We're now at the very height of summer, and during summertime living is supposed to be--according to a famous song--easy. Wine should be a part of that. It should be relaxing. It should be a pleasant, welcoming beverage that offers evening respite from the problems of the day. It should not, itself, pose additional problems. But for a great many people it does exactly that.
I know this because my mail has long been dominated by messages from wine-loving readers indicating problems, concerns, hassles, dilemmas and stresses. To some extent, this just comes with the territory, since wine is inherently complex. With the number of different wines offered for sale in the United States at any one time approaching 100,000 (made from hundreds of different grapes, locations and techniques), curious consumers confront a serious challenge. And since each of those wines changes every year with the release of a new vintage, this challenge is an ongoing one.
Personally, I find the complex and challenging nature of wine attractive, and find that many wine lovers revel in the endless variety that flows to us from the vine. However, there is a thin line separating challenge and intimidation, and I know that countless consumers with a budding interest in wine never advance to the point where they can rise enjoyably to its challenges because their path is blocked by intimidating problems and concerns.
Each year, in conversations and correspondence, I hear so many variations on the same sad theme that it starts seeming like a single composite complaint: "I've really liked wine when tasting it on occasion, but the whole business is just too complicated and daunting. Walking into a big store and confronting thousands of wines is totally overwhelming. I don't even know whether I'd rather gawk at the bottles on my own, giving the impression that I'm an idiot, or answer questions from a salesperson and dispel any doubt that I'm an idiot."
"Restaurants scare me even more. They dump this huge list in my lap along with a complicated menu ten seconds after I'm in my seat. I've never heard of 95% of the wines, and probably can't pronounce the other 5%. I feel like I don't have a snowball's chance of ordering a wine that will suit both the preferences and the food of everyone at the table, and I'm not too keen on consulting waiters. One third of them are fine, but another third seem too young to help or even to drink legally, and I want to strangle the other third for talking about 'undertones of lightly crushed blackcurrants.' And what am I supposed to do when presented with the stupid cork? Sniff it? Squeeze it? I wish I knew more, but in practice the whole thing just makes me want to go to a Mexican restaurant and order a beer."
If you can identify with any of this, let me first say that I feel your pain. Sure, there is a great deal to learn, and yes, retail stores and restaurants can be uncomfortable environments for those accustomed to knowing what they're talking about. But don't give up. Although there is a lot to learn about wine, almost none of it is very difficult, and many concerns and problems that seem to block the way to deeper appreciation are easily surmounted.
Here are my responses (all soothingly affirmative) to ten questions on issues that frequently thwart would-be wine lovers:
Can I accumulate some wine for future consumption without building a cellar or buying a refrigerator?
Yes. The longstanding notion that wine must be kept at 55 degrees or consumed immediately is nonsense--and destructive nonsense at that, with elitist consequences. It deters many less-than-wealthy newcomers from experiencing the pleasures of collecting a stash of special wines (and the savings made possible by stocking up during sales).
Although those buying fancy Bordeaux or vintage Port for long ageing really do need special storage conditions, those who drink their wines with food within a couple of years after purchase will do just fine keeping them in a closet or a corner of the basement.
If you can keep the temperature in the low 70s and avoid serious temperature fluctuations, your red wines will develop very nicely over the course of a few years. They will develop a bit more quickly than if they were stored at 55 degrees, but this is no disadvantage for near-term drinking. And since 95% of white wines decline rather than develop over time, you should be drinking these up quickly regardless of your storage conditions. Those who use insulated closets can spend more on wine and less on peripheral accessories, and actually avoid the fluctuation damage suffered by owners of refrigerators and temperature controlled cellars during power outages.
Can you provide a rule of thumb for knowing when to open wines I've stored?
Yes, though it may not be exactly what everyone might desire: Drink 'em up, and do it sooner rather than later. Readers often ask me to predict the precise apex or this or that wine, but this is impossible. Wines--even different bottles of a single wine--don't develop or decline in smooth, predictable patterns. Even if they did, individuals with different tastes would prefer them at different points in their developmental trajectory. Moreover, a wine that may seem immature tasted on its own might be perfect with the right meal, and could even seem over-the-hill with another, more robust dish.
Almost all "collectors" and so-called "experts" agree that they've suffered many more disappointments by drinking wines too late than by drinking them too early. The belief that wines become more complex with age is fraught with danger. Most wines sold today are styled for immediate enjoyment, and this is true not only for whites but for reds as well. And even those wines that benefit from ageing don't attain maximum complexity when clinging to life at an advanced age, but rather when they have gained some "bottle bouquet" but still retain fresh fruit.
Can I do anything to lessen the likelihood of getting a headache after drinking wine?
Yes, quite probably. A relatively small number of people are allergic to particular compounds present in certain wines, and they can experience headaches regardless of the counter measures they may take. However, I'm absolutely convinced that the number of such people is vastly lower than the number of those who think they're allergic but who actually get headaches because they drink too much, too fast, without food, or when insufficiently hydrated. It is overwhelmingly likely that you can drink as many as three glasses of wine (white or red, from any grape or country) without getting a headache in the aftermath if you drink them with food or on a fairly full stomach, at 45 minute intervals, with a twelve-ounce glass of water for every six-ounce glass of wine.
