After ten years in the restaurant industry, six years in the wine industry, countless hours spent studying – including college level courses on the subject – I can honestly say that I still don’t “know” wine at all. It’s one of those subjects that one needs to stay on top of, like politics or the dishes piling up in the sink. The question is how do you make it from one end to the other? How do you master (or at least come to terms with) a growing world of wine knowledge?
A few suggestions spring to mind from the outset. The first is straightforward, and relaxing. Find yourself a comfortable chair and begin reading. There are a great many resources, literally thousands of books and journals where you can find what you seek. A few of my favorite texts are: The Wine Bible (Karen McNeil), The Oxford Companion to Wine (Jancis Robinson), Sotheby’s World Wine Encyclopedia (Tom Stevenson), and The Story of Wine (Hugh Johnson) – these books will give you a great base of general information on just about everything that has to do with wine. But this is just a start (and these are not small books).
Finding enough fodder to challenge your sensibilities will be the easy part. There are thousands of really good books that have been written about the subject of wine, its history and future. The mastery does not come with simply reciting facts, it comes in knowing why one wine is the way it is compared to every other wine.
There are those who chafe at the idea of being a know-it-all, but that’s not what we’re going for. Mastering a subject, any subject, means retaining enough information and skill to make confident decisions in various circumstances.
For me, that means being able to make confident decisions in the cellar and when my wife and I are entertaining. Ultimately, understanding the treatments of a young wine is kin to it’s inevitable enjoyment. The most alluring thing for me is that the study of wine involves a vast history of world culture and tradition than an exact science. It’s true, knowing when one yeast will ferment better than another, or which barrique you want your Pinot Noir to age in, but there are more important subjects to discuss. Let’s get back to the reading.
While you are reading, my suggestion is to taste the kind of wine you are reading about. Pay attention to the wines you drink, drink/taste as many as you can and take notes. If you have the time and inclination, establish a schedule of tastings that follows your reading plan.
Ideally, the more frequent you taste, the more you will learn and the more accurate your organoleptic skills will become. Whatever your palate and wallet can stand is probably best. (See previous article on Wine Tasting for tips on honing your skills.) After tasting, the best way to familiarize yourself with wine is to find a way into the wine industry. It could be at a retail shop or a restaurant, or even at a winery. You could even make a little wine at home. There are a myriad of ways of gaining a better understanding on what wine is, but there is no straight line from one end to the other, like a pool you just have to jump in.
Once you are in, stay in. Continue to do whatever it is that helps you maintain contact with the world of wine. There is an influx of valuable information available to the public, including a world of libraries. I have found it to be true that there is even more reliable information to be found within the industry.
My final suggestion comes at a price, both financially and temporally, but it is one of the best ways to turn comprehension into true tactile understanding. In order to master the growing world of wine knowledge you must go to the places that make wine. Wine tours in your immediate area are a great way to initiate a basic understanding of how a ‘working winery’ operates, the kinds of wines they produce, and at local restaurants what kinds of foods are served with those wines.
From there, move out. Examine your region, your country, neighboring countries, and so on. The nice thing about this step is that it will take you to all the most beautiful temperate places in the world – wine grapes are grown around the 30º to 50º latitudes both north and south of the equator – and it will take a lifetime.
Restaurants are another great way to “travel around the world” without having to spend too much time or money. Most cities host an international selection of restaurants that also likely serve wine or spirits. For instance, let’s say you are reading a book about Italian wines. It’s sparked your interest in the wine and food from that country. An Italian restaurant might be just the thing you need to pull the facts together.
Many times, the wine steward is a good source of information. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, that’s how we get answers. If there is no wine steward on the floor, a simple series of tasting notes might aid a future search for the wine or food you enjoyed.
Another great source of information can be found directly on the bottle of wine, on the label, including the cantina or producer, the Appalachian, vintage, alcohol, variety, and even vinification notes.
A lot can be communicated by a very small amount of information. If you’ve been paying attention to all the other stuff, it will make sense that after just one taste you are sure you want more.