In my timid, early years of exploring the pleasures of wine, I ordered wine from restaurant wine stewards and retail liquor store clerks in about the same manner: clueless and uninformed.
At the restaurant, typically French, for they were the culinary wizards at the time, I dealt with the sommelier, or as they're now referred to, the wine steward.
Formally dressed with a silver tasting cup dangling on a chain from around his neck, he handed me a multi-page wine binder and then dutifully edged away while I nervously flipped through the pages.
I could not understand a thing. It was unsettling. What did it all mean?
? Bordeaux ? Weren't they the same? They're both in Burgundy , aren't they? And the years! France
Did it really matter which year one drank? Anyway, aren't the younger ones fresher and therefore tastier? Why would I want to pay more for old wines?
Nevertheless, overcoming those disquieting uncertainties, I focused my critical thinking skills, and typically selected a wine that had the following important qualities: 1) easy to pronounce, and 2) very modestly price. Inevitably, the steward advised "Excellent choice," and I sighed in relief that I pulled it off again. I made a shrewd choice. Well, as you can readily imagine, it was not shrewd at all. While the price may have fit my wallet, the wine often didn't fit my palate (such as it was!).
Stroking my chin in mock self-confidence, I walked up and down the aisles and methodically began staring at all the bottles—some from a distance, others close up.
While doing so, I waited for a subliminal message, a well-crafted, hidden persuader, to be emitted that would reveal the ideal wine to me.
I studied Marketing in college and knew that companies spent truckloads of dollars on creative packaging. The wine label, which is some of the most creative packaging, is designed to hint at the tasty essence of what’s inside the bottle, just as a book’s cover jacket insinuates what's on the pages inside. These are time proven verities, are they not? How could I go wrong?
Finally, I made my choice and carried it to the checkout counter. It was all very systematic, and I knew that my combination of intense bottle-staring, wishful thinking, educated marketing insights and my perceptive price comparisons yielded a wine that would dazzle our dinner guests. Well, occasionally it did, but most other times it didn't, and I was getting the feeling that wine wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Could there have been a flaw in my technique?
Fast forward a few decades, and we find (at least in northern California) that French cuisine is no longer the last word on dining. In fact, casual, brasserie and trattoria-like restaurants, often offering shared small plates, seem to be the style and destinations of choice.
Menus, explicitly stated or not, reflect a fusion of ethnic products and seasonings. And the wine lists, though they favor New World producers, are quite diverse and priced at all levels. They also, more often than not, usually contain short descriptions of their aroma and flavor characteristics. Comfortable and affordable wining and dining, in all its aspects, has never been better.
Also, purchasing wine at retail stores (or on the Internet) has never been simpler. Critics’ reviews and ratings abound to direct the consumer to his or her ideal purchase.
However, in a most revealing finding about consumer buying motivations, wines rated less than 90 are routinely avoided, and apparently are considered inferior and/or otherwise lacking in overall quality.
Savvy wine enthusiasts, however, know this is not the case, and they scour the shelves, Internet listings and social media suggestions for these disregarded, best-buy values.
Lastly, relying on professional ratings and peer group recommendations are a good starting point toward not being a clueless and uninformed wine consumer.
But one needs to go beyond, “It tastes great, and it’s rated a 95!” to a more mindful awareness about the overall style and qualities that underlie the wine.
Knowing the what and why of wine, having an informed palate preference, is the best and truest route to complete wine enjoyment.