Editor’s note: Tim Gaiser, Master Sommelier, is the host and educator for our SommDay School Workshops. Visit our site to find out the dates and times of Tim’s upcoming classes.
Wine is not easy. But if you chip away at it—as in tasting, drinking moderately, and doing a bit of reading on a consistent basis, you can learn a lot about it over time and even master it after a great deal of time. Here is some sage advice I wish I would have had way back when I first discovered wine.
Learn the basics: you’ll need a good reliable source of basic information. There are lots of books and websites out there, but for my money Winefolly.com and their book, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide To Wine, is the best for anyone just getting into wine. Former student Madeline Puckette and her team have created brilliant graphics that really help wine click for the beginner.
Good glassware: decent glassware is a must (sorry about the wine pun). That said, avoid buying a zillion kinds of different glasses for each grape variety or laying out the big bucks for the hand-blown crystal behemoths that will break if you even look at them. One glass in the beginning will cover most of your wine needs—the Riedel Vinum Zinfandel/Sangiovese glass. It is the perfect tasting/drinking glass. As you move on, you’ll want to add the Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne glasses, also from Riedel’s Vinum line.
Get a Coravin: there are lots of wine accessories on the market. Most are useless, if not utter crap, or have a very limited function. The exception is the Coravin, easily the most brilliant wine accessory ever invented. Using a surgical-quality needle and a small canister of argon gas, the Coravin allows you to tap into any bottle and take out as much wine as desired leaving the rest preserved for months (even years if the bottle is stored on its side in a wine cellar). In short, it allows the student (or anyone else) to taste a wine repeatedly over time without compromising the rest of the contents in the bottle. The Coravin is the one thing I wished I would have had when studying for exams eons ago. It would have saved me thousands of dollars in wine purchases for tasting practice.
Start a cellar: at some point you may be vinous-afflicted to the extent of buying more wine than you can possibly drink, at least in the near term. It happens. Know that there are lots of good sources on starting a cellar. Whether you dedicate a closet in your apartment or build a pricey shrine with fancy redwood racking, you absolutely must maintain the right conditions for the proper storage of wine: a constant temperature of between 55 and 60 degrees without any source of light or vibration. If you don’t, nature, as always, will bat last and your precious bottles will either age prematurely or completely oxidize. One further bit of practical advice: balance is key. If you do start a cellar, don’t fill it with collectible wine that needs to be aged or you’ll find yourself with nothing on hand to drink. Make sure at least 60% of the wine in your cellar is destined for early to mid-term enjoyment. You’ll thank me for that one.
Keep track of what you taste and drink: at the very least, use your phone to take photos of labels. It’s a good start. You can also take notes on your phone, your iPad, or—god forbid—actually write notes in a notebook. What a concept. An excellent tasting note template can be found in my last blog post (www.timgaiser.com/blog/on-tasting-notes).
Training: classes are good! Anyone can take the Master Sommelier Introductory Course. It’s two days of information-filled, fast-paced fun. I highly recommend it. However, beyond the Intro Course, the MS curriculum is geared specifically for those in the restaurant-hospitality industry—no matter how cool you think the sommelier thing is. If you’re not working on the restaurant floor, you should consider the WSET—the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. It’s an outstanding curriculum that’s available to anyone and some of the classes are available online.
Get in a tasting group: get into (or form) a tasting group. Working regularly with a group—even if it’s not formal—can really help improve your tasting skills. And if you don’t get overly nerdy serious about it, you can also have fun.
Find a good local retailer: the right retailer can be a valuable guide. They will quickly learn your palate, so to speak, and help steer you to wines that you will probably like. Equally valuable, they can also suggest new wines you wouldn’t necessarily know about much less try. Above all, a good retailer acts as a filter and will only recommend wines they can guarantee thereby saving you a great deal of time and money.
Good online resources: once past the basics, I recommend the following for keeping up with the ever-changing world of wine: www.guildsomm.com; www.decanter.com; www.wineanorak.com; and www.jancisrobinson.com.
Travel: as you delve deeper into the wine universe, trips to wine places are wonderful. There is no replacing tasting—and drinking—wines in their place of origin. That especially goes for the likes of German Riesling, Burgundy, and Sherry.
Numerical scores: take any publications that use numerical scores with at least a grain of salt. Numbers, specifically the 100-point scoring system, presuppose a precision in wine that has never existed—and never will. I think the 100-point system is the wine industry’s true unicorn. It’s a delightful hallucination that’s been around for so long and used by so many people that everyone thinks it’s actually real. Sound familiar? I must again remind you once again that wine is NOT easy. To think that a number can convey meaning in the context of tasting a wine is nothing short of fantasy.
Have patience when starting down the wine path. Prepare to be educated—and for the education to take some time. Try to avoid becoming compulsive about the whole thing. It will only annoy everyone in your life and might affect your socialization. Is the journey worth it? Absolutely! This is not a widget we’re talking about! It’s wine, one of mankind’s greatest achievements. There is nothing better than sharing a glass of vino and a meal with friends and family. It’s one of the greatest gifts we have.