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When we booked our trip to Napa and Sonoma in the fall, I might have had a minor panic attack. Why? A local connection volunteered to arrange our wine tastings, and upon further review, we were setup to visit some really great wineries. With a beginner’s knowledge about wine, different regions, and a few varietals, I felt underprepared. I knew what I liked, but wasn’t able to articulate or distinguish why style or varietal of XYZ wine might be better/different that ABC wine. Frankly, I didn’t know what to look for, and I didn’t want to look like a dumbass in a tasting room.
Thankfully, Anna stumbled across a website (that also conveniently sells a book on the subject) called Wine Folly. Wine Folly is an educational blog where wine lovers, from beginners to experienced alike, can learn about anything from what type of glasses to drink out of, how to taste wine, and of course, learn about what distinguishes say, a Pinot from Sonoma versus one one from Germany. We decided to purchase the book, along with some wine, and began our studies.
Learning about wine requires drinking it…thoughtfully. This means getting a bottle or two of a certain varietal and dissecting them for differences. Leading up to our wine trip, we would grab a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Malbec, etc., from California or France/Spain/Argentina, etc., pour a glass, and do a mock tasting. By doing this, with Wine Folly as our guide, we started to spot nuances with varietals based upon where the wine came from. After a few weeks of doing this, we had a new boost of confidence heading into Napa and Sonoma.
I could write all about our journey, our conversations with different winemakers, how the various practices in making the wine impacts the final product, etc., but that would drown out the post. Instead, here are some observations for the next time you are purchasing a bottle of wine.
- Don’t pay attention to the word “Reserve” on a bottle. This means nothing. A “reserve” bottle is a marketing ploy. If you want the premium stuff from a winery, look for their “Estate” varietal. This means it was grown on the winemaker’s property and was given a lot of TLC. It costs more but is usually worth it.
- However, that bottle doesn’t have to be an “Estate” varietal to be good. We picked up plenty of bottles that where the winemaker sourced the grapes from properties they don’t own, which is a common practice. This is important when trying out different regions. For instance, in California, you cannot say a Pinot Noir is from Sonoma unless 85% of the grapes are grown there. The takeaway? You can try some really great wine for a reduced price while seeing the differences in varietals from other growing regions.
- At least in the United States, to be called a certain varietal means that the wine is made with at least 75% of that particular grape. So, while drinking a Merlot, read the back of the bottle. You might discover your Merlot is stabilized with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Verdot, etc. Blending is a good thing! But if you can find that 100% Merlot that is a knock-out, go for it!
- Think about drinking your wine with food. This was the biggest lesson for us in Napa and Sonoma. Some wines are meant to be had on their own, while others should be had with food. A Pinot Gris or a Riesling is great after a long day at work. A Cabernet Sauvignon by itself? Your mouth might be in for a workout. The higher the tannins and the fuller the body of the wine, consider opening that bottle during dinner. You won’t regret it.
- Get outside of your comfort zone. For instance, I was biased towards Zinfandels going into our trip – to me, it was the crappy jug wine served at church. But after trying some Zinfandel in Napa and Sonoma, my opinion of that varietal greatly changed. So, do yourself a favor and try as many wines as you can. Not only will you expand (or possibly narrow) your taste, but you will also become more knowledgeable.