Messages In a Bottle: The 5 Stages of a Self Education in Wine

wine-pears.jpgIn the course of putting on wine dinners, attending and hosting wine tastings, and generally just drinking wine in public, I end up talking a lot with people about wine. Increasingly, many of those conversations are turning towards the subject of “wine education.” This means different things to different people, but in general, from novice to expert, people seem to want more of it. They’re not necessarily clamoring for their neighborhood stores to start holding classes, or for me to start an online wine university, but they are frequently asking me: “How can I learn more about wine?”

After getting over my initial mild embarrassment of being considered an authority on all things wine (yes, I’m still not quite used to it), I have typically answered the question by telling people there’s nothing wrong with taking classes if they’re that interested. Mostly I find myself suggesting that the easiest thing is to simply taste a lot more wine; but I’ve come to realize that while this is a simple way for me to answer the question, it’s only barely useful. I mean, c’mon, my day job is as a business consultant, right? I should be able to provide a little more structured approach for those who are interested in applying themselves to the subject.

Without further ado, then, I present my point of view on the stages through which any wine drinker should pass on their (deliberate or accidental) path towards being a serious student of wine, whatever that means for them. One can begin at any stage, and remain at any stage indefinitely. Some journeys never get past the first, while others determinedly progress to the last; but if you’re serious about it, this is the path I recommend taking. If you’re not serious about it, then perhaps it’s enough to know which stage you are in, and to be content with that.

STAGE 1: Red, White, Pink, or Bubbles

One of the first choices most wine drinkers tend to make is whether they like red or white wine. You don’t have to decide in one direction or the other (many love both), but knowing that the two taste different — and deciding if you like one more than the other — is an important first step. Trying your hand at pink wine and sparkling wine also helps to build the foundation of preference.

STAGE 2: Varietal Schmarietal

It’s time to start learning about different types of grapes, or “varietals,” and how they manifest in wine. At the basic level this involves trying at least the following kinds of wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, Zinfandel, and Syrah. At this stage you are just trying to learn the names, remember them, understand that they taste different, and get a sense of how those tastes vary. Order them with dinner, or buy a bottle and bring it home, but try them all and see if you develop any preference. It is especially helpful to try them side by side (several whites or several reds). A friendly wine shop owner or waiter can be useful in steering you towards the right bottle for your price range or the dish you are eating.

STAGE 3: Distinctions

Once you can remember the difference between different varietals, you’ve hopefully started forming preferences. Maybe you like Merlot, but don’t care for Cabernet as much. Maybe you’ve decided that you are more of a Sauvignon Blanc person than a Chardonnay person; it’s at this point that you have a lot of ground to cover. There are lots of things to learn about: producers, vintages, regions, and let’s not forget all the other varietals of grapes and blended wines out there. The best way to fill out this knowledge, honestly, is to taste, taste, taste. And I don’t mean just asking a sommelier to pick a random wine for you at dinner, or having a glass of something you’ve never heard of at a bar; the best education you can get at this point will come from sitting down with lots of wines and comparing them side by side.

There are two ways to proceed: either going on wine tasting trips (if that’s convenient or attractive to you) or attending or hosting tastings of your own. I much prefer the latter, mostly because it provides an opportunity to try many wines of the same type together (most wineries don’t make five different Chardonnays, for instance).

Here’s how it works: Get a bunch of (at least six) friends rounded up and have them all come over for a tasting party. Everyone should bring a bottle of wine made from the same varietal, and all the bottles should be roughly in the same price range. When people arrive, one person should wrap the bottles in individual brown paper sacks or in aluminum foil with just the neck exposed, write a number on it with permanent marker, and pull the cork. Sit down at a table or in the living room, give everyone a piece of paper, a pen, a wine glass, and start tasting the wines one at a time.

