Good friend Diana Hamann owns a wine shop in Evanston, IL, called The Wine Goddess. It’s the quintessential neighborhood shop with a thoughtful, well-chosen, and value-guided selection. But beyond the bottles on the shelf the ever-charming and gregarious Diana has done a great job building a sizeable, close-knit community that hangs out at her place for tastings, live music events, and more. After several years of trying to line up the stars with my travel schedule I finally had the chance to do a tasting class at her place a few months ago. There were about 30 people in the group—all non-industry consumers—and we had a great time. Throughout the session there were lots of questions and I was surprised at some of them; not so much that they were about wine basics but more that some of the questions were about things in general that we in the industry take for granted.
After the class I stuck around for a glass (or two) of bubbly and to chat with Diana and her staff. When I mentioned my thought about the some of the questions they agreed and went on for a long time about the questions they constantly fielded and the woes of the beginning taster/consumer in general. In the end I asked Diana to send me a list of the most frequently asked questions. She did and I answered them; more than a few are included in this post.
After finishing the list I thought about how the wine industry is a never-ending series of reality checks. These questions are a big one and remind me of how difficult it is to start the wine journey—and how much there is to know and learn. It also reminds me of how important empathy is on the part of us as teachers and professionals when we deal with the public. With that, read on!
Beginning Taster FAQ’s
Q: How do you swirl the glass without looking like an idiot/swishing wine all over the place?
A: Start by keeping your glass on the table and swirling it in place. Once you’ve got that down you’ll feel more comfortable holding the glass in the air and swirling it. BTW, if you’re right-handed it’s easier to swirl the glass counter-clockwise; left-handers should try swirling the glass clockwise.
Q: How do you spit without being totally gross?
Ah yes, the spitting dilemma. Doing it gracefully takes practice. If you’re just getting into wine and at a public tasting, hold the spit cup close to your face and spit slowly and evenly. If you have to use a “bucket” of sorts get close to it and then let it fly—but again, evenly and slowly. Practice spitting at home over the kitchen sink using water. With a bit of repetition you’ll be a pro in no time.
Q: How long should I take to taste the wine? I don’t want to waste the sommelier’s time but I don’t want to glug down my wine either. What’s the line between thorough tasting and obnoxiousness?
A: When the sommelier or server opens the bottle and pours you a taste, smell the wine to see if it’s off and then taste it to make sure it’s OK and not flawed. Once you’ve done that gesture for the server/sommelier to pour for the table. If for any reason the wine is off by all means let them know—politely. Otherwise, remember you’re not tasting the wine to see if you like it. After all, you chose the wine. Above all, check the wine quickly—and elegantly—without making a huge show of it. To do otherwise is to look like a tool in front of everyone in the immediate vicinity.
Q: Should I rinse my wine glass out after each pour, or is OK to mix the last drops of one wine with the new pour?
A: Good question with several answers: if tasting all white wines or all red wines you don’t need to rinse the glass between wines. If you’re moving from white wines to red wines, you also don’t need to rinse. However, if you’re tasting red wines first and then white wines you should rinse the glass or you’ll be creating a rosé. Finally, if you’ve just tasted a dessert wine and are moving back to a dry wine by all means rinse the glass.
Q: How many different names does Pinot Noir (or any other grape) have? What does France, Italy, etc., call it?
A: Any of the top grape varieties are grown in multiple places around the world and thus are locally called by different names. Pinot Noir is no exception and known as Pinot Nero in Italy and Spätburgunder in Germany and Austria.
Q: How many different grapes are there?
A: If we’re talking about vitis vinifera—the species of grapes that makes all fine wines—then the number is well over 1,000 even though we only see wines made from a fraction of them. But know there are many different species of grapes of which practically none other than vitis vinifera make fine wines.
Q: Why does everyone smell or taste wine differently? Is there a “correct” interpretation of each wine?
