September 02, 2011

Stress-Free Wining

Some of you expressed interest in a post about wine (since you know how much I love my wine!). To someone who knows absolutely nothing about wine, choosing a bottle at the store is extremely intimidating!

A few years ago, that was me. I was curious to learn about wine, however, and when my friend Renee mentioned starting a "wine club" to taste and educate ourselves on wine, I was all for it.

We both got to work, reading as much as possible. We wanted to learn all we could, in order to share it at our first wine club meeting. My only experience up until that point was that I drank ONE type and brand of wine--Riunite Lambrusco, which is a super sweet red wine that you can buy at any liquor store or grocery store.

I had tasted wine at a couple of weddings (the token white zinfandel that appears at all weddings), and thought it was disgusting. But I knew that wine was such a popular beverage around the entire world, and I was determined to find out why.

Renee and I named our club "Winers"--and we were made up of women (mostly moms) who got together once a month to chat and taste different wines. It was a great way to try several wines without committing to a whole bottle, because the bottles were shared with everyone at the meeting.

Throughout the first few months of Winers, I tasted dozens of different types of wine (usually 6-8 per meeting); and eventually, I realized that I was starting to enjoy it. The more I tasted, the more I liked it.

The wines I enjoyed most in the beginning were the sweet ones (which is pretty typical of a beginner). I added some of the drier white wines. Then I began to enjoy the sweeter reds; and finally, the dry, bold red wines.

As of now, I will drink pretty much anything! I am far from a wine snob.

I'm going to write this entry as if I was talking to someone who knows absolutely NOTHING about wine, and who is not looking to become an expert--someone who is just interested in learning the basics and how to learn to enjoy wine.

Some of the things I write may not sit well with the "wine snobs", but I'm not looking to turn anyone into a wine snob! ;)

First things first: Wine is essentially fermented grape juice.

There are 3 basic categories of wine that you should know.

Red wine--Made from red grapes. After extracting the juice of the grapes, the skins are placed into the wine while it ferments. This "stains" the wine to various shades of red.

White wine--This could be made from any color of grape, but there are no skins placed in it while it ferments, so it remains white (clear) in color.

Rosé wine--(Pronounced rose-ay) Made with red grapes, and the skins are only placed into the juice for a short time, making a light pinkish color of wine.

Sweet or Dry: You may hear people talk of "dry reds" or "sweet whites", etc. Depending on how sweet the wine tastes, it is considered "sweet", "dry", and the in-between variations "medium dry" and "medium", or even "semi-dry" and "semi-sweet".

There are many different factors that determine what category the wine falls into (alcohol content, residual sugars, etc) but all you really need to know is that a sweet wine tastes relatively sweet, and a dry wine does not. (Keep in mind, when wine is "sweet", it is not sweet like juice or pop, so don't expect it to taste that way. You will be in for a big disappointment! Unless you're drinking Boone's Farm, maybe, haha).

From my experience with Winers, MOST beginner wine drinkers prefer sweet wines, because they're used to drinking sweet drinks. That is what I always suggest for beginners. Once you enjoy the sweet wine, then I would move to the semi-sweet or semi-dry wines, and eventually, the dry wines--first the whites, and then the reds.

A lot of the girls in my wine club used to hate dry wine (including me!), but after tasting it over and over again, they now prefer dry wine. My favorite is actually bold, dry red--something I thought was terrible before).

Varietals: Once you learn the colors and the sweetness factors, then you can start to learn about varietals. There are MANY different types of varietals, and I couldn't begin to list them all. But I will explain a little about them and what it means.

A wine "varietal" refers to the name of the grape that the wine was made from. For example, when you hear someone say they are going to have a glass of Chardonnay, the word Chardonnay is actually the name of the grape that was used to make the wine.

Other common varietals--Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Grigio. These are all the names of the grapes used to make the wine. Again, there are way too many to list, but I'll stick with the most common ones that you will likely find in your everyday grocery store.

When you go to the grocery store, wine is usually organized on the shelf by varietal. So if you look at the bottles, you should see one of the varietals listed--for example, Merlot--and the bottles all around that bottle are probably Merlot, too.

