It’s incredibly complex, but it’s also just grape juice. It can be wildly expensive, or it can be super cheap. It can feel like an exclusive club with inscrutable rules, or like the simplest possible way to conjure a party. Finding your own path into the world of wine can be totally intimidating and maddeningly contradictory. But it can also be pretty magical.
Our take? The key to drinking better wine actually has very little to do with what you know—and everything to do with asking the right questions. You don’t need etiquette or convention, but you do need a sophisticated understanding of the only thing that really matters when it comes to wine: what you, personally, really, really love. For us, it all starts with asking yourself the four questions below …
Does it taste good?
With food, most of us eat and order with complete confidence. Whether we’re in the mood for a high-end meal or just really great french fries, we’re at ease with our own particularities and preferences. But for some reason, we tend to question our own senses and tastebuds when it comes to wine.
At its simplest and most essential, a glass of wine exists to please you—not the other way around. The only real “secret” to understanding wine is paying close attention to what you find delicious.
How does it make you feel?
The reason most people fall madly, deeply in love with wine has nothing to do with tannins or hints of Edam cheese. It’s because of the way an exceptional glass makes us feel— warmly, vibrantly, delightfully buzzed. But that buzz is always just a little bit different.
Depending on the effect you’re going for, a glass (or two or three) of a particular wine can slow down time, heighten a conversation, ease difficult news, or spark a love affair. And a perfect wine is just one that perfectly matches or enhances its context. So ask yourself, do I feel this wine the way I want to feel it? And does it elevate the thing I’m really doing?
Is it a product you believe in?
Think about what you generally put on your table. From flowers to salt to food, you probably have a set of criteria to decide what makes the cut. Wine shouldn’t be any different.
To paraphrase the novelist Wendell Berry, drinking wine is “an agricultural act.” If sustainability, craftsmanship and organic food production are something you’re passionate about, it’s worth asking how, where and by whom a bottle was made (and, ahem, supporting grower-producers rather than corporations). In short, think less about the ratings and more about the people, places and practices that brought that bottle to your hands.
Is it worth the money?
Pricing in the wine industry is a bit of a moving target (which is why we’re changing things—but that’s another conversation). If a bottle costs $9.99, you probably already know what to expect. But when you’re looking for a different, higher-quality category of wine, pricing is largely a reflection of what the winery wants to communicate, so it’s helpful to have a general sense of what a given bottle should cost in order to make your decision. The better you can become at interpreting what a given bottle’s price-tag is telling you about the wine, the better you’ll be able to judge its value.
The quickest way to know if a bottle is worth the price? First, familiarize yourself with the general, objective pricing threshold for a “good” bottle of any given type of wine. If you’re in the mood for Syrah, for example, ask the wine shop owner what’s the least he or she would spend for a quality bottle. (Then, when you encounter bottles of Syrah that cost more than that, ask what makes them special.)
Second, pay attention to how specific the label gets about the growing region. The smaller and more specific the region, the more valuable the wine—so when you spot a $50 bottle from “California,” you’ll know it’s a pass.
Of course, there are no shortcuts. Feeling confident about your tastes isn’t complicated, but it does take time and curiosity (plus access to the good stuff). Start by paying closer attention to your next glass, peppering your local wine store with questions, and seeking out surprises.
We bet you’ll enjoy the journey.