I wouldn’t trade much of the three years I spent as a wine sales associate in a little shop in Annapolis for anything, except maybe a shorter commute, but the reality is I learned a ton about the viticultural world in a pretty limited amount of time. So, if you’re strapped for a few extra minutes, but still want to pick out a bottle with confidence, here’s what I did the first month with literally zero wine knowledge and 800 bottles to learn: I like to call it my Quick and Dirty Guide to Wine.
Step One: Drink wine.
Seems self-explanatory, but really…that’s it. You can read every book, memorize vintage charts, or keep a catalog of different grape varieties tucked in your back pocket, but when it comes right down to it, the best way to know wine is to participate in the most basic way of enjoying it, in a glass. It’s like traveling: you can read all about the Alps or Hawaii, but until you’re there, on that soil, it’s hard to really understand it. Think of every bottle like a little adventure, but without the price of a plane ticket.
Step Two: Drink many wines.
No matter how much you try, you will never be able to taste all the wines, but you can give yourself more manageable goals, like learning about Spain or trying to see what Cabernet Sauvignon is like from different places. There are some shops that have bottles open all the time for sampling any day of the week, and there are some that have tastings on specific days for a small fee (or occasionally for free!). Go sign up, grab a glass, and see what they have to say. If you’re trying to avoid a crowd, bring a few bottles home and compare them side-by-side. Worried about having too much wine (read: best problem ever)? Invite a few friends over for an impromptu pizza night, or barbecue, or dance party, which leads to the next step…
Step Three: Drink with friends.
A practicality on several levels: first, nobody can accuse you of being a lush and drinking alone, and secondly, more wines open means more wines to compare. Having a friend or two around also sets up a forum-type situation: one subject viewed by many people means a lot of different perspectives. If you have a friend who’s been dabbling in the viticultural arts for longer than you, maybe he or she has a little more insight into where that toasty, campfire-y smell in your Chardonnay came from, or why Sauvignon Blanc is so puckery.
Step Four: Drink while looking at words.
Here’s what I mean: tasting, for the most part, is initially pure sensory recall. Sometimes a wine will remind you exactly of that sticky raspberry jam you had on toast at your grandma’s house in the summer, but most times, it will taste, with vague variations, like White or Red. The thing is, most people have a hard time separating the physical experience of holding, smelling, tasting, and feeling a raspberry to purely recalling its qualities in a glass of wine. One way to identify smells out of context is to create a box for yourself full of the things often used to describe wine: a jar of black currant jam, tobacco leaves, a jar of olive tapenade, dried lavender. But that can get expensive and a little cumbersome. For me, sometimes just looking at words or pictures that trigger my memory is often helpful. Open a cookbook to the page that identifies berries, and maybe just looking at the names and pictures will trigger conjure up what’s in your glass.
Early on in my brief tenure, there was one bottle in the shop we were all curious about, a Syrah from the northern part of the Rhone Valley in France that was described as having a “barnyard” characteristic. Enough of us had been to a petting zoo as children to vaguely recall what that was, but to equate it with a beverage and as a desirable quality for consumption was beyond what we could wrap our little minds around. Yeah, I know what pig’s feces smell like…but why would I want to drink it? Moreover, why would I enjoy it?
Here’s where Steps three and four really start to make sense. We opened the bottle, we poured it in our glasses, we swirled, we sniffed…and good LORD if that wine didn’t smell like what was raked over the fields at Uncle Jeb’s farm. But after that initial shock and general wave of amusement (“It’s like drinking behind a horse!”), somebody who worked a lot with food said, “it smells like mushrooms cooking.” And somebody else: “Does anybody get smokey berries? Like blueberries?” And another: “Beef jerky! This smells like beef jerky!” It was one of the first wines I remember forming a little community around, and the first time I remember discovering the power of both suggestion and discovery—and learning, if you’re curious, that wine will sometimes smell quite different than it tastes.
Step Five: Drink with a journal.
Time to break out your inner Middle School Girl and have some Dear Diary moments. Drinking wine is great, but keeping track of all the wine is can get a little fuzzy. Grab a blank journal or a notebook or the back of your phone bill and write down what you’re drinking. It takes five seconds. The name of the wine, what kind of grapes are involved, the year it was made, where it’s from. Maybe a few descriptors. That’s it. And if you’re feeling exceptionally taxed — there are phones with cameras now — take a picture. That way, when you’re trying to recall your impromptu pizza party from the night before, you have photo evidence that you did, in fact, partake in and enjoy the heck out of that bottle…those bottles…
When I first started as a wine shop employee, a bunch of us would get together almost weekly and bring something we hadn’t had yet from our shelves. The result? A very crude but workable knowledge of a lot of different things all at one time, and really, that’s all it takes: a few friends, a few bottles, a few glasses, and a journal. Think of it this way: I wouldn’t have remembered that smokey blueberry barnyard-y wine if we hadn’t tasted it, if I hadn’t had people describe it or read words to trigger ideas, and subsequently documented the experience in a few short words (Syrah. St. Joseph. Northern Rhone. Pepper. Meat. Barnyard. Blueberries). I can guarantee you’ll have a better understanding of a bunch of stuff in no time. And some pretty purple teeth.
Maybe there’s a Step Six? Drink with a toothbrush handy.
Here’s a book I found helpful in the early stages of Quick and Dirty:
Drink This: Wine Made Simple by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.