FAQ 1: Why why why?
Wine is like beer in a lot of ways, so it is therefore intrinsically awesome. It’s made with fermented berries (basically grapes are the berries of a grapevine). The berries (grapes) are fermented like the wheat berries in a beer (aka barley). One big historical difference is that wine has been built over the course of about 10,000 years of human attention, possibly even up to 50,000 years, evolving with humans the whole time, even back when we looked like half-monkeys, whereas beer required agriculture to grow the barley, which didn’t happen until 7000 years ago. Wine predates agriculture because grape vines grow next to each other naturally in the wild, but a neatly cultivated wheat field was far less likely to be stumbled upon by our hunter-gatherer ancestors and the hominids that lived before us, like that big-browed bunch, Australopithecus.
Fermented grape mush being the original pet of mankind, predates agriculture, predates the domestication of dogs and livestock, and likely predates other forms of intoxication like thc/marijuana and other smokeables containing mind-altering alkaloids or opioids. OK, maybe we ate raw cannabis before we ate rotten grapes, but Paleolithic humans definitely had access to spoiled grapes before they ever learned how to start a fire, and it goes without mention that sour-grape-apes pre-date written language, recorded history and religion, and it probably even predates our evolutionary leap to becoming homo-erectus aka modern man (monkeys and birds have been shown to fight over prized pieces of fruit which have naturally fermented into alcoholic bevvies).
Another huge difference is the sheer variety in wine. Remember the little slide rule from 1st grade? Let’s say one side of that slide rule represents the approximated 1000 varieties of wine grapes in use these days, and the other side represents the combinations of grapes legally allowed within the world’s approximately 6000 grape growing communities… Hey that sums up to way over SIX MILLION kinds of wine out there today. That’s an unfathomable, insane amount of variety.
FAQ 2: Why do wine people always seem weird and/or militant?
Aside from having to become a human encyclopedia of grapes, regions and soil types, your wine waiter (aka your sommelier) usually wears that exhausted expression from worrying about the nuances and possible defects in your wine. Check it out – Back in Europe’s feudal period, being a king’s wine taster or cup-bearer could mean life or death. Ever see Hamlet? Folks, there was a lot of poison hemlock and other deviltry floating through royal courts with assassination attempts and whatnot. Well, the wine expert’s job was to taste & pour wine for the dukes, princes and kings, and if his nose wasn’t dead-on, then someone either got poisoned or literally lost their head. So 700 years later wine pros still carry a bit of a load on their shoulders in order to remain a “royal taster” for whoever can afford bottle service these days.
FAQ 3: How to get the good stuff – A 13 Step Program
There are a lot of hidden bargains out there for ape-worthy wine experiences, and you don’t have to go to a hyper-trendy yuppie den to find it. Some of my favorite bottles are found at the corner mom & pop shops that make rent by selling Alizé and Tanqueray. Here’s how to not get gypped:
1. It can be a lot like record shopping. Make it an active hunt. Know sort-of what you are looking for, but stay open minded. Some wines are labeled by their grape type, and Wikipedia is a killer source for info on grape varieties. Is it for a hot date? Is it wine for an afterparty? Is it your last night on earth? There’s wine for pizza and band practice, but then there’s wine for the birth of your first pet skunk litter. Make it count.
2. Have a budget, and don’t hesitate to stick to it. Almost everyone is broke these days, and there’s no shame in getting something for $10 if it is truly tasty and makes you happy.
3. Notice the temperature of the store. If the bottles are dusty and the place is always too stuffy and hot inside, it could mean that wines have been sitting in that hot room for too long. The corks can dry out and then the wines get shitty. Likely the shop owners don’t give two rats about their stock and you might end up having to return stuff. Avoid this place.
4. If your salespeople seem OK, don’t be afraid to engage them, but keep it simple. There’s a lot of room for confusion if you walk in reciting H.P. Lovecraft or obscure punk lyrics.
Just use words like dry vs. sweet, light body vs. big body… mineral taste vs. fruity vs. earthy vs. floral taste …these terms are universal shop talk which mean pretty much just what they sound like. Anyone can do it. Just picture your dinner or event in your mind, and let your tongue and nose talk to your brain for a minute about which liquid flavors could complete the picture. Trust yourself.
5. There’s nothing wrong with sulfites, unless you are among the tiny percentage of people who are allergic. Most people just pee them out. No harm done. Seriously.
6. Don’t worry about mispronouncing stuff. We can’t help it if our education system has failed us, leaving most Americans mono-lingual. Don’t worry if you have no idea what all the bin tags mean. If your salesperson seems at all condescending, just go shop somewhere else. No big deal.
7. Generally speaking, if you’re looking for a medium price range.. say $16 to $25, try to get something from a specific geographic area.. Like, instead of it saying Wine of Spain, get the one that also lists the Sub-Region or even exact Village where the grapes were harvested. It will increase your odds of getting a bottle which was handled with care by producers and shippers.
8. If it tastes weird, save the remaining 4/5 of the juice in the bottle and return it. Wine is a living thing. Sometimes it dies by the time we buy it. It can die for a lot of different reasons. The most common wine D.O.A. is when it is corked, and you will know by the wet cardboard taste and its overall hollow flavor profile. Up to 5% of wine bottles arrive corked, so always ask for a receipt just in case you get a dud.
9. Damn the torpedoes.. play Russian Roulette when payday comes. Making mistakes gives us first-hand memories – the best way to learn stuff. Grab 3 or 4 completely different bottles and a bunch of take-out food and just experiment matching wine to food and food to wine, while you’re at home darning socks and watching re-runs. Also be sure to experiment tasting the different bottles at different temperatures. Pull them in and out of the fridge randomly. Let some sit in contact with room temperature while others chill a bit; you will notice a TON of difference in how various temperatures effect the wine’s interactions with your nose, the food, and your palate.
10. Take 5 minutes once a year to learn 2 or 3 white wine grapes, then a couple of redwine grapes and their specs. Use it like this: “Hmm… well, Pinot Noir is lighter than Merlot, and contains less puckery sensations (tannins). I imagine it will taste better with my chicken than the Merlot, cause too much puckery taste would seem weird with my chicken” . A little bit of info goes a really long way with wine. And don’t forget, it’s all about you and your own tastebuds. There really aren’t any rules when it’s your own dime.
11. It doesn’t have to be foreign to be good, and yeah we all know about California, but some of the most amazing bottles and bargains are from the states of Oregon and New York.
Next time you’re on the lam, on a tour or on a road trip, pencil in a few vineyard visits between cities. Stretch those gnarly legs and soak up some local wine samples & fresh air. Quite often, the smaller the vineyard, the better. People who farm grapes and produce wine are usually pretty cool to talk to. You will meet some great characters.
12. Wine really only keeps for a day or two after it’s open, even in the fridge.
Drink it up. They’ll make more.
13. Here are 5 pretty trustworthy producers you will find at both the fancy and the dumpy shops in any town: Catena (electric red wines via Argentina), Rothschilde (yep, ye olde Baron, kinda generic but dependable, with lots of variety and history), Coppola (for when the Apocalypse is now, saucy savory reds, and one of the only producers to still use the term Claret), Jaume Serra Cristalino (an affordable yet authentic Cava, it is rich and crispy all at once, like Champagne but it comes from Spain and is great at 10 AM), and for a really wowie white ask for Vouvray or anything made with Chenin Blanc grapes (or the South African version called Steen) -this is not Kathy Lee’s Chardonnay, I promise.