A: Everyone’s life memories of aromas and flavors found in wine are different and thus everyone will react differently to the same wine. There is no “correct” interpretation of any one wine for reasons just stated. Your opinion of a wine is what matters most.
Q: I don’t know anything about wine! How can I get better at wine tasting?
A: Practice! Go to tastings lead by someone in the industry who’s knowledgeable. Form your own tasting group—it’s a great way to learn. Also enjoy wine with dinner regularly and make sure you “taste” the first bit out of the glass before drinking. Above all, be patient as becoming a proficient taster is a process and doesn’t happen overnight.
Q: What’s does it mean to be a dry wine? As opposed to wet?
A: The word “wet” never applies to wine. After all, wine is a liquid—like water. So strike the word “wet” from any thoughts about wine unless you’ve just spilled your glass. A dry wine is one without residual sugar as opposed to a dessert wine that’s sweet. If you’re not sure, taste a dry white wine like a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc next to a fully sweet dessert wine. You’ll get the difference quickly.
Q: Is every tannic wine dry? Is every dry wine tannic?
A: No and no. Ports, sweet sherries, and certain other late harvest wines can be fully dessert sweet and yet be aged in oak and have considerable tannin. Conversely there any number of sweet wines that aren’t aged in oak and therefore not tannic. Remember, tannin comes from either grape skins (red grapes) or barrels used for aging. Finally, there are plenty of non-tannic white wines that are very dry.
Q: What are the best online/print resources for beginners interested in learning more about wine?
Good question! An excellent place to start is winefolly.com. Madeline Pukette and crew do a great job covering the basics in an easy to understand manner. Beyond that, the best online source for learning about wine—by far—is the Guild of Sommeliers website: guildsomm.com. The Guild is an educational foundation and costs $100 per year to join. But if you’re really serious about learning this is the place. Otherwise, for books I recommend the following:
- The Wine Folly Essential Guide to Wine, by Madeline Puckette
- Wine: A Tasting Course, by Marnie Old
- The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil
Q: Am I obligated to buy wine after doing a wine tasting?
A: The answer is no with a caveat: if a retailer or winery tasting room person has poured you a taste of a wine or two by no means are you obligated to buy anything. However, if you’ve been included in a tasting of multiple wines—as in more than 4-6 wines—then it would be a nice gesture to buy a bottle or two. If in doubt, buy a bottle unless you think it’s too expensive for your immediate budget. Worst case scenario you have some wine you’ve tasted to enjoy at home with family or friends. That’s not a bad thing.
Q: Why do you taste wines in a certain order?
There’s a method to the madness here: it’s easier to taste dry wines before sweet wines. Residual sugar in dessert wine usually skews one’s ability to accurately assess dry wines tasted after. Red wines are also usually tasted after whites because the latter have more intensity and usually have tannin and oak. Unoaked whites—or reds—are also tasted before oaked wines for exactly the same reason.
Q: Will keeping a “tasting notebook” be useful to help me learn about tasting wine?
A: Yes—absolutely. Taking notes of the wines you taste will make it far easier to remember them at a later date. Remember that a large part of becoming a better taster is improving your memory and keeping notes will only make that easier. BTW – your “notebook” can be an iPad or even a laptop.
Q: What is the difference between New World and Old World wines? What counts as “New World” vs. “Old World”? How are domestic wines different?
A: Actually an easy answer to this question. Generally speaking, Old World denotes wines from Europe and New World the wines non-European places/countries as in where grape vine cuttings were transported by ship from Europe and planted somewhere else. New World countries would include North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and to an extent South Africa.
As for differences, with a multitude of exceptions New World wines tend to be fruiter (NOT sweeter!) and higher in alcohol with the use of oak more common. Old World wines tend to be producer in cooler climates, have less fruit and alcohol, higher acidity and aged in oak less often. Again, there are many exceptions.
Q: Is there a difference between being a winemaker and a wine producer?
