Wine 101: taste, compare, learn

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 4/17/2013

Understanding the bottle basics.

In the wine room, Erin Rolek, general manager/sommelier for the Bachelor Farmer.
Photo by Tom Wallace

You’re on the clock. The waiter just dropped off the wine list and your eyes are frantically scanning the “War and Peace”-sized tome (which may as well be in Russian) for something discernible.

The bottle you’re craving, whether you know it or not, is in there somewhere. But when producers and regions look like untranslated Tolstoy to you, the search can be overwhelming.

“Wine is so intimidating,” said Erin Rolek, general manager at the Bachelor Farmer. “I think that’s a problem. Wine is not meant to be intimidating. It’s a beverage, it’s an agricultural product. But it’s historically not been as accessible as other drinks like beer.”

Accessibility aside, Rolek, a 27-year-old sommelier, said people are showing an interest in wine at an increasingly young age. Many of her friends are “just starting their wine process,” taking classes and reading about wine for the first time. Nicolas Giraud, manager and wine director at Meritage, says a fair amount of inquisitive twentysomethings enroll in the wine classes he teaches at the downtown St. Paul restaurant.

Between grape varieties, geography and the characteristics of individual winemakers, broaching the world of wine can seem daunting. But whether looking to ease the ordering process or delve a little deeper, there are ways to make scratching the oak-barrel surface manageable.

Vino vets say tasting and talking is essential. Side-by-side sampling at home with friends or at restaurants that offer half-glasses can help people pinpoint their preferences.

“When you’re comparison tasting, it’s a much easier way to learn, and less intimidating,” said Martina Priadka, general manager and sommelier at Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant. “You might taste something and think it’s fine, but then you taste something next to it and you realize, ‘Oh, yeah, this one is really good, I don’t like this one.’ ”

For those fine-dining excursions at restaurants with cellars the size of Australia, systematically winnowing a wine list can help. To start, Priadka suggests deciding between light- and heavy-bodied wines. For lighter options, she points to pinots and Beaujolais, with Bordeaux and cabernet on the heavy side.

Of course, there’s also the food factor and even non-oenophiles are familiar with basic rules of thumb like white wine with fish, red with steak (though, for the record, Rolek prefers white with her steer).

Those unsure of themselves may seek to spend their way to quality. Rolek and Giraud agree that blind big-spending isn’t always the best. Giraud says it’s hard to miss on, say, a $75-$80 California cab, but he typically guides rookies toward cheaper “entry-level” wines before gradually building a knowledge base.

“You can afford a $200 bottle, but if you don’t know the difference between this one and the $37 bottle of wine, you might as well just start with the $37 bottle of wine,” he said.

Should you decide you can swing a big-ticket bottle, there are ways to make a savvy selection. With Champagnes, Rolek says she prefers many small growers, including Rene Geoffroy, which can range from $60-$70 a bottle, over some big Champagne houses that charge hundreds.

Another way to spend wisely is to keep an eye on age. For instance, Burgundy wines and some Alsatian Rieslings are known for ageability, she said, and if the bottle is relatively young it might not be at its best. “It may be an amazing producer and an amazing bottle, but it won’t do you any good if you’re drinking it when it’s not showing,” Rolek said.

There’s much to learn for budding wine enthusiasts getting pumped about pinot. Give it time. Those “War and Peace” wine lists will start to read like “Harry Potter.”