Wine 101: How To Pretend Like You Know Wine — Tips & Things to Avoid
Ordering wine can be an intimidating and daunting experience for many, and this article is for anyone that experiences anxiety when ordering wine. Done improperly, this simple task can lead to embarrassment and judgment from others, however, done effectively ordering wine can quickly elevate social status. It may sound ridiculous, but dating, business dinners, meeting the parents, or other social situations can be vastly improved by simply knowing how to “do wine.” Of course, all this is based on caring about what other people think, however, this is not an article on psychology. The goal of this article is to help you feel confident when ordering and drinking wine.
I knew practically nothing about wine until I began working in Napa Valley, and prior to that, I myself struggled to not sound foolish and make a bad wine decision. I remember once being asked to name the five grapes of Bordeaux during a job interview and not being able to do it, I was so embarrassed and I didn’t get the job. After several years of working in the wine industry, I can now share some easy to remember knowledge so that wine can be more fun for you. Without further ado, below is my guide to pretending like you actually know something about wine:
A NOTE: The most important thing to know about wine is not what to do, but what NOT to do. I know this sounds cliché, but it’s true. The key is minimal discussion, questions, and actions. Get in, take no prisoners, and get out. The less said, the better, and this holds especially true if you are in a situation where others are very knowledgeable of wine.
Things To Avoid:
- Do Not Smell The Cork: This is top of the list, and perhaps the most widespread wine faux pas. It’s so common for people to do this that many have actually come to believe that smelling the cork tells us something about wine. So why not smell the cork? Because it tells you absolutely nothing about the wine, other than if it’s red or white, and sometimes that’s not even obvious. In some instances, you may even find yourself smelling a piece of plastic. Corks are sometimes presented for inspection so that the ultra-posh drinker can ensure proper storage of their specific bottle, but honestly, any place you go to that provides this service knows how to properly store wine. High-end places will usually either give the cork for inspection or the server will often put it in one of their pockets. Just give it back and say thank you. Don’t smell it.
- Do Not Hold The Wine Glass The Wrong Way And Wave It Around While Talking: It’s not a beer, and you should always try to hold a wine glass by the stem (thin part). Even if you make a mistake on how to hold it, most errors can be forgiven just as long as you don’t swing it around like a drunken sailor while trying to speak with sophistication.
- Do Not Swirl The Wine And Watch The Legs/Tears Drip: Tears/Legs are something that a Sommelier (expert wine steward) look at when analyzing a wine, however, you probably have no idea what you’re looking for. Even if you do know, really this trick is only useful in combination with several other checks. If you see other people doing this, chances are they almost certainly don’t know why they’re doing it. Legs/Tears (same thing) occur most noticeably in wine that has a higher alcohol content, and less so in lower alcohol wines. Once upon a time when wines commonly ranged anywhere between 8% — 14% alcohol, the legs could help determine the structure of the wine, however today, most wines available for U.S. consumers are between 12% and 16% alcohol, and therefore most wines will have noticeable legs, which makes looking at them pointless.
- Do Not Say Something If You Aren’t Sure How To Pronounce It: This one is simple, don’t butcher the word. It’s not Cab-er-eh, it’s Cab-er-neigh. Take the time to learn how to pronounce some common wine words such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Cabernet, Franc, Sauvignon, Noir, Pinot.
- Do Not Ask For Anyone’s Opinion: So I actually almost always ask for a server’s opinion when ordering wine, however, I do this because I’m generally interested, and I can hang decently well in just about any wine conversation (just about). If you ask the server (or whoever is asking) what they think, you run the risk of that person bringing up something that you have absolutely no knowledge of. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t want to go down the road, as it might lead to some dickhead droning on and making you look stupid.
- Do Not Use The Words Dry, Sweet, Bitter and Fruity: Why? Because when it comes to wine, you simply don’t know what they mean. The four words mentioned here are routinely misused, especially in America. It’s so bad actually that the French changed their designations on Champagne to match the American ignorance of sweetness levels. For now, just leave these words on the sidelines.
- Do Not Order Pinot Grigio: This is a dead give away that you have no idea what you’re doing. The only exception to this is if you are ordering in Italy, but if you are reading this, you probably aren’t ordering in Italy.