A: The terms are often interchangeable but winemaker tends to denote a single person who actually makes the wine while the term wine producer can also be used in place of winery.
Q: What are appellations? Are they in Appalacia?
A: Where is Appalacia? Is it near Andalasia? Appellations are place names—either historic, geographical, or both–where wine is made.
Q: What are varietals?
A: Varietal is the term used for wine made from a single grape variety like Chardonnay and Merlot. There are dozens of fine wine grapes that are bottled as single “varietal” wines.
Q: What does it mean for a wine to be organic?
A good question that has more than one answer: it’s important to understand the different between farming a vineyard organically and making wine organically. Most vineyards used for fine wine production are farmed organically in that pesticides and fungicides are not used in the vineyard. Making wine organically means not adding sulfur or other additives during the winemaking process.
Know that SO2 is a valuable preservative and necessary to make good wine; I’ve almost never tasted a wine I would consider good that didn’t have sulfur added. That especially goes for natural wines. Is a wine made from organic fruit or made organically better than not? Not always the case as the best fruit from a top vineyard can get completely screwed up in the winery by an inept winemaker.
Q: Why are wine distributors and wine importers so important? What do they do? What is the difference between them?
A: U.S. law requires alcoholic beverages to go through a three-tiered system of producer—distributor—seller. The system is a hold over, a condition if you will, for the repeal of prohibition. Originally it was created to prevent any single entity from creating a monopoly which hasn’t worked as a handful of large distributors in fact control over 90% of the market.
Wine distributors—and there are fewer of them as time goes on due to consolidation—purchase wine from wineries and importers and sell to restaurants, retail shops, and grocery stores—who in turn sell to consumers. Importers are licensed to source and import wine, beer, and spirits from regions/markets outside the U.S. In some states such as California they can act as their own distributor and sell direct to restaurants, shops, and grocery stores. But that’s not always the case as the laws are different in every state. Importers primarily sell to distributors.
Q: If I find a wine at a restaurant and want to find it retail, how do I go about this?
A: First suggestion is to use your phone to take pictures of the front and back labels. From there go on winesearcher.com to learn where the wine is being sold near you.
Q: What’s all the buzz about sulfites? Do these wines have them?
A: Good to clarify this one: all wines have sulfites. Period. Sulfites are a by-product of fermentation and therefore in every wine (beer and cider as well). U.S. law, always erring on the side of the minuscule demographic, requires wineries to post a sulfites warning on the label of any wine that contains more than 10 parts per million sulfites. Know that every wine, with the exception of a few so-called natural wines, has more than the mandated minimum.
Let’s get something clear. There is nothing wrong with sulfites in wine. There are exponentially more sulfites in frozen foods, salad greens, and dried fruit than will ever be found in wine. Winemakers need to add SO2 to wine to stabilize it. As a winemaker once told me, “You keep food at home in a refrigerator; we use SO2 to preserve wine.” Enough said.
Q: Why do wines cause headaches? Hives? Red neck rashes, Etc.?
A: I think it’s called drinking too much wine. The hives, rashes, flushed face, etc. could be an issue with histamines in which case taking an antihistamine before enjoying wine would do the trick. And not drinking so much.
Q: Is the second to the last wine on a wine list the best one to order?
A: This is a new one to me. There’s no truth to the rumor. To be filed under urban myths next to rats as large as Fiats living in the New York sewers.
Q: Do all wines have wineries behind them that you can visit?
A: No, only a small percentage of all wines produced actually have a working winery/tasting room that’s set up to receive visitors. If in doubt, go online and look at the winery’s website to find out if they do tours and can receive visitors.
Q: Are vintages important? I don’t have time to learn all the good vintages. How do I know which vintages are good on a wine list?
A: Two good questions: first, yes, vintages can be important especially in regards to European wines where weather patterns can vary dramatically from year to year. Not the same in New World countries/regions (California, Australia, etc.) where vintages are more consistent. That being said, I agree that it’s tough to keep on vintages with so many wine producing regions. But your smart phone can be a quick help in terms of googling X-vintage Bordeaux, etc.
