I'm currently studying to become a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW). Doing so consists of studying a 231-page study guide at your own pace, then taking a 100 question test in 60 minutes. You have to get a 75% to pass. I'm a pretty kick-ass test taker, but I'm taking this seriously, so that means studying as much as I can in addition to writing blog posts, stories, novels, and sketching out potential business ideas. Did I mention my 40-plus hour per week job? Do you need a handkerchief yet? Where's that violin music coming from? It's very faint, but I can hear it…
At any rate, the study guide has a lot of good information that dovetails nicely with my own experience, so I feel confident enough to make some posts on wine tips that are useful for the average person. Hopefully, they won't have the air of snobbery that a lot of the other wine writers are known for.
The first tip: Drink what you want. I was recording a recent podcast (more details to follow) where the topic of wine experts came up. These experts tend to come up with exotic "flavors" that they taste within the wine. This practice, by itself, is not a bad idea. It forces you to verbalize what you're tasting, and think about why you like certain wines more than others. The only problem is, if you ask five different experts what flavors they taste in any given wine, you're likely to get five very different answers. These flavors are not universal. That's why when some asshole tries to browbeat you with something like, "There's no tobacco flavor in there, you knave!", you can confidently shoot back a "Fuck you, THAT'S WHAT I TASTE!"
The nicer experts realize that they understand what flavor profiles are pleasing to their palates, so by identifying those flavors, it's shorthand for "this wine tastes good to me." If you start to identify some of the flavors that you like, you should be able to start breaking down what you think of certain varieties (also known as varietals in winespeak—think Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc.), and coming up with some go-to types of wines that you like.
For example, I've found that I like wines that have bold flavors of cherry, vanilla, some berries, and even some chocolate (yeah, I like Cherry Garcia—SO FUCKING WHAT!?!). I can't break flavors down to the level of "cloves" or "coriander," but I can detect a noticeable "spice" flavor in some wines, specifically Malbecs. If you don't taste these flavors, DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT! I haven't seen too many places that identify Malbecs with spiciness, but I can taste it, so that's what matters to me. And that's probably why I think a good Argentinian Malbec holds up so well to steak—it's like a second layer of spices for the meat. But that's just me—when it comes to how you taste things, I don't know shit!
As you start to break down what varieties you like, start experimenting with things like the price and what region the wine is from. Take note of regions that you particularly enjoy. Note that there are plenty of "hidden gems" out there that are great, inexpensive wines. That's a post for another day.
With regard to pairing wine with food (another post for another day), there are several "golden rules" that experts try to adhere to. Feel free to break those, too. There is a little science behind certain pairings, but if you find that a certain combination works well for you, why fuck with it? Worry about the science later if you really start to get into wines. If not, why bother yourself with it. If you're in a group, and someone questions your choice, feel free to break out, "Well, I figure we'll have another bottle anyway—would you like to suggest one?" Hopefully, this has the twin benefit of bringing something to the table for everyone and liquoring up the asshole that was enough of a dick to try to put you down using your choice of wine (I didn't realize how pathetic that sounded until I wrote it out).
So, to recap, wine experts have widely differing palates. Try to identify flavors that taste good to you, but don't get too obsessive or dickish about it. Play around with different varieties of wine to figure out what you like. Once you can identify certain varieties, experiment with different regions and price points. Feel free to try to find some hidden gems—they're out there. Just find something you like, and try to consistently recreate the experience. That's what matters in the long run. Eat. Drink. Be merry.
Also, let me know if people are getting anything out of these—they're fun to write, and I think my "voice" comes out better on a topic like this or sports, hence they may be more useful.
Wondering where the discount bourbon articles are? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on twitter @djgelner.