- Do Not Swirl The Wine In The Glass More Than A Couple Times: The purpose of swirling (spinning the wine around in the glass) is to volatize the ethers in the wine. If you don’t know what that means, then you’re spinning your wheels. A seasoned wine drinker often will never swirl the wine when just drinking for enjoyment, but if you want to look cool, go ahead and do it once or twice, just make sure you pick up the glass and smell the wine afterward (see step 6 on 10 Tips below).
- Do Not EVER Put Ice Into The Wine: Nothing goes into wine, ever, so never put anything into wine under any circumstances.
- Do Not EVER Put Ice Into The Wine: Seriously.
OKAY! Next is the list of pro-active steps to avoid looking stupid:
- Find One Wine: This is 75% of the battle. First choose a color, white or red. Don’t get into sparkling or rosé at this point, WAAAY too risky. For the sake of time, let’s say you chose red wine. Next, look up red wine varietals and pick one. California Cabernet Sauvignon is currently amongst the most popular in America, and therefore the most overrated and expensive. I recommend Zinfandel (more on this in a minute), however, Pinot Noir, Malbec or what is known as Rhône Blends, aka GSM’s, are all good options. There are many other reds, and of course whites. If you go the white route, Chardonnay is the basically the white Cabernet Sauvignon (actually Sauvignon Blanc is, but I mean in the pop-culture context stated above), so perhaps avoid Chardonnay. Some good white options are Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Albarino, Chablis or White Burgundy. Now this is where I separate the readers: Someone just read that last sentence and said (wait a minute, you said no Chardonnay, but Chablis and Burgundy? WTF?) If that’s you, good job and you should choose Chablis or White Burgundy as your wine, (assuming you are going white). However, if you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about right now, go with Sauvignon Blanc.
- Study The One Wine: So let’s say you went with one of my personal favorites, Zinfandel. One of the reasons I love this wine is because it is terribly misunderstood. An overwhelming part of the U.S. population thinks that Zinfandel is a white wine, because of white zinfandels, which are some of the cheapest and nastiest wines ever produced. Zinfandel is a red wine grape and therefore makes red wine. Zinfandel is also known as Primitivo, which is specific to Italian Zinfandel. Zinfandel was once thought to be the only wine grape native to California, however, DNA has blown that theory, and we now know that it is originally from Croatia. If that is surprising, you have never had Croatian wines, and you absolutely must. Zinfandel is very versatile in that it is safe to eat with many different things. With any wine, if you don’t know what you’re doing, best to avoid spicy food, but even if you get brave, you could get lucky with a good Zin being your best companion for the hotter stuff. See? Already you’ve learned something about this wine, and you can repeat it when ordering and discussing after. I advise reading about the specific varietal (in this instance Zinfandel) on both Wikipedia and winefolly.com. Both sources are quick reads and give you enough information to be armed for the wine list. Just make sure you absorb the information, otherwise, this is all for naught.
- Ignore Vintages: The year of a wine is called the Vintage. It’s common to think that the older the wine, the better, however, that is just completely incorrect. The Vintage of a wine does, in fact, say a lot about it, however, it’s so nuanced and technical that it’s best to just ignore this for now. I will write about Vintages in the future, for now, just make sure the wine has a year on it, any year. If you are feeling adventurous, a little trick I like is to find the prestigious wines from the “bad” years and try those. They are usually quite good and come at a lower cost because of the perception of that year's vintage.
- Don’t Think About Money: Worried about paying your bills, or afraid of looking cheap and stupid? Don’t be scared of either. As long as you don’t drink to get drunk, this won’t be that expensive. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to try something daring like bringing your own bottle to a restaurant. In fact, bringing a bottle to a restaurant and paying the corkage fee can be an excellent way to control the situation, demonstrate wine knowledge and class, AND save money. However, if you don’t bring your own, then find on the menu the one wine you prepared for, and order a glass or a bottle. Don’t let price dissuade you from the strategy. Stick to the plan, it will all work out. I promise.
