Wine Tips For Beginners

There was a time when I had an interest in wine . . . and an absolute fear of it as well. Wine seemed fun, delicious, social and a great complement to all these new dishes I was learning to make: I wanted to learn more! But it also seemed an incredibly intimidating field full of words I could not pronounce, and people just waiting to laugh at me as I muttered my way through names of oh-so-foreign varietals and regions. Not everyone loves wine (which, despite the beliefs of some snobs, in NO way makes you less sophisticated/cool/chic than the next person!). For those who are interested in learning some more about the wine world, (and are perhaps as intimidated as I was) I offer up some tips on how to navigate the wine industry.

1. Remember that there are endless styles of wine.

This might be obvious, but it deserves some thought. Wine is made in so many regions, with so many grapes and in so many different styles. This can be daunting, I know. When I first began drinking wine, I’d find a wine I liked (“Yay! Now I know that I like Syrah!”) yet when I would buy another bottle of the same varietal, I wouldn’t love it as much as I loved the first. So frustrating! Chances are that I tried the same wine, but from two different regions: a Syrah from Australia will taste much different from a Syrah from California, and even within these two areas, there are smaller regions with very distinctive flavors and styles. It’s enough to make your head spin, I know, but doing a little research into the styles of different regions will help solve this problem. So will a short conversation with someone from a local wine shop, if you have one of those nearby. ?

Speaking of speaking to wine shop attendants . . .

2. There will be snobs. Sigh.

Don’t even get me started on the snobby wine connoisseurs: they are, in my opinion, the bane of the industry. You will encounter wine snobs as you navigate through the world of wine: goodness knows I’ve met my share. The only consolation I have is this thought: there are snobs everywhere. I’ve encountered music snobs (“You went to an INSERT BAND NAME HERE concert? Ugh, they’re SO mainstream”), food snobs, (“You’re eating kale? That’s SO 2012”), clothes snobs, (“That’s a knock-off, isn’t it?”) . . . you get the idea. Okay, I’ve never ACTUALLY had someone say those things to me, but my point is that the world is full of snobs. The wine industry is certainly guilty of having its fair share, but don’t let these people deter you from a world that can be very fun and carefree. I promise if you look hard enough you will find wine shops with friendly people who are willing to share your passion with you. If you get the snob vibe, do what I do: leave and never come back. Try another shop, get suggestions from your wine-o friend, or order online. Life’s too short to be around snobs who think they are better than you because THEY KNOW MORE ABOUT GRAPE JUICE. Right?

3. Wine tastings really are great starting points.

We all have to start somewhere when learning something new, and with wine, it is no different. When I wanted to learn about yoga, I didn’t do a lot of research into different styles, or read about yoga: I just jumped in and went to a class. And then I tried another. And then another studio. And another style. Pretty soon, I felt like I had a decent grasp on what yoga was and how the styles differed. The same goes for wine: you just have to jump in! Check out a local wine tasting, and ask questions as you taste. If you love a wine, ask the attendant to help you describe it. This will help you understand WHY you like this wine. Make sure to compare it to other wines as well: “fruity” or “dry” or “crisp” or any other descriptor is great, but you won’t truly know what fruity means until you taste a fruity wine next to one with less fruit. Through differentiation, your palate will make sense of it all.

While we are on the subject of wine tasting, let’s not forget the most important thing about drinking wine: it’s okay to not like a wine! The most important thing about drinking a wine is not its price, or region, or winemaker, or label: it’s if you like it. The end. But don’t just stop there: WHY don’t you like it? This is super important, because knowing what you do not like in a wine will help you to avoid wines with the same characteristics in the future.

4. Use a cheat sheet.

Wine tastings can be intimidating, I know. Everyone around you sniffs a wine and then spouts off a list of aromas a mile long, and you’re standing there racking your brain for something—anything!—about what you smell. (“Fruit? What kind of fruit? A berry? Um . . . I can’t think of any berries! Is watermelon a berry?”) okay, maybe that’s just me. . . but if you’ve ever felt that way, remember that the people around you probably have more practice, and that there are lists of common smells a wine has, so they are probably repeating a lot of the same berries, aromas, etc. each time they smell a wine. Sometimes I smell a wine and know I smell something very familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it, and these lists help tremendously. Over time, you’ll find that you use the sheet less and less because you have trained your nose/brain to detect aromas. It’s kind of cool!

5. Plan your meals around the wine, not the other way around (or, just eat a lot of chicken).

Wine is going to be what it is going to be: you can’t change its flavors. But you can alter the flavors of the food you serve it with. It seems like a lot of work, but trying the wine first and then working a meal around it will help you produce a meal that has a great harmony between the food and the wine.

I do this several ways. If I am at a wine tasting, then I have the advantage of trying the wine myself, so I can start planning the meal (perhaps with the help of the wine shop attendant). If I find a wine that is a total steal, (and if I am pretty sure I am going to like it because I have had the same varietal/blend from this region before) then I might go ahead and buy two bottles. Bottle one will be my guinea pig, and I’ll serve it with the most sure-fire, food friendly dinner ever: roasted chicken. Seriously: everything goes with roasted chicken: it’s the most wine-friendly food! (Okay, not EVERYTHING . . . a sweet white wine might be kind of weird, but most whites complement the chicken, and nearly every red as well.) This guarantees one good meal. Then I try the wine, and once I become familiar with it (as it opens up throughout the evening) I can start brainstorming dishes that might go well with it. I actually really like doing this: to me, it is fun to think of flavors that will work well with the flavors in the wine. But if you aren’t so into that sort of thing, do what I do on days when I’m not in the mood: eat chicken.

Above all else, remember that wine should be fun. It IS an alcoholic beverage, after all! If you have any questions about wine, leave it in the comments: I’m happy to help if I can! (Feel free to vent if you have had any horror stories about wine snobs too: it’s all about wine therapy on this article’s comments thread.) Happy drinking, and best of luck as you navigate this fascinating world of vino.


Amanda Jones is an MA student in beautiful Barcelona, where she enjoys eating any and every tapa she can find. She is obsessed with her Italian Greyhound, Punky Brewster is still her hero, and due to her not-so-secret love of grammar, she feels very strongly about the proper use of the Oxford comma. You can follow Amanda’s food and wine adventures on her website.

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