Tasting involves a few basic steps: Look at the color of the wine, swirl it in your glass, smell it, sip a little, swish it around in your mouth, and then swallow or spit (now is a good time to learn to spit — you’ll learn much more if you do, because you’ll be able to try more wines). Write down what you think. You can give the wine a score, you can give it a thumbs-up or -down, you can write what it tastes or smells like, it doesn’t matter. Go through all the wines, then talk about them as a group and see what people liked and didn’t like. Once you’ve tasted all the wines, take them out of their wrapping one at a time, and next to the notes you made about that wine, write down the vintage year, the winery, where it’s made, and how much the bottle cost. It doesn’t really matter what you do with the notes, though I recommend hanging on to them (or better yet, keeping a notebook where you save them all) but the important thing to try and get from these activities is a growing ability to remember what style of wine you like, along with what wineries you think make good wine. You are building a sense memory for what different wines taste like.

Tastings like this are the best way to really understand a varietal or a particular region, as well as to decide fairly conclusively whether you like a particular type of wine. Obviously, the more flexibility you have in the dollar amount you can spend on these tastings, the more you have an opportunity to really understand the range of possibilities in a given type of wine.

At this stage it’s particularly useful to join a wine club, which will result in a couple of bottles being delivered each month for you to try. Drink them and use the ones that are good as launching pads into new regions, producers, and varietals.

STAGE 4: Depth.

The exploration of different wines, varietals, producers, and styles in stage three can continue for a long time. There are a lot of wines out there, and there’s a lot to learn. The fact that Italy has over 1,000 different types of grapes is enough to give a serious student of wine a migraine. But once you have built a sense of what a good (to you) Chardonnay tastes like, or whether you like the peppery or jammy style of Zinfandel, it’s time to start building some depth to your knowledge.

At this point it’s not enough to know how certain wines taste — you need to start learning why. This is where the real effort of a self-education comes in, and where you need to locate resources for yourself, whether they are web sites, books, friendly wine shops, tour operators, classes, or staff at a favorite tasting room. At this point, in order to progress further, you need to build knowledge in several areas:

You need to start learning the terms that are used to describe wine: what ‘lees’ are, what ‘corked’ means, what the difference is between an appellation-specific wine and a non-appellation wine. Great sources for this include books, friends who are more knowledgeable than you, and more in-depth wine appreciation classes.

You need to have a rudimentary understanding of how wine is made: picking, de-stemming, crushing, cold soaking, primary fermentation, secondary (malolactic) fermentation, barrel aging (or not), and bottling. You obviously don’t need to be able to actually do it, nor do you have to be able to teach a course in it, but you should know in what order the steps are, and the basic choices a winemaker makes during the process: to de-stem or not to de-stem, to barrel ferment or tank ferment, etc. The best way to learn this is to go a winery and get a tour of the facilities from someone who can explain the process along the way. The introductory wine books by people like Andrea Immer or Hugh Johnson (or even Wine For Dummies) also provide excellent information.

Wine regions
You need to start learning what wines come from different regions, and to start tackling the intimidating French system to understand that Burgundy means Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that Bordeaux means a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec. Barolo comes from Piedmont , Italy . Australian Shiraz is the same grape but a different style than Rhone or California Syrah. The best method is to subscribe to a decent wine magazine like Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, or Wine Spectator, which throughout the course of a year typically publish stories about the major wine regions of the world. You should also start consciously trying wine from these areas. By this point you shouldn’t be afraid to occasionally spend $20, $30, or even $40 on a bottle of wine (though your everyday wine drinking may be at a more affordable level).

Components of taste and aroma
You also need to learn how to go beyond deciding whether you like a wine or not, or that one is better than another. You need to start building a vocabulary to describe what you are tasting; to learn to recognize flavors and aromas, as well as flaws in wine; and to start matching those with your growing understanding of producers, regions, and years. You also want to learn what happens to the flavors of wines over time. One of the best aids to help you build vocabulary is an aroma wheel or tasting chart, a device usually sold at larger wine shops that lists the various flavors and aromas in wine. You’d be surprised how much easier they make it for you to come up with the right words to describe what you’re tasting or smelling. After a while you won’t need this device every time you sit down to seriously taste wine, but at first it’s incredibly useful.

