America is the top dog in the pantheon of countries that quaff a lot of wine – Americans drink over 890 million gallons a year which works out to about 2.8 gallons per persons of drinking age. They don’t fare quite as well in the per capita wine consumption category with thirsty countries like Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia that average over 40 liters per person or about 11 gallons. Surprisingly, the most serious wine enthusiasts reside in the city state in Rome, in a place called the Vatican – they drink a whopping 20 gallons per person per year! Holy Bacchus, it must be thirsty work being celibate.
As wine loving as some countries are, there are a few unfortunate countries that haven’t joined in the fun and games, with Afghanistan bringing up the rear with the average person drinking zero wine in one year. Fifth from the bottom is India which is no surprise to this traveler. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of tasting the combination of very expensive, and extremely bad wines that are available there, you’ll understand why the Indians are boycotting the grape – can’t afford it, can’t stand it. Their beer, on the other hand, is quite alright.
Even in the wine-loving regions of the world, including America, there are those reluctant to join the ranks of wine lovers for reasons other than religion or incarceration. Some prefer other methods of taking the edge off of daily life – others (not in the Vatican) don’t drink or have fun — and many may be put off by the perceived voodoo and pretentiousness surrounding the sport. The latter group may be intimidated by French labels or can’t pronounce pinot noir or Sangiovese or can’t spell sommelier or even know what one does.
If you’re in that category, don’t worry about stuff (I still can’t spell sommelier) — almost any upright and cogent adult, with a few bucks in their wallet has the potential to be a decent wine enthusiast. It’s not that hard to be a wine lover, it just takes a keen determination to enjoy life and practice, practice, practice.
Ready to sign up? Great, but first, there are a few things you should know before you start sipping. Here’s a series of observations and tips that may help make your wine education a de-vine one.
Be comfortable liking the wines that taste good to you.
You are the expert when it comes to wines you enjoy, and that’s the way it should be. Everyone’s palate is different and evolving. A wine that tastes good to you is a good wine regardless of whether the wine smarty next to you gags on it and spits it on the floor. Now, if that wine-smarty offers you an over-the-top New Zealand sauvignon blanc that exudes aromas of cat pee or pushes fancy French Bordeaux that tastes like the floor of a barnyard, then you can just gag and spit it on the floor. (I still haven’t acquired a taste for barnyard.)
If you practice diligently tasting and learning about new wines, you’ll find that your preferences in wines will evolve. It’s called educating your palate. A wine that makes you gag today may well become a favorite next year and vice versa. You and your palate have moved on. It’s like when you were a kid and hated asparagus or Brussels sprouts. As you grew up and became more experienced with foods, you began to love asparagus. Although Brussels sprouts still suck.
As you taste and learn about new wines, you will discover the distinctive flavors and characteristics of different varietals (kinds of grapes). And you’ll find that the characteristics of wine made from the same varietals may differ from country to country, vineyard to vineyard and wine maker to wine maker. You’ll experience wines that have complex layers of flavors and even textures. And you’ll find that wines are alive and change with age — for better or worse.
So how do you get started?
There are a number of ways to educate your palate, and the great thing is that they’re all fun! For the most part wine tasting isn’t a solo sport. However, there are times when a fine glass of wine and a bit of reflective time with yourself can be quite satisfying. That said, a great deal of enjoyment in educating your palate is doing so with family, friends or perhaps strangers who want to be friends.
Start your education by reading about wine just as you’re doing right now — the fact that you made it this far is a good sign. The Internet is a good place to start. There are more wine blogs and sites on the Internet than anyone can imagine. A Google search for wine information produced 807,000,000 results.
There are many online wine affinity groups that provide a network of like-minded folk and a wealth of information. For a good start go to the website of our wine columnist Robert Whitley. He has a ton of wine reviews and columns, as well as several links to other great wine sites: www.whitleyonwine.com.
Reading is great, but nothing beats the real thing. So head down to one of those wine bars we talked about. Find one that makes you feel comfortable. Tell the server or bartender that you’re kind of new to the game and want to learn about wines. If they are pros, they’ll take the time to help you get started. Ask them for wines that are true examples of the varietals or blends and pick their brain about the characteristics.
Many wine bars offer flights of wine. Flights are usually small glasses of four to eight wines grouped for one reason or another. They could be wines of the same year, brand, varietal, color or family. Wine-tasting notes are usually provided for each wine. This gives you opportunity to compare the characteristics of several wines side-by-side.
Try tasting each wine before reading the tasting notes, to see if you can discern flavors, textures and how your palate reacts to them. Then read the notes to see if you agree with them, and try each wine again to try to find the characteristics mentioned in the tasting notes.
Many wine bars, wine retailers, and restaurants frequently have wine education and tasting events. This is not only a wonderful way to learn about wines, but away to make new wine enthusiast friends as well. Most of these establishments have mailing and e-mail lists that will keep you up-to-date about upcoming events.
Perhaps one of the most fun ways to learn about wines is to go to wine and food events featuring dozens, if not thousands, of wines to taste. There are obvious hazards to these kinds of events, so spitting and dumping is encouraged. Wear a hat and have plenty of sunscreen if its outdoors. Have a designated driver if you just can’t spit. And perhaps most important, do not bid on silent auctions after you’ve been educating your palate for four hours.
These tips should get you started and once you do, you’ll realize there’s a lot more to learn. That’s the great thing about being a wine lover — it’s a fascinating, life-long learning process — and you get the benefits of a nice buzz now and then. So remember, don’t ever worry or feel embarrassed about the wines you like. Your palate’s opinion of your favorite wines is as valid as anyone’s — including wine blow hards and snobs. So, If that wine snob next to you smirks and rolls his eyes next time you order your favorite, tell him to stick his barnyard-tinged Bordeaux where the sun don’t shine. It’s OK to do that — you’re a wine enthusiast.