Anti-Snob Wine Appreciation: 7 Tips from Sonoma


In Sonoma: Kevin Rose and my attempt at an artsy wine photo.

Thick legs, full body, good structure. Sounds to me like a bad description. But no, it’s a cabernet sauvignon. Huh?

Alas, maybe wine just isn’t for a lad who grew up on Long Island with a rat tail.

Then again, as the soon-to-be wine demigod Gary Vaynerchuk sayeth: “Most people in the wine business are douche bags.”

Sad but true. So how do you appreciate wine without turning up your polo collar and becoming someone worthy of a slap in the face? I just came back from a weekend in Sonoma, and here are 7 tips I learned to follow after bumbling through wine for a few years in Nor-Cal…

1. Don’t get depressed if you’re not a “super taster.”

Don’t get depressed if you don’t taste hints of coriander, cauliflower, and cat fur in wine. If you can drink black coffee, you’ll never be a super taster, though you have a better chance if you’re an Asian woman. Consider examining four characteristics of wine to begin with: tannins, alcohol, acidity, and fruit. To get a feel for the astringent effect of high tannin content, similar to “cotton mouth,” chew on some grape skins.

2. To swirl wine like a pro, try moving from the elbow instead of the wrist.

I’ve always had trouble swirling wine without putting the base of the glass on a tabletop. Jean Charles, owner of Deloach winery, made a simple suggestion that works like a charm with a few minutes of practice: trace small circles in the air with your elbow instead of moving at the wrist. This will open the “bouquet” of the wine for smelling.

3. Tasting is smell-dependent, so prep your nose and use it properly.

Even if you don’t have a cold or congestion, doing a quick nasal irrigation the morning before tasting wine (or food, for that matter) will do wonders for enhancing taste sensitivity. After swirling, insert your nose in the glass and tilt your head to either side to test both nostrils. There has been some evidence to show that the nostrils alternate in workload (“shifts” of 4-6 hours), and you’ll almost always find one has significantly more airflow than the other.

4. Consider using a wine aerator if you don’t have a decanter to enhance flavor and finish.

Decanters are generally glass containers with wide bases used to expose wine to air. Gary decants not just reds but whites. For an alternative to this sometimes time-consuming and often expensive process, consider one of the newer wine aerators, such as this pocket-sized option from Vinturi with instant clean-up:

5. Test wines at various temperatures and don’t drink whites too cold.

I have been told that most people drink red wines too warm and white wines too cold. Gary drinks his whites at room temperature, as he believes that the colder the liquid, the less you taste. I store whites at 55 degrees and allow them to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving. For reds, I often stick them in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before serving. Experiment with different temperatures to gauge how it affects your taste and personal preferences.

6. When in doubt, go for the varietals (grapes) or regions that are out of style.

Before the movie Sideways, merlot was popular and thus overplanted to meet demand. This resulted in a ton of me-too merlot, which flooded the market with bad wine, making selection harder for the consumer. Pinot Noir is now en vogue and the current fashion, producing the same problem. Consider wine from up-and-coming regions like Canada and Portugal, or my personal favorites, Chile and Argentina. It’s quite hard to go wrong with Malbec and Tempranillo from the Mendoza and Jujuy regions of the latter.

7. Your palate is the ultimate critic.

Would you stop eating one of your favorite foods because someone else disliked it? Of course not. Wine is no different. Ultimately, the question is: do I like this? The arbiters of taste at Wine Spectator might think their palettes refined and worship-worthy, but it’s as ridiculous as a writer at Rolling Stone insisting that you should stop eating spaghetti because they give it a 74 out of 100. One of my favorite white wines costs less than $5 per bottle, and there is no shame in it. Drink what you like and enjoy it unapologetically. It’s the epicurean pleasure, not the price, that makes wine worth the time.

Daniel Burka playing Vanna White with one of my two favorites from this trip: Forth vineyard’s after-dinner Sauvignon Blanc 2006.

My second pick from the latest Sonoma trip: Rochiolo’s 1997 Estate-Grown Chardonnay

Posted on: March 25, 2008.

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61 comments on “Anti-Snob Wine Appreciation: 7 Tips from Sonoma

  1. @Tim (@James)

    Another incredible resource you’ve given us! That’s why I absolutely LOVE your blog…not only for what I learn from you, but from your oh-so-generous subscribers.

    Keeps my muse going!!!!


  2. Good tips for the newbie…like me.

    I’m trying to learn to love wine, while still keeping my abs in check.

    I’ve got clients who love wine, yet can’t figure out why they have a fat belly sitting on their stomach and when I tell them to stop, just for a week, they tell me wine is good for them because of the antioxidants. and won’t. Some do take me up and realize that alcohol, in excess, will make you gain, and keep, fat…and lots of it.