Can special wine glasses really enhance one's experience, and can they be acquired without great expense?
Yes and yes. A relatively capacious, well-balanced glass with a thin brim will handle better and offer more aroma and flavor than the principal alternatives. Cheap wine glasses with rolled lips are often too small to hold aromas from the wine or, when larger, are absurdly top-heavy. Expensive cut glass goblets are usually even worse in terms of balance and thickness at the lip.
High performance wine glasses can be expensive but need not be. One of my favorite stems is the Spiegelau “Vino Grande” Red Wine Glass, which is actually sized to work equally well with whites. I use it for critical tastings due to its versatility and strong performance characteristics, but it is also attractive enough to use for entertaining. Thin but surprisingly durable, it is a terrific all-around glass and a great choice for anyone who--wisely--wishes to spend more on wine than on wine accoutrements. And the price? Believe it or not, $53.96 for a set of six, with free shipping and, for most buyers, no sales tax from the Beverage Factory website.
Can I get my wines to the right temperature for optimal drinking without messing with those dopey sommelier thermometers?
Yes, please. Millions of bottles are compromised in America every year by being served at improper temperatures, which almost always means that whites are too cold and reds too warm. This is especially galling because the solution is so simple: Pull your whites from the refrigerator--and place your reds into it--for 20 minutes before serving. Your whites will offer more aroma and taste less tart, whereas your reds will offer fresher fruit with less overt alcohol.
Can I find wines in restaurants that will work with a range of dishes ordered by different people in my party?
Yes, and you can accomplish this in a couple of different ways. If the dishes ordered are really far flung, you could recommend that everyone order wine by the glass to get more harmonious pairings. If the by-the-glass or half bottle offerings don't seem attractive (or if your friends ask you to just take responsibility and order a couple of full bottles), go for a white and a red, and choose medium-bodied wines. Many people have a pronounced preference for either white or red, and nobody should be shut out. Your chances to get good matches with widely differing foods will be enhanced if you steer clear of extreme wines like tart little Sancerre or big, hulking Zinfandel and go with medium-bodied bottlings. Three easy-to-remember examples are the Pinot grapes, especially from three particular areas that usually provide ultra-versatile, middleweight renditions: Pinot Blanc from Alsace, Pinot Gris from Oregon, and Pinot Noir from California.
Can I drink red wine, which I love, with fish, which my physician wants me to eat?
Absolutely. The old rule of pairing whites with fish and reds with meat is, thankfully, dead as a doornail. Forget color and concentrate on weight and intensity. That is, pair light foods with light wines, and rich foods with weighty wines. Similarly, match delicate foods with subtle wines, and assertive foods with intense wines. Red wines often work better than whites with substantial, flavorful fish dishes (like grilled salmon), just as fuller whites can outperform reds with delicate preparations of chicken, pork or veal.
Can you point me toward wines that will prove fairly durable if I re-cork them for drinking over several nights?
Yes, though they're unlikely to be quite as fresh and lively as on the first night. Nevertheless, some wines prove dramatically more durable than others after opening. Generally, whites do better than reds, and younger whites do better than ones that have been bottled for several years. Additionally, certain structural properties correlate very closely with durability, and the most important of these are acidity and sweetness. I find that lean, young wines with ample acidity (like, say, Sauvignon Blancs from France's Loire Valley or from New Zealand) hold up very well. Sweet dessert wines are also quite durable, and since the good ones have strong acidity to boot, they've got two factors working in their favor. This is also true of young, off-dry German Rieslings (look for wines designated "Kabinett" from 2010), which aren't too sweet to enjoy with most foods and can hold up for a week when simply re-corked and refrigerated.
Can I look for anything on a bottle to indicate that it might have been spoiled during shipment?
Yes. Overheating in transit or storage is the most widespread problem, and the surest sign is sticky streaking suggesting seepage from the top of the bottle. Like any other liquid, wine expands when heated, and since it expands more than glass, it will force itself past a cork when warmed sufficiently. The wine then suffers a double whammy because, as it cools, air from outside the bottle will be sucked in as the liquid contracts, adding oxidation to the initial effects of overheating. Shoppers should make a habit of giving every bottle a quick look and a quick feel for stickiness right at the base of the capsule.
Can I do anything if I get a wine in a restaurant or from a retail shop that tastes bad to me?
Yes, most retailers and restaurateurs will replace a bottle that you deem defective, though some will ask to examine it themselves to determine if it is sound. In restaurants, the best course is to explain to your server that you don't think your wine is right, and take the initiative of inviting the server or a manager to check it. Many restaurants will either replace the bottle or let you select an alternative even if they find nothing wrong with the first wine, so it makes sense to express your displeasure with a wine if you really dislike it. It also makes sense to be sure that the wine is genuinely bad rather than merely boring, and never to abuse the generosity of those offering replacements.