THE SECRET TO FINDING GREAT WINE IS SIMPLE. The key is to (1) trust your own taste and (2) to be able to describe what you like to someone else. Mastering those two skills will hand you the two most important tools for finding wines YOU like without being forced to rely on the opinions of others. Admittedly this is easier said than done, but now that you know that’s the end goal it makes the task of learning about wine much less daunting. You can spend all your time studying wine books and learning the names of the wine regions around the world…BORING…and often confusing. Or you can buy an assortment of wines in different styles and one by one taste them with a couple friends to figure out what you like.
Tasting with others is important for a few reasons. First of all, it’s not as much fun to drink wine alone. If you want to drink alone get a beer, a nip of your favorite whisky, or a martini. Those are drinks for one. Wine most often comes in a large bottle (3/4 of a liter, or a touch more than 25 oz.) that serves about four or five glasses of wine. This makes it an ideal social beverage meant to be shared.
Second, it cuts down the cost of buying the wine. If you’re drinking with four friends, then each bottle of wine is one-fourth the cost of you drinking it alone (do you see how good I am at math?). All of a sudden that $20 bottle of wine is now only $5 (yup…my math skills are killin’ it right now!).
Third, drinking with a crew allows you all to try multiple kinds of wine at one time. This is important so you can compare and contrast. If everyone brings a bottle of wine, you can taste a few things alongside of each other and figure out more quickly what floats your boat. Each person can buy one bottle that (for example) is made from the same grape, or is from the same place, or is of some other a aligned theme. The more you taste, the better you will understand what you like. I know…soooooo complicated.
Learning to taste is the same as training your ear to listen to music. Anyone can turn on the radio and hear the music without knowing who or what is playing. But it’s another thing when you decide what you like based on your own experience and you can tell the difference between The Beatles & The Rolling Stones or between Tupac and Biggie. Learning the differences between wines is the same thing. Unfortunately for wine, unlike music, you can expect some variation between bottles and you can’t play the same bottle twice. But don’t fret about that. I have found more often than not that the great moments produced by a delicious bottle of wine on a good day far outpace the ones that don’t knock me off of my feet. Either way I usually walk away happy.
Lastly, tasting with friends is good practice to taste more clearly and to hone your wine vocabulary as you learn how best to describe the wine in front of you. Is it light or heavy? Dry or sweet? Fresh or funky? If it’s fruity, what kind of fruit is it? Cherry?…well what kind of cherry? Maybe it’s sour cherry, black cherry, or dried cherry. In a group dynamic you’ll be able to recognize those things more easily because each person might perceive the wine differently. You’ll pick things up faster with more noses and palates paying attention than if it were just your own. Soon it will become apparent that being able to describe wine is as simple as being able to link your food vocabulary to your drink vocabulary.
With that in mind, tasting wine with a meal is invaluable. For instance, if you don’t normally recognize what black olives smell/taste like, how can you identify them as a wine’s aroma/flavor? It’s much easier to recognize it if you happen to have some olives on your pizza while drinking a red wine that smells the same way. Learning with food will help you recognize those similar characteristics in wine. And, trust me, doing this at the dinner table with a few good friends is the best place to experiment.
I’ve always believed that dinner for one just isn’t as fun…and wine is no different.