  3. Wow, an article about wine. I enjoyed it very much. I’m a Cork Dork myself. My wife and I frequent a wine bar in Phoenix that is very much anti-snob. I think we scare away the snobs. We really enjoy the wines from Paso Robles CA. We went there last summer and will be going again this year as well.



  4. It took me awhile to get into wine because I was turned-off by the high level of pretension and snootiness that seemed to be part of any discussion on the subject. Then, a few years back, a guy I was dating gave me a copy of the book: “Love by the Glass: Tasting Notes from a Marriage” written by John Brecher and Dottie Gaiter, wine columnists for the WSJ.

    Their enthusiasm for wine (and one another) comes through in their writing and is completely infectious. Neither one started out with any particular background in wine. They were just curious and wanted to learn. One key underlying theme in their writing is that people should experiment, approach wine with an attitude of fun, and learn to trust their own opinions.

    I’ve gone on to do just that and am now quite passionate on the subject of wines. (To the point that I think I just transported as many boxes of wine as books to my new place in Portland.)

    Wine is definitely one of the finer pleasures of life… right up there with really good chocolate. :)


  5. For all ye women out there…. or those who love them!

    I just received this from one of France’s wine experts, a lovely woman who writes for the Revue des Vins de France (the most respected industry review in the country). Thought I’d share…

    Which are the perfect wines for women?

    Sauternes, obviously. I’d go for Château Climens, produced by a woman (Bérénice Lurton) in the Sauternes-Barsac appelation. The Sauternes from Barsac are said to show more minerality than regular Sauternes and Climens is said to be the only sauternes wine able to compete with Yquem (in terms of finesse (excuse my French!), elegance and aging potential).

    Then Champagne, naturally. Carol Duval-Leroy produces a “Femme” cuvée that is quite famous. Or you have the “Amour” cuvée by Deutz. But to push the caricature even further, I’d go for a Champagne rosé. Obviously not the one from Krug (look at the price, it’s scary!!) which is already the flagship of the gay community in Miami… But that’s the thing : quite a few women wines are also gay wines! So probably the Brut Rosé from Bollinger. It’s brand new, just been created and released in the UK. Bollinger is James Bond’s Champagne so I guess the marketing people at Bolly wanted the James Bond girls to have their own as well. Or is it for the gay James Bond inside Sean Connery ? Or does is mean Ruppert Everett is going to be the next James Bond ??? hihi… Yes I’m having a lot of fun!

    And what to pick for the third wine? Just plain rosé is popular, in the sweet and cheap New World version they call “blush” or a “real” European dry rosé, which they call gastronomic rosé nowadays… But the latter might be complex and require some (wine) education, so that can’t agree with women (simplistic and wrong ? no ! marketing-oriented and performance-based ! I hate marketing people!). Or port and sherry… or for that matter, all the sweet fortified grand’ma wines. But that’s another marketing caricature. You also have Chardonnay : Bridget Jones’ Chardonnay. The movie is said to have had a very positive impact on Chardonnay sales in the UK. SO let’s look back, we have selected women wines that have charactéristics related to women : they’re either sweet, simple or sparkling… How about a women wine that echoes to the characteristics of a man that women would fall in love with? The wine would have to be reliable, strong but not rough, fresh but not too thin, not too strong (in alcohol)… Well it echoes with how Angelo Gaja describes hte grape of his wines, Nebbiolo, as opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon, the international star : he says Nebbiolo is a Marcello Mastrojani character (with style and a mischievous grin), while Cabernet Sauvignon is John Wayne : broad, strong, unmistakable. Gaja says “You expect John Wayne to make love to you every saturday night at 9PM sharp for a precise 30 minutes. With Marcello, you never know how, when and where. Once you know that, you pick the character that suits you best”. I kinda like the idea… So I’d definetely go for a Nebbiolo wine, possibily from Gaja, if I have the money!

    by Anne Serres


  6. I have to disagree with the coffee thing. I make wine for a living, and I love black coffee. I would never put cream or sugar in there to dilute all the wonderful aromas and mouthfeel of a good espresso. Coffee tasting and wine tasting both involve using the same elements.


  7. Although the convenience of email cannot be denied, the act of receiving and reading a snailmail letter is by far the better experience. So kudos to you!
    I understand that the letters are not personalized, but are they physically signed by the sender? That would be such a wonderful touch and one particular for which I’d gladly pay more. Perhaps the sender could sign a small percentage, so that a randomly chosen few each week would have got a little extra thrill. That possibility would absolutely make my heart race a bit faster as I tore open the envelope!