Restaurants by and large carry current release wines simply because practically none have the resources or space to store wine long term. That’s a challenge for diners as it means many of the red wines are young, tight, and tannic. If that’s the case decanting the wine (and paring with the right dish) can mitigate the problem. Finally, if in doubt, ask for the buyer or sommelier to get their advice on which bottle to enjoy with dinner.
Q: Do I have to decant every wine?
The quick answer is no. But as Inigo Montoya once said, “let me sum up.” One decants wine for the following reasons:
- To separate sediment from older red wines
- To aerate young red wines (and sometimes white wines)
- To raise the temperature of a red wine stored in a cold cellar (a huge problem for many of us…)
- Because it looks cool
So if you find yourself face with any of the potentially calamitous prospects above, by all means decant the wine.
Q: Why do I taste Sauvignon Blanc as “sweet” when wine professionals say it’s bone dry?
A: This sounds like an issue of calibrating your palate. First, let’s not confuse sweetness—as in residual sugar—with fruitiness. It’s very common to find white wines that are very fruity but dry, even bone dry. If you taste a wine and are tempted to call it sweet, ask yourself if it’s sweet enough to have with a full-on dessert at the end of the meal. Odds are it’s not. Remember, fruitiness is not sweetness. Also remember that the true measure of a wine’s dryness/sweetness is the finish or after taste.
Q: What does oak smell like?
A: When we describe oak in a given wine we’re actually describing how the oak barrels were treated to prepare them for use in fermenting or aging wine. The inside of barrels used for wine is toasted for varying periods of time over an open flame resulting in a set of aromas and flavors in the finished wine including vanilla, baking spices (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.), coffee, tea, chocolate, smoke, toast, and more. If you smell any of these aromas in a wine you’re probably smelling the results of oak aging.
Q: “I can’t smell what you’re smelling” (people often say as their noses are a good twelve inches from the glass…)
A: First, make sure you have your nose in or very close to the opening of the glass so you can actually smell something. Otherwise it’s a pointless exercise. Then consider the following: everyone’s life memories of aromatics found in wine—be it lime, peach, vanilla or whatever—are completely different. No surprise then that everyone’s impressions and reactions to a given wine will be different.
Q: Why do 22-year-old Somms hate oak so much?
A: I don’t think it has anything to do with age. Too much oak can easily dominate a wine making it one dimensional. Add that the fact that we sommelier types tend to obsess about terroir and place in wine and many of the most terroir-driven wines are not aged in oak. German Riesling is a perfect example. It’s a very transparent wine in that there is little winemaking influence to it but lots of earth/mineral character.
Q: Why do 22-year-old Somms love natural wine so much?
A: A very good question! Every new generation of wine professionals attempts to make its mark in the industry with something new and different. So-called natural wine—even though the concept is millennia old—seems to be the trend with the current generation of young sommeliers.
Q: What is a natural wine and should I care?
A: Natural wine is very loosely defined as wine made from grapes farmed organically/sustainably and made without the addition of sulfur dioxide or other additives during the winemaking process. Natural wines are also made using old, even ancient, methods such as using amphora for the fermentation/aging vessel. That said you should know that using SO2—sulfur—during winemaking is necessary to stabilize the wine and prevent it from spoilage and other microbial issues. The end result? I have never—that is NEVER—tasted a natural wine I considered hygienically clean and well-made much less that I would enjoy drinking a glass of. Should you care about natural wines? It’s completely up to you.
Q: What’s a sommelier? Does one have to pass a test to become a sommelier?
A: By definition anyone running a beverage program and serving wine in a restaurant is a sommelier—and that doesn’t require a test of any sort. That being said there are sommelier organizations in the U.S. and around the world that train and certify sommeliers. The Court of Master Sommeliers is the most well-known and respected.