You don’t need to know how a television works to enjoy watching it. You don’t need to understand how a transmission works to love your car. And you don’t need to understand a whole lot about wine to appreciate it.
While professionals debate which wine is the world’s best or whether sommeliers can tell boxed wine from expensive Burgundy, one thing is certain: You already have all the tools you need to select and enjoy wine ― a nose, a mouth and the ability to form an opinion.
So forget about “undercurrents of bramble and sage” and what the weather was like in 2011. This is the opposite of every wine list you’ve ever read. Here’s expert advice about all the wine nonsense you can disregard forever.
1. Critic Scores
Wine critics have been known to wield an extraordinary amount of power over the wine industry, creating trends and destroying allegedly subpar brands with their scores and reviews. But adorning bottles, displays and magazine pages with ratings with their popular 100-point scale, like teachers grading homework assignments, doesn’t do drinkers any favors.
Leave the 100-point scale where it belongs ― in the classroom. Everything about wine is subjective, and unless you’re spending big bucks on wine and tasting thousands of bottles per year like professional critics, it’s unlikely your palate and experience will align with theirs.
Instead, winemaker Gabrielle Shaffer of Napa’s Gamling & McDuck advises drinkers to follow their own path. “Trust your own palate. Make notes or your own rating system,” she says. “You liked that malbec? Try some more from that region or producer.”
2. The Presence (Or Absence) Of Sulfites
Along with the fine-print surgeon general’s warning on wine bottles, there’s a tiny little phrase on the label that says “contains sulfites.” These tiny molecules are sulfur derivatives and have lately come under attack for being “unnatural.” Most often surrounded by myths, they’re blamed for causing all of our wine-induced maladies such as headaches, a red flush and hangovers. Here’s the truth: There’s no such thing as sulfite-free wine.
Despite what you may have heard about avoiding these little preservatives, there’s no need to avoid sulfites or wine. If you enjoy orange juice, cured meats, dried fruit or canned soup, you are not allergic to sulfites. In fact, it’s far more likely that your headache is caused by dehydration (or that extra glass or two!) than the sulfites in your wine.
Sulfites are a naturally occurring chemical in wine and many other foods. They are often added to wines to increase their shelf life, and many large-scale wineries add lots of sulfites to make sure each bottle tastes identical.
If you’re concerned that they’re not “natural,” keep in mind that there’s more to that conversation than just sulfites. “Instead of focusing on no sulfites,” explains sommelier James Sligh of New York’s La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, “I wish more natural wine conversations started with how the grapes were farmed and how the wine was made rather than whether a preservative was added at the end.”
3. The Winemaker
While winemakers are the latest iteration of the celebrity chef, you don’t need to know who made your favorite wine or where they went to college to love it. While they do perform a certain type of magic, winemakers are also mere mortals.
As sommelier Jienna Basaldu of San Francisco’s The Morris points out, “Knowing the winemaker of the wine you like is the equivalent of knowing the chef who’s making your dinner. If you’re at a diner, it matters a lot less than if you’re enjoying a 10-course tasting menu.”
4. The Vintage
Before modern technology brought climate control and exacting science to winemaking, vintage was paramount. A vintner’s entire year was dependent on Mother Nature’s whims, and vintage-dated bottles became clues to discerning the quality of a wine. In 2018, that’s no longer the case.
“Vintages aren’t so much ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as they are ‘easy’ or ‘difficult,’” Sligh explains. “Great farmers and winemakers will make good wine even in challenging years.”
5. Mass-market Tasting Notes
The little signs that pepper wine displays with alleged flavor and aroma descriptors are known as “shelf talkers” in the biz, and their aim is to offer a preview of what’s inside the bottle. But they often miss the mark.
“If shelf talkers are written by a human with a clear voice, they are great,” explains Talitha Whidbee, owner of Vine Wine in Brooklyn. “If they’re written by a corporation or a publication, then they’re pretty much useless.”
The signs are just marketing, most often handed out freely by distributors peddling big brands like Barefoot and Yellow Tail. Many small stores will have descriptions written by their staff, who have actually tasted the wines, making their notes practical.
“If you want a light-bodied, mouthwatering dry white, no flowery description will make you like a white that’s full-bodied and unctuous,” Sligh says, “even if it ‘tastes like sunkissed nectarines harvested by God himself.’”
Instead of navigating their jargon, take Sligh’s advice: “Find retail stores and bartenders you trust, listen to them and try something new.”
So, relax and try different things. Keep track of the ones you love and give yourself permission to hate the ones you hate! It’s really that simple.