Brands: The difference between these bottles? They are different brands, come from different vineyards, bottled in different places.  It's kind of like shopping for shoes--you tell the salesperson you want black heels, and they bring you a ton of different black heels to choose from. They are all made by different companies.

When shopping for wine, one bottle of Merlot might be made in California, and another bottle might be made in Australia. That's what is so fun about trying wine--you may not like a particular bottle, but there are thousands more to try out!

Blends: There are wines called "blends" as well, which means that different grape varietals are mixed into one wine. It might be a "Cabernet-Merlot" blend, "Merlot-Malbec" blend, etc. A common brand that you may see on the shelves is called Ménage à Trois (a fun name!)--they blend three varietals into each bottle. For example, the Ménage à Trois red is made up of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Vintage: So, now you know the color; whether it is sweet or dry; and the grape varietal. Next is the "vintage". Vintage is simply a fancy word for "year". The year (vintage) listed on the bottle is the year that the grapes were picked.

For the true beginner, this doesn't mean much. If you're going very in-depth, however, then you'll learn that the weather and climate in different years yielded better or worse quality of grapes; and therefore, the certain vintages are more desirable than others. But for the average person, there is no need to worry about the vintage.

Wine labels can be intimidating because there are so many unfamiliar words. Some things you will find on the wine label, along with the varietal and vintage:
  • Brand name--By law, this has to be listed. If there is no brand, then the bottler is considered the brand. It will say, "Bottled by..." (usually on the back label).
  • Appellation of Origin--where the grapes are grown.
  • Producer and bottler
  • Alcohol content--a percentage of alcohol in the wine
  • Other mumbo-jumbo, like the government warning about drinking alcohol.
As a consumer, and someone who just wants to buy a frickin bottle of wine without trying to decipher a whole label, all you need to really think about is the varietal, and possibly the brand or the appellation of origin, if you specifically want a wine from France or Italy, or wherever.

Here is a label from one of my personal favorite bottles of wine:

2005 Kendall-Jackson Zinfandel
The "fluff words" is a term I use for the description of the wine on the back of the bottle. Here, you will read all kinds of nice words like, "Zesty raspberry flavors... plum notes... spice accents..." Don't judge a bottle by these words--my wine club rarely thinks that the description is accurate (in our non-expert opinions)!

After sampling dozens of different varietals, you'll eventually learn that Chardonnay tastes kind of buttery, while Pinot Grigio has a tart taste like a green apple. The fluff words mean nothing to me. I've just learned the varietals that I enjoy the most, and experience is how I learned what to expect from each varietal.

Here is another label, and this one is a NV wine--which means "non-vintage". That means the grapes may have been picked in different years, so there won't be a vintage on the label. Usually, that is the case with less expensive wine.

NV Barefoot Moscato  (If you think you don't like wine, try this... you'll probably like it)

Tannins - There is one word you should know that doesn't really fit in anywhere else here, so I'll just write about it here. Tannins. You will come across that word a LOT when reading about or hearing about wine, so you should probably know what it means. The tannins in a wine refer to the dry mouth feel that you get when drinking highly-tannic wines.

Imagine chewing on a mouthful of grape skins--you know how your mouth would feel dry and almost sticky, and taste a little bitter? Same thing when you drink plain, black tea. When a wine has a lot of tannins, it just means that it makes your mouth feel dry like I described, and somewhat bitter. This isn't considered a BAD thing--it's just a way of describing the mouth-feel of the wine.

To taste what I'm talking about, try a Cabernet Sauvignon, as it is known as being one of the most tannic wines.

Wines for Beginners - Now that you know how to read a wine label, I'll make a few suggestions for common wines that you might want to try (as a beginner to wine). I mentioned that most beginners like sweet wines, so here are some sweeter varietals (the sweetest being the first):

Riesling (most Riesling that you find in the grocery store is sweet; if not, it will usually specify "dry riesling")
White Zinfandel (this is made from a Zinfandel grape, which is red, but the color of the wine is a pink color)

Some specific wine brands/varietals that were very popular among the "beginners" at wine club:

Riunite Lambrusco (red)
Barefoot Moscato (white, pictured above)
Barefoot Riesling (white)
Barefoot Sweet Red (red)

I've found that no matter what the varietal, Barefoot seems to be a popular brand among people who are just looking to try new wine varietals (and you can find it anywhere!). If you're totally unsure, start with that brand and pick a bottle that sounds good to you--and try it out!