Deliberate pairing of wine and food
Finally, while there are certain guidelines that are accepted, there is no easy way to learn how to match food and wine, so everyone must learn through experimentation. At this point in the process, you should be not only be paying attention to what the wine tastes like in detail — you should be trying to understand how it plays off against different types of foods. Ordering the wine pairings at restaurants is a sometimes helpful exercise, and creating your own even more so.

So, that seems like a pretty daunting list of stuff doesn’t it? It’s a lot, but you can build this knowledge slowly.

First, you need to start taking notes; not just the quick notes like those you took at the group wine tastings you attended earlier (and still may be attending) in your education, but detailed tasting notes that describe wines by their color, their aroma, and by their taste and feel in your mouth. You also need to start writing down as much specific information as possible about the wines you drink. If you know or learned something about how it was made, write it down. If you know anything about where it was grown and what the weather was like, write it down. You are building a wine journal that may or may not be something you reference in the future, but most importantly, you are forcing yourself to pay attention to wine in a detailed and systematic fashion.

It is at this stage that I recommend people start buying wine deliberately with the intention of keeping it for some time. Even if it is not economically feasible to purchase wines that are guaranteed to improve with age, it is still important to learn what time does to a wine, and the easiest way to do this is cellar it yourself. Buy a case of a wine that you’ve tasted and liked, and that you or someone else has determined will actually survive a few years. Wait a few years and then start opening a bottle every year, comparing it to the previous year’s notes.

STAGE 5: Connoisseurship

Frankly, many people are economically prevented from ever reaching this stage. The level of experience that is built at this level can only come with the means to actually purchase and drink wines with a consistency, breadth, and depth across the major wine regions and across many vintage years. In this stage you actively seek out and experience the full range of the wine world, and in doing so you build and deepen your personal preferences for wine and the understanding of the standards against which all wines are measured . You must taste the First Growths of Bordeaux in current vintages and in past years, if only to know whether you like them or not; likewise the great wines from all over the world. You have to know what a great aged Burgundy tastes like, what top-notch Barolo and Brunello feel like on the palate, what makes for a world-class Riesling, and more.

In this stage you should own and actively maintain a cellar that is geared towards your enjoyment and continued education. You purchase wines to drink now, and also wines to deliberately lay down for years, and quite possibly may buy wine for investment purposes as well. Most people who have gotten to this point in their self-education are so passionate about wine, they can’t help but collect it.

You are not only continuing to learn the names of wineries and their wines, but also learning to pay attention to who the winemakers are, and how specific vineyards taste, independent of wineries and wines. You should have moved beyond finding your favorite wine shops, and should be finding your favorite importers instead.

At this point (though certainly relevant and fun earlier) it is important to actually visit your favorite wine regions, and learn not just about how wines are made, but how they are grown. The serious student will be learning about how geology, topology and climate affect grapes and the implications for wine as a finished product.

Finally, either as a means to push themselves into this stage, or as entertainment or avocation, some people choose to study for and receive one of the advanced certifications in wine — either a Master Sommelier degree or a Master of Wine. These are particularly helpful if you are interested in working in the wine or restaurant business, but for some people they are just a way to learn as much as possible about a subject for which they are passionate.

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Obviously, there are no clear dividing lines between these stages, rules about their order, or the activities and knowledge that must be part of one versus another. I have a friend who made his first forays into learning about wine by drinking aged Bordeaux out of his father’s cellar. My grandfather passed away last year having only really gotten to the point of deciding that pink wine was his preference. I suppose there’s probably even a stage six which might be called “The Winemaker” for people who have learned enough to actually make stuff that the rest of us would love to drink, or can advise the people that do.

Figure out where you are, then decide where you are going, and make sure that no matter how you do it, you have fun along the way. There is no wrong way to love and learn about wine, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.