This post is for those who are curious about wine but might be a little too intimidated by wine blogs and do not have much experience. To help you get started and to ease your mind, I’d like to relate my experience with wine and offer some helpful suggestions.
I have not always been a wine drinker. I am from the Midwest and folks there usually stick to beer. I had tasted wine but never thought it very good, too expensive and I knew nothing about which type of wine goes with which food. When asked to choose a wine at a restaurant, the menu might as well have been in Chinese as I was completely clueless but too embarrassed to admit it.
Then I had the fortune to move to San Francisco and here people basically learn by osmosis. S.F. is of course located very close to Napa and Sonoma and it is inevitable that every Bay Area resident will end up there in a short amount of time. I soon learned that the difference between a very good wine and what I had been exposed to were worlds apart. I finally understood what the wine magazines meant when they described the wine as “fruity, full bodied, a hint of cherry and even barnyard.” The difference would be like comparing a McDonald’s hamburger to a full porterhouse steak. There simply is no comparison.
On my first trips to Napa and Sonoma I was intimidated at first because from movies and other publications I believed the wine world to be a bit “snobbish.” Furthermore, the wineries always seemed very elegant to me and I was terribly afraid of making a mistake or seeming like an amature. It took a couple of trips up there to learn how wrong I was.
You see, Napa and Sonoma at their essence are farming villages. These people work with the earth and even though they have become very popular in recent decades they retain their small town charm. Due to the popularity of wines from this region they have had the ability to create beautiful wineries full of elegance and beauty, yet the people that actually work there are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Furthermore, they are in business to make money and no matter how much or little you know, they will accommodate you and speak to your level of understanding. Their main aim is to educate and sell you some wine, not to speak down to you.
After four years of living in San Francisco, I have been up to wine country countless times. Here is a very quick summary of what to expect and the extreme basics.
1. Choose a winery that you know has product available where you live. You will then be able to actually purchase the wine back home and impart some wisdom on your guests about the qualities of that wine which you learned upon visiting the winery.
2. They will present a standard menu, some for free and some for a charge. Many wineries will deduct the tasting fee if you buy a bottle.
3. They pour you a small amount. Stick the front of your palm on the bottom of the glass with the stem in between your fingers and give it a nice hard swirl. Stick your nose inside and take a big long sniff. Then take a sip and roll it over your tongue. Finally, swallow and take a nice big breath to exacerbate the flavors. If you don’t know anything about wine, at least you will look like you do! 🙂
They will start with a light white wine and gradually increase to a heavy red. That is the order since whites have very delicate flavors whereas the reds will end up very bold and full of flavor. When tasting, see if you can identify the flavors by yourself or if you need help simply read the notes on the menu.
If you don’t drink alcohol you can spit the wine into the spit bucket. Of course I never ever do this because frankly, I want the buzz.
4. They will ask you to join their wine club
– Again, they are in the business of selling wine and by having members this ensures they can keep you as a customer. Only join these if you really like the wine and would like to have one or two bottles shipped to you on a quarterly basis. At this time (5.16.2010) there are some GREAT deals going on due to the economy. Usually they would ship you four bottles per quarter which could get expensive. Some are now offering one bottle per quarter which I don’t believe has ever happened before. I drink enough wine and am in the area quite often so I have signed up for this. (more on that later)
Here is a super easy guide about wine for first timers
– Serve cold
– They go with lite dishes such as fish
– Drink red after white, not the other way around
– In Napa, Chardonnay is often the last of the whites due to their buttery/oakey flavors. Some wine experts may look down on the heavy buttery flavor but I don’t care, the more butter the better is my motto.
– Serve room temperature
– They go with heavier dishes – Spicy foods, steak, anything with bold flavors
– Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet is in order from lightest to heaviest and available at most places. Cabernets may be too heavy for some so if you’re not big into wine I suggest a Pinot Noir because these can often be a bit fruitier.
– Decant the Cabernets!
– This is for red wine and means that oxygen is needed for the wine to “open up,” i.e. become good to drink. You definitely need to do this for Cabernets, do not drink this right after opening. I suggest you do it for a good three / four hours but if you do not have the time they now have aerators that you can pour the wine into and it comes out the bottom into your glass.
– After living here for four years I have had my share of taking visiting friends up to wine country. At first, we would try to fit in as many big name wineries as we could. This got very old after a while and now I have my plan all worked out.
1. I stick to wineries close to San Francisco because the drive back can be a nuisance. If you go farther into wine country that can increase the trip back by up to an hour which is no fun for me. So, I joined these wineries:
1. Viansa – This is right inside Sonoma, is very beautiful with great views and the wine is superb. As a member tasting for me and my guests is free. Therefore, the plan is to do a tasting, walk around the winery and then buy (or pick up) a bottle and sit outside on the terrace which has a great view.
Best Wine: Prindelo
There are also two other wineries which are right next to this one which we can hit up for a bit of comparison:
a.) Jacuzzi – Free tastings, and olive oil tasting as well!
b.) Cline – small, intimate and across the street from Jacuzzi
– This is right inside Napa and is actually built into the landscape. The owner is a Spanish family and their views are SPECTACULAR. Their most popular is the Tempranillo varietal which is a red so make sure this is part of the tasting.
Best Wine: Tempranillo
Here is a picture:
As a member I can make my guests feel special by having the tasting in the “members only” area which ensures quick service and away from the massive amount of tourists.
If my guests prefer a champagne then there is Domaine Carneros which is very close by and offer some great photo opportunities.
And there you have it, my experience with wine in San Francisco. As you continue to experience wine eventually you will be able to describe these wines in terms used throughout this blog. Before I sign off, here are some parting tips.
1. The basic rule about wine is drink what you like because everyone has a different palate
2. When in a restaurant or at the wine store do not be afraid to ask for a recommendation. It is their job to know what is good and what is not. I always ask for suggestions because I want to experience the best of what they have (within a modest price range of course.) They will then ask what you are looking for and you could say:
a. White or Red
b. Fruity, Full Flavor, Light, Easy to drink, Spicy, Sweet, Creamy, Aggressive, bold and so on.
I usually go with this:
– Whites: Chardonnay, buttery, Oakey, full flavor
– Reds: Medium, spicy but easy to drink (Zinfandel or Syrah usually)