Once you're enjoying the sweeter wines, you can start trying out some that aren't so sweet (but aren't bone-dry, either). Here are some of the varieties I'd suggest trying:

Piesporter (white)
Sauvignon Blanc (white)
Merlot (red) --Kendall-Jackson Merlot is the first red wine I fell in love with!
Pinot Noir (red)

When you're ready to try some bolder, dry wines:

Zinfandel (red) --my current favorite wine is Dancing Bull Zinfandel
Cabernet Sauvignon (red)
Pinot Grigio (white)
Chardonnay (white)

Now, keep in mind that not ALL Cabernet Sauvignon wines are very bold and dry, and not ALL Rieslings are sweet. It depends on the brand, the vintner, etc. If you try one and don't like it, don't be afraid to try the same varietal of a different brand.

Serving wine - A few notes about serving wine. Google this, and you'd have waaaay more information than you'd know what to do with. The bare basics that you need to know:

Red wine should be served slightly colder than room temperature, at or a little above 60 degrees. If you put the bottle in the fridge for about 15-20 minutes before serving, that'll do ya just fine.

White wine should be served colder, at about 35-40 degrees. Refrigerate, and then take out about 10-15 minutes before serving, to allow it to get to the right temp.

You may be thinking, "What's the big deal if I drink my red wine cold?"
"White wines too warm will taste alcoholic and flabby, while white wines too cold will be refreshing but nearly tasteless. As for reds, keep them too warm and they will taste soft, alcoholic and even vinegary. Too cold and they will have an overly tannic bite and much less flavor."   --SOURCE
I never used to understand what the big deal was until I started experimenting with different temps, and it really does make a big difference in how the wine tastes. You don't have to get the exact temperature, but please don't drink red wine from the refrigerator. And please please don't add ice to your wine.

(On second thought... it's your wine. Drink it however you like!)

Also, drink wine from a wine glass. You don't need a different glass for reds, whites, and all the varietals of each. Just a normal everyday wine glass will do. 

And ALWAYS remember...

The best way to serve wine is with friends! ;)

Price - The cost of wine can vary enormously. Don't assume that the more expensive the bottle, the better the wine will taste, either. I've tasted very expensive wine that I didn't care for, and I've tasted very cheap wine that I thought was great.

As embarrassing as it is to admit this, I recently discovered that I actually enjoy Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, that would be BOXED WINE. It's very economical--one box costs about $20, and it contains the equivalent of 4 bottles (about 20 glasses). That's pretty darn cheap! You don't have to keep boxed wine refrigerated once opened, and it lasts for about 4-6 weeks (tasting just the same as when you opened it).

Seriously... use a glass
I've found this to be a good solution to when I want to have a glass of wine every evening without finishing a whole bottle. If I have wine with a friend, we open a bottle; but when it's just me, by myself, I've been going for the box lately.

I've tried other brands of boxed wine, and didn't care for any of them--but the Black Box is really good!  Just don't leave it out on your counter when you have company ;)

And that pretty much sums up Stress-Free Wining. Hopefully I clued you in on how to start drinking the world's best beverage. If there is one thing I cannot stress enough, it is to TASTE A HUGE VARIETY OF WINE, as many different varietals and brands possible.

Wine is an acquired taste, and if you just try it once, you may not like it. But over time, you will start to realize what you were missing out on. It took me about 4 months of trying all different types of wines to truly start enjoying most of what I tried.



  1. Great post!! :) I started out drinking wine several years ago and have been in love with learning more ever since. You did a fabulous job explaining everything for a novice! And you're right...drinking with friends makes it even better!

