’t have to be $50 a bottle to be good. Don’t be intimated by wine menus, put your fears and shyness behind you and let the menu be your friend.
4. Don’t be Intimidated by the Wine Section
For some people, walking around the corner in a grocery store and seeing the towering, daunting wine section makes them feel like the early pioneers as they percieved the mountains approaching in the distance. Fear takes over. You don’t want to appear clueless and you definitely don’t want to dawdle, else someone might get the impression you are a wine newbie. Alas! There is hope. The wine sections are generally organized by varietal (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Norton) or region on a map (California, France, Italy, Missouri). First thing to do is to scout the entire landscape: look at the signs in the wine section to see if they are organized in such a manner. If it is just a haphazard jumble of wines on a shelve, the store has done you a major disservice. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated. Take your time and if all else fails, ask an employee, that’s what they are there for! The bigger chain stores are starting to employ more knowledgable wine people that know styles, regions, and pairing. Again, take your time. Don’t be intimidated by the wine section, it is your friend.
5. Don’t be Intimidated by Wine Pairing
Wine is awesome with food. It has been like this for centuries and is no secret and definitely not an art form (at least it shouldn’t be). There are certainly easy rules you can start with, such as white wine with white meat, red wine with red meat, and make sure the wine is sweeter than the sweet item you eat, but that can be a little simplistic and you will miss out on exploration. My favorite rule, and one that we put on every one of our labels, is “pair it with anything”. Yes, you will find that every wine doesn’t pair with every food, but that’s the joy of experimentation! When you find a pair on your own that is a magical mixture of magnificence, you feel like a scene from Willy Wonka is playing out within your taste buds. You will also find some that aren’t a great pair and they will rob the wine of its taste and make it taste flat or flabby. Don’t despair! Simply don’t pair them together again. This doesn’t make you a failure.
In Europe, people have been drinking wine with meals since the days of Hercules and Hector. The every day family doesn’t make a big deal about pairing, they just have wine as a part of every day life; having a glass with lunch and another with dinner. That’s why they refer to and classify so much of it as table wine. It’s meant for everyday life with everyday food on the table. What a wonderful idea that we have come to lose in America where everyone wants to study something to death and be an expert and make it an elaborate ritual and worship the stuff. But if you do want to learn some simple pairing tricks- the more you drink wine the more familiar you will be the tastes and the easier it is to know the foods to pair it with. There are also a million free resources online if you want to get serious about it. But you don’t have to. I love our Hiawatha Peach wine with white chocolate. This was discovered by eating about seven different chocolates just for the fun of it. The first six didn’t work but perseverance wins the day and it went gloriously together. Make it fun. If you like to sit down on a Friday night and have a bottle of Chardonnay with bowl of buttery Orville Redenbacher whilst watching Sleepless in Seattle; that is perfect. You like it and you pair it. That is wine being fun.
6. Don’t be Intimidated by Wine Rituals
Swirling, sniffing, sipping, swooning, and spitting. You don’t have to do any of these things. We don’t do most of these and I lose no sleep over it. They aren’t a permit to drink wine. You can swirl wine, it certainly makes it easier to smell it as the swirling releases the aromas. You can also sniff it because sometimes the aromas are quite pleasant. In fact, if you are at a restaurant and you order wine they will most likely pour one person a small amount in a glass expecting you to swirl and sip and declare if it is fit for drinking or an unpleasant debauchery better fit as salad dressing.
Here is a confession: I have never spit out wine. Bad or otherwise. Honestly, I find the entire ritual a little appalling. Writers, judges, critics, sommeliers and the like taste thousands of wine, dozens per week, and keep their heads by taking part in copious amounts of sipping, swashing, and then spitting. Then they wax poetic or rip it apart. Good for them. Touché and salute. We drink wine because we enjoy the taste and it makes for a glad heart. It’s nothing short of a miracle the stuff makes it to the bottle given the difficulties in growing it, so for Pete’s sake, don’t spit it out. Don’t be intimidated by the rituals: they aren’t necessary for simple enjoyment.
Don’t be Intimidated by Local Wines
This point is especially true for wines from the Midwest (Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky). The names are generally unfamiliar and you don’t always know what to expect. This is where it gets fun- go to local wineries and they will love to explain it to you and let you try them. They are your neighbors and they grow grapes indigenous to the local land. Wine writers and the big marketers from NY, CA, and around the world put as little emphasis as possible on these Midwestern regions because they want to sell their wine to these markets. That’s fine, we still drink some of that too, but there’s nothing quite like drinking local wine.
The snobs, experts, and self-proclaimed connoisseurs may turn their nose at a surprisingly complex Norton, a refreshingly semi-sweet Vignoles, or an interestingly floral Traminette. Their loss, your gain. Many of the bulk of jug wines you will find from CA or other places at a supermarket are the ones made in mass quantities for mass audiences. Your local flavors are handcrafted and generally more interesting and enjoyable than these mass wines, especially when you know the people and the stories behind them. Don’t be intimidated by local wines: get familiar with them, ask about them, drink them! Let the experts keep their biased and oft purchased opinions.
This list was initially going to have ten points. As with any good rant, it went on a little longer than anticipated. Take it to heart and don’t be intimidated by wine. It is fun and enjoyable if you let it be what it’s meant to be.
Your own preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes are your own. As we always say at Dale Hollow and has became our motto:
Wine is Personal.