- Be Ready For The Initial Pour: Now this is where people get screwed up all the time. When I was in service, I used to like to fuck with customers who I didn’t like, and who were behaving like arrogant members of the social elite. Servers do often have a good sense of humor. First off, the cork on the table is a trap, so ignore it. It should either go on a plate, or in the wine stewards (server) pocket. The cork does not belong in your hand or under your nose. Many servers make this mistake also, so if they do, just pretend the cork is not there. Next is the pour; the server will splash just a little in your glass only. What comes next is the awkward pause and deer in the headlights look from the customer. Despite the anxiety that many feel during this step, the initial pour is actually the easiest part. Still, many make the mistake of taking the time to smell, swirl, smell, and then taste. Not only is that rude because the server is standing there waiting for you to say something so he can pour the entire table and then go tend to other tables, but it’s also really pointless. If you are reading this, then the wine will almost certainly be coming from a freshly opened bottle. That means the wine is likely temperature cool and tight, which in lay speak means it probably doesn’t smell like anything, and the flavors are dull. Wine people call this “muted” and so, therefore, the wine needs to “open.” Yes, you’ve heard this before. It basically means to allow the air to react with the wine and become closer to room temperature. Just a few degrees can make a major difference in the way a wine smells and tastes. Okay, so back to the table; the wine is in your glass and the server is standing there. Simply pick it up, bring it closer to your nose and take one normal inhale. If it smells like rotten cabbage, wet moldy newspaper or strong vinegar, then it’s probably bad. If it doesn’t smell repulsive, take a small sip, and swirl in your mouth (see next step). After a QUICK swirl, swallow, and then immediately acknowledge the server. Don’t forget to smile and say, “Yes thank you.” Now for the truly easy part; wait until everyone else is poured, don’t even touch your glass a moment beforehand.
- Use YouTube To Learn How To Drink Wine: YouTube has everything. Type in the search bar “how to taste wine like a Somm (or Sommelier),” and you’ll learn the two components you need: A) How to smell the wine (nose), how to taste the wine (mouth). Don’t get fancy; just watch how they do those two things. And whatever you do, never try to spit. Leave that to the professionals.
- Look Up The Place You Are Going And Read The Winelist: Make sure the one wine you studied and prepared for is at the place you are going. If it’s not a restaurant or you are locked in, see PLAN B below.
- Drink Responsibly: If you’re trying to get drunk, there are much more affordable ways to do it. Drinking too much wine takes everything you worked and trained for and flushes it down the sewer. If the night calls for getting loose, switch to a cocktail after the wine, or maybe have one cocktail before opening a bottle. A good cocktail followed by splitting a bottle of wine over dinner is a sure fire way to get a little tipsy, but also avoid the spins. Also, know that what people say is true, wine hangovers are the worst. Yes, of course, this is subjective and a matter of debate, but I think it’s true, and so should you.
- Drink Water: Yes, drink water. Drink it before the wine, drink it in between sips of wine here and there, and don’t be afraid to have some after you’re done drinking also. Just don’t put ice or water in the wine.
- Enjoy Yourself: If you aren’t having fun, then drink something else. Wine is not a prerequisite to being socially acceptable and refined. If you don’t like wine, just say so. Don’t give reasons, because they are probably wrong, just don’t be afraid to stand up and say that you do not enjoy wine and prefer something else. On the other hand, if you are having fun, the chances are the other people are too!
PLAN B: So what to do if the wine you prepared for is not available? Did life pull a flanking maneuver on you and now you feel the pressure of looming failure? No need to fret, as your newfound knowledge of the one wine will still help you in this situation. At this point, you now need to partially violate the DO NOT rule #5, and ask the server/order taker what they recommend that is SIMILAR to the one wine that you studied. So to use my example, “What do you have that’s similar to a Paso Robles Zinfandel or a Primitivo?” And there you have it, nothing can go wrong now. If the Server doesn’t know, you’ve still demonstrated that you’re no fool, and if the server DOES have a recommendation, you simply accept her/his recommendation, and confidently walk down the path of a new adventure! If you like the wine, be sure to compliment and tip the server.
Okay now some of you may be asking, why not just always do Plan B? Simple, because the hard way is just so much more exciting and rewarding, and you can’t learn by taking the easy way out!