  2. We are so lucky living on Long Island- there are more than 50 vineyards within an hour of our house. In both the spring and fall there's the Jazz on the Vine Festival where many wineries have live music while offering tastings. I LOVE Riesling (Cavit is a good brand also and inexpensive) and I just found Moscato. It reminds me of the Himmel I had at Martha Clara but is NOT $31 for a 375 mL bottle! My father-in-law has a liquor store attached to his CostCo that has amazing prices on LI wines. How is it that their prices are cheaper than the vineyard itself? Makes no sense!

    White Zinfandel is our standby since most people drink it. We like Beringer or Sutter Home. I really don't like reds. The tannins give me a headache!

    Martha Stewart did a blind taste test on her show and it proved that there really is no correlation between price and taste. Thank God! And Kathy Grifin's mom loves boxed wine- "Tip it!"

  3. Thank you so much for this! I have been so excited for this post ever since you said you were working on it! Perfect job explaining everything. I'm a beginner and this has really helped me. I don't think I will be so lost staring at the wines in the store anymore! I am very excited to try more wines. I'm not in love with it yet, but it has great health benefits and I know with time I will learn to understand and love it.

  4. Very helpful! I wasn't aware of the correct temps for red and white wines so I'll keep that in mind. I'm not a big fan of reds either so I prefer whites or pinks but still prefer the sweeter wines even after all these years. And so true about price. My dad knows I love champagne so he bought me a pricey bottle that was just awful. It was about 6x the price of the cheap stuff I prefer and was totally gross.

  5. oh man i couldnt imagine having wine at the grocery store. i live in pa, we have weird laws about booze. in order to get any booze you have to go to either a state store or a beer distrubutator. they just loosened the sunday laws-before state stores couldnt be open on sundays at all. now they are for a few hours.
    i am not much of a drinker but i did go to a jazz and wine fest a few years ago, we had tastes of winds and i got the worst headache ever

  6. Ooooh thanks for the tips. Now I totally have to take up drinking wine! lol. The temperature thing does make since though. Lots of drinks taste different hot and cold, etc.

  7. Thanks for this! So much information here! My sister and I have tried a few wines, but we didn't really know where to start and the few we tried were not very good. We may have to try some more now that I have an idea of what to look for!

  8. Wow! Thanks so much for posting this! It's everything i wanted to know but was certainly too embarrassed to ask for help at the liquor store/wine shop!
    This has now been bookmarked! :)

  9. This is awesome! TRULY helpful! I have been researching wines for a while now and I have not found anything quite as helpful as this. You have this way of writing that just makes everything so interesting and easy to understand. I am extremely happy to hear that you weren't the biggest fan of wine in the beginning either. I really don't care too much for it, but my fiance and I buy a new bottle each week - alternating who chooses it. I really want to learn to appreciate and love wine!

  10. Pinot Grigio all the way!!!!!!!

  11. Thank you so much for this! I knew jack shit about wine, but always wanted to! I must try Kendall Jackson Merlot!

  12. Thanks for this post. So helpful! Hubby and I recently decided we're grown up enough to try wines - lol - but we were standing at the store completely lost this weekend!

    Great tips for a beginner!

  13. Great post Katie. I LOVE Riunite Lambrusco. I have 3 bottles of it on my wine rack. I'm still not ready to progress onto a drier red at this stage (they're all vinegar to me), but Riunite is definitely one of my faves. I loved Moscato as well, but found that the more I drank it, the sweeter it seemed so I'm a little off it at the moment. We have some great wines in New Zealand and Oyster Bay make a beautiful Chardonnay - the only one I will drink at my novice level of wine appreciation. Rosemount (made in Australia) have a sparkling wine called O, which stands for "only over ice" and is a gorgeous, lightly carbonated wine, not too sweet, but as stated, is for serving over ice and it is THE most gorgeous summer drink. I promise it's worth a look if you can find it in the U.S. I also love my "boxed" wine. My wine rack gets nice and full, and I find I don't want to open any of the bottles unless I've got someone over and I know we'll drink a whole bottle in one go, so I have a cask on standby for when I need a glass :)

  14. just saw this bag and it immediately made me think of you and your wine club :D


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