There's a saying among wine experts: "TYOP," or trust your own palate. Ultimately, only you can determine what’s good and bad in wine, so read what you can and attend tastings to discover which varietals and styles you like most. You'll figure out what's required for a wine to be above average or stellar along the way. Once you learn the basics, the rest is fairly subjective. Complexity (multidimensional flavors and aromas), balance and finish are what give a good wine its distinguishing characteristics. Over time, you'll be able to determine if a wine is flawed, how to properly pair food with wine, even which importer's products and which winemaker’s styles you have a preference for. You might even learn to identify the regional characteristics of a wine from a particular area.
Sommelier Kevin Hunter runs one of the best seminar-tastings in town. The tastings occur every Saturday at 3 p.m. and alternate every other weekend between Seasons (2031 Mountain NW, 766-5100) and Savoy (10601 Montgomery NE, 294-9463). For $25 dollars, you are given samples of six wines paired with food; Hunter, along with the distributor, lectures on each. Myra Ghattas at Slate Street Café (515 Slate NW, 243-2210) is also a sommelier who has tastings in her ultra-hip wine loft. The last Thursday and first Tuesday of the month, you get a lecture, three 3-ounce samples of wine and a perfectly paired appetizer for $15. Anthony Spears and Holly Penland hold weekly tastings at Quarters East (4516 Wyoming NE, 292-1300) and West (3700 Ellison NW, 897-3556), as does John Zonski at Jubilation Liquors (3512 Lomas NE, 255-4404).
Ewinematch.com offers a wine and food pairing service by text. Type in an ingredient (i.e., marinara sauce) or dish (fish tacos) and send it to 411511. You'll instantly receive three excellent suggestions.
Most restaurants mark wines up twice their retail price, or 200 percent. Retail wines in your local liquor store are marked up approximately 40 percent of what it costs from the distributor. So if the retailer pays $10 for a bottle, it'll hit the shelf at $14 and the restaurant wine list at $28. Restaurateurs often use a sliding scale for more expensive wines in order to keep them fairly affordable. Familiarize yourself with the prices of two or three commonly sold wines in your liquor store, and compare them to what you see on a wine list to determine if the restaurant's pricing is right for your budget.
There are plenty of great wines at under $10. Look for wines from France’s Languedoc province and from Portugal, which are currently producing “rocking” wines at lower price points. Your best values are wines between $10 and $25 dollars. Some of the worst value purchases you can make are of wines that are $50 dollars and up--there isn't always a correlation between price and quality at the upper end of the pricing spectrum. A winery may strike gold with a popular wine and then raise its prices but fall behind in consistently producing quality. Buyer beware.
From the land of Almodóvar, Dalí, Gaudí and Picasso, as well as the innovative and surreal chef Ferran Adrià, rebellious winemakers with revolutionary ideas have broken into a new dimension of inspired winemaking. Spain is creating out-of-this-world wines at all price points. Food writer Alan Richman wrote an outstanding article on the region in the September 2008 issue of GQ magazine, and VinIberianWine.com is a worthwhile website to get started on Spanish wine.
Gary Vaynerchuk’s tv.winelibrary.com is a daily live webcast from his immense wine shop in New Jersey, where Vaynerchuk tastes and rates wines on the air. He is unconventional and has become a pop-culture phenomenon with his crazy frat boy rantings, making wine accessible to an entire generation of young people. Vaynerchuk is loud and offensive, but he truly knows his wines. For a broader audience, ReignOfTerroir.com covers a variety of topics on wine in great depth.
The San Francisco Chronicle studied results from the 2008 election and concluded that Obama was most wine producers’ candidate of choice. The states that voted for Obama created 99.4 percent of the wine made in the U.S. in the year ending June 2006 (the latest available stats). Wine states that voted for Obama produced 775.8 million gallons versus 4.3 million gallons produced by the states that favored McCain. Hopefully the Democrats keep in mind that old truism “one day you’re drinking the wine, the next you’re picking the grapes.”
Mondovino, a 2004 documentary by Jonathan Nossiter, is the ultimate wine movie. The film analyzes the powerful effect that wine critic and The Wine Advocate publisher Robert Parker’s ratings have on the worldwide wine industry. In an effort to increase sales, winemakers across the globe now make wines in styles that Parker will rate highly. Distinctiveness is being ignored in favor of bigger and bolder--leaving a vacuous sameness in wines. This is a fascinating movie that reveals the inner workings of what appears to be a seedy business. Beware that your romantic perceptions of the industry may be destroyed along with your desire to ever drink wine again. A must-see for wine geeks.
In various wine publications such as Wine Spectator, Decanter and Wine and Spirits, judges use different rating systems to demonstrate their thoughts on a wine. Some critics use representations such as three bottles, five glasses or five stars, or even a glass filled to various levels, while others use a 20-point scale, with 20 being the optimum number. The 50- to 100-point system devised by the world’s most powerful wine critic, Robert Parker, is the most universally accepted. Parker’s scoring system was devised to allow judges a broader range within which they can score.
What does it mean if a critic awards a wine a high score? Not a damn thing. These scores should be used as guidelines and not the verdict on a wine’s quality.