I’m amazed how much people worry about something as simple and pleasurable as wine. It’s not that I don’t understand: Wine can seem confusing in its complexity. And it attracts snobs, who make themselves feel bigger by belittling anyone who knows less.
But, as a wine expert who’s been there and done that, if I can share one piece of advice? Stop worrying. Yes, there are lots of things that you might want to learn about wine. But there are also plenty that aren’t a big deal—although people make them so. Here are five that I hope will help you breathe a little easier:
Don’t worry if you’re using the right words.
There are a handful of specific terms that mean specific things, like “tannic,” which describes an abundance of tannins, those astringent molecules that add a tea-like sensation. But much of the way we talk about wine is subjective, and includes no small amount of BS. I mean, this is an industry where about half the professionals still use the wrong term for a type of grape. Pinot noir is a variety, not a varietal!
Really, a small handful of terms—fruity, dry, spicy, mineral and so on—will give you a good framework to communicate. Beware some jargon-y words, like “smooth.” But for the most part, just describe wine in terms comfortable to you.
That also applies when you talk to a sommelier. Their salaries are literally factored into restaurant wine markups. In other words, you’re paying them to help you. So let them. Tell them what you like, what you want to spend and what you’re eating. A good one will handle the rest—and make you feel smart along the way.
Don’t worry about ordering the cheapest wine on the list.
While we’re on the subject, let’s put to bed some other myths surrounding ordering wine. Like the old rule of thumb about the second-cheapest bottle being the best deal? Total myth. (You thought sommeliers don’t read these things?)
In fact, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with ordering the cheapest bottle, if that’s what you want to drink. A good wine director will be proud of every one of her selections. And often the least expensive is something offbeat she’s particularly fond of—and will be excited to share.
Don’t worry too much about whether your wine matches your food.
A great bottle of wine enhances a meal, and the right wine with the right dish is transcendent. But the faux-science of pairing wines with food has overstayed its welcome. Among other things, it has left too many people insecure, because they think there’s one perfect pairing and they haven’t found it.
Stop. For one thing, a great match isn’t always obvious. (If you’ve never had light red Burgundy with sushi, you’ve missed out.) And many pairing suggestions are rooted in an old, Eurocentric view of cuisine. Sure, a few foods might make your wine taste weird, and vice versa—although fewer than you think. But maybe we could stop being so judgy and high-strung?
Don’t stop drinking rosé now because it’s cold out.
There’s almost nothing in the historical record to affirm rosé’s current starring role as summer water. In fact, many wines we now think of as red were once much closer to pink—not the least of which was Bordeaux and its “claret.” Rosé can in various forms be found throughout most of wine history, including when red and white grapes were routinely fermented together.
In other words, the belief in pink wine as a mere seasonal drink is remarkably new. In truth, it’s just another subset of shades along a rainbow spectrum of wine. And it goes really well with a wide range of food, including plenty of winter dishes. (Fondue, anyone?) So remember that good rosé can have substantial texture and weight—like the wines of Bandol—and the best can improve with a year or two of age.
Don’t worry about sulfites.
“Contains sulfites” is marked on nearly every bottle of wine, because they’re naturally occurring substances in wine, and have been used for preservation all the way back to Roman times. For years now, people have complained about “sulfite allergies.” But where wine is concerned, it’s more likely something else—possibly histamine or migraine sensitivity, as sulfur sensitivity impacts a tiny fraction of the population. And most well-made wines today have far less SO 2 than in the past.
That hasn’t dampened a fondness for “unsulfured” wines, whose proponents insist they taste purer. That’s up for debate—some can be delicious, others have detectable flaws—as is the assertion they minimize hangovers. In any case, there are lots of health considerations in drinking wine, including its alcohol content, but sulfites aren’t high on that list.