Ask a Sommelier: What's the Best Way to Learn About Wine?
There comes a time in most of our lives when we realize it might be time to leave the cheapo wine jugs of our early 20s behind. But the world of wine can be ridiculously daunting, and it's tough to know where to begin.
To give you a head start on your wine education, we asked 12 experts what advice they would give to a beginner looking to learn about wine. They also gave us some tips on how to get past the challenge of finding classic wines that aren't super expensive. Take it away, sommeliers!
- "I often suggest having a dinner party with a themed wine selections, e.g. if the topic is Pinot Noir, make sure all the guests come with a bottle of Pinot Noir from all different regions. That way, everyone gets to try multiple samples of the 'themed wine,' without having to bear the whole financial burden."— Arthur Hon (Sepia Chicago)
- "I think if you take a little time while you're drinking wine to grab a book and do a little research on the region or the grape, that's a great way to learn. It's also fun to drink a bunch of wines from one region and really get to know it." — Jason Wagner (Henri, The Gage Chicago)
- "Find a wine bar, or a cool restaurant, and start to be a regular. The staff will more than probably start to have you try a lot of different things—then find a good wine shop, and build a relationship with the people there. These shops may organize a lot of wine tastings, where you will try wines you can't afford yourself! And if you are really really motivated with no experience, the best way to have access to these wines is to become a cellar rat in a wine restaurant! Finally, I really like the Guild of Sommeliers website—really an wonderful community, a unique data base of information—for less than $100 a year, you can find all of the information you need."— Pascaline Lepeltier (Rouge Tomate, NYC)
- "Thankfully the best way to learn is to taste. For me understanding body and weight is the first building block. I recommend asking your local merchant of web resource for some full bodied and light bodied wines in both red and white categories. If you can pop two bottles at once I always suggest tasting wines side by side as it will magnify the differences between wines. Another great way to drink more wines you like while exploring is to find an importer you like. If you fall in love with a wine make a note of the importer on the back label. An importer is like a curator so it's likely that other wines in their portfolio will exhibit similar winemaking philosophies and the same level of quality."— Brian Smith (Club W)
- "Form a tasting group. It's much easier and cost effective to taste with others. In college we all threw in a couple bucks for beer money, now we throw in a couple bucks for great wines. Get a group of 4 or 5 likeminded people that are thirsty for knowledge. If everyone throws in $25 you've got $125 to spend. Then find a wine shop with a great selection of half bottles and you should be able to get 6 classic wines and everyone gets enough to taste. Do that once a week and over the course of the year you'll get to taste more than 250 classic wines."— Sabato Sagaria MS (The Little Nell Hotel, Aspen)
- "My advice for beginners is to taste frequently, and always with a notebook. Disciplined note-taking makes you more alert and alive to your own developing taste, far more than following someone else's guide."— Jeremy Quinn (Telegraph,, Reno, Bluebird, Webster's Wine Bar Chicago)
- "To learn about wine, you just have to experience as much as possible. Go to tastings whenever you can and ask questions. When dining out, order a glass that you aren't familiar with. People tend to get into a rut of "I like..." or "I don't like..." There are plenty of wines that have surprised me from regions I haven't cared for or grapes that aren't my favorites. There are always wines you can afford that are classic examples of their region. You may not ever be able to afford 1st Growth Bordeaux. Most of us can't. But there are some Bordeaux Superieur wines out there that express the terroir and power of Bordeaux beautifully for someone learning about it, and they might only set you back $15 or $20."— Lara Creasy, beverage director at Ford Fry's Georgia Restaurants: No. 246 , King + Duke, et al.)
- "I recommend that all beginners start with the basics. To be honest, the best book is Wine For Dummies. It is so well written and reduces a massive amount of information down to the very basics. If you are beyond that then try Karen McNeil's Wine Bible. The best part about studying about wine is learning the unique stories associated with each place. Reading about the wines WHILE drinking them is sure to bring the concepts home."— Emily Wines MS (Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants )
- "The best way to learn about wine is to drink more! Tasting is the only way you are going to understand it better. The more you can taste the more you can relate to it. Also, visiting regions and wineries is a great way to not only taste wine but to familiarize yourself with geography."— Savanna Ray (Wildwood Restaurant, Portland OR)
- "There's no "best" way to do things but what has worked for me is to taste as often as you can and not just wine; food, beer, spirits, juices, jams...Really be thoughtful about what your senses are telling you. Wine is sometimes expensive, but not always. You can find classic examples of Sauvignon Blanc from areas other than Sancerre, like New Zealand or Quincy. Classically styled Albariño from Rias Baixas is still relatively inexpensive. You can even taste excellent versions of Merlot from Bordeaux by exploring the satellites of Pomerol and you likely won't pay more than $25."— Davis Smith (Acquerello, San Francisco)
- "As far as finding reasonably-priced classic wines, the best shortcut is to follow experts. I'd say the most widely-available is Decanter Magazine. You can trust these guys. In classic areas of, say, Northern Rhone, Southern Rhone, or Burgundy, you have to get off the standard path. You can still find classic wines but it's not going to be Cote-Rotie, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, or Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Village. Instead of Cote Rotie; go for the wine of Vienne. As far as Chateauneuf, there are a multitude of villages around it that have very similar styles: Sablet, Seguret, Vacqueyras. And for Burgundy, you have to go for secondary villages instead of the standard choice, but the options are there; for instance the village of St. Aubin, for white or red. Reds are incredibly rare (in both planting and quality), but one can generally find quality reds in the 1ers Cru of Les Frionnes, or Sur le Sentier du Clou."— Scott Cameron (Atera, NYC)
- "Read wine books, blogs, and publications. Also, taste as much and often as possible. Most importantly, have an open mind."— Patrick Cappiello (Pearl & Ash, NYC)