You don't have to be an expert to drink well. But it helps to be honest with yourself about goals, taste and budget, and to know how to ask for help.
The act of buying wine can rank high among life's unpleasant tasks.
It's not a physical or mental issue so much as a psychological one. We're just talking about a bottle of wine, after all, first among first-world problems. But often the act of selecting that bottle is fraught with the fear of making a mistake, of wasting money and of appearing foolish in front of other people.
The dread conjured up by a restaurant's impenetrable wine list or a shop's vast rows of bottles is entirely unnecessary. With the barest effort, you can simplify the entire procedure of selecting a wine while feeling better about it. It's simply a matter of confidence.
I don't mean the sort of assertive behaviour expressed through bluster and belligerence, which is really more a statement of insecurity. I mean the confidence that permits you to do what's necessary without having to master everything about wine.
It's an assurance that allows you, without fear, to put trust in the people whose job it is to help you, and a faith that wine is not a measure of character, but a vehicle for pleasure. Developing that confidence is simply a matter of taking the measure of your aims and desires, and then communicating them to the people who matter.
Here are five questions that will improve your chances, whether in a restaurant or retail shop, of always getting a satisfying bottle.
1. What's the occasion?
Understanding the purpose of the bottle and its meaning to you is crucial. Start with a basic question: Are you buying a wine to accompany a meal? Or just to drink while hanging out with friends?
If it's for hanging out, you know it's something casual, a background voice that will enhance the socialising without intruding or interfering. If it's to go with a meal, what sort of meal? The nature of the event dictates the sort of wine that will be best.
We tend to imagine that all wines are evaluated on a universal scale of quality, but in fact each occasion has its own scale. The best wine for one sort of event can be very different from the preferred bottle for another.
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For example, are you joining friends at a restaurant for no other purpose than to catch up on one another's lives? That's a worthy occasion, but it doesn't necessarily suggest a memorable bottle the way a 30th birthday celebration might, or a wedding anniversary. Instead, it calls for a wine that makes people happy, promoting the casual joy of gathering with friends rather than concentrating the mind on a life marker.
This may not seem intuitive, because we have been taught to think about wine rationally, and to describe it in terms of detectable aromas and flavors. But it's more effective to consider the emotions that an event conjures, and find a wine that matches.
You may not know whether you prefer wines that smell like blueberries rather than those that smell like black olives, but you can certainly say whether you want something cheerful, surprising, profound or thoughtful.
Wine professionals like sommeliers and retail merchants are skilled at translating emotions to wines. Articulating those emotions is a first step to gaining a satisfying bottle.
2. How much do I want to spend?
This is the bottom line, a crucial determination that can only be made individually, depending on your bank account and where wine figures in your life's priorities. The only shame comes in not facing this question squarely, and later regretting it.
It's important to understand that no direct correlation exists between the price of a bottle and the quality of a wine. Spending more may buy status and scarcity, but that may not translate into quality. Yet, it's equally wrong to think that expensive bottles are never worth it. It's again a question of pairing bottle to occasion.
Generally speaking, for ordinary drinking, I believe the best ratio of price and quality at wine shops is in the range of US$15 to US$25 ($25 to $40). For many reasons, this price range does not translate easily to restaurant wine lists.
While responsible restaurants will generally charge two to two-and-a-half times the retail price — with the markup going toward service, storage, glassware and, yes, profits — cheaper bottles tend to be marked up more than expensive bottles.
What's more, restaurant wine lists are proportionate to their aims and intentions. A Michelin-starred restaurant competing among the world's best will naturally charge far more than a neighbourhood spot with a casual clientele.
At an ambitious restaurant, it's all too easy to spend as much, if not more, on wine than on food. For most of us, however, that's not practical. Often a restaurant like this can be a terrific splurge, enough so that even if you want an exalted wine and the occasion suggests it, you cannot afford it.
But I do think that if a meal is a special occasion, your wine outlay should rise, too. If you are spending US$40 ($63) a person at a trattoria, a bottle of wine for US$50 ($80) or so would not be unreasonable. At a more expensive place, you would also spend more for the wine.
A meal, for example, at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, one of the great and most expensive restaurants in the New York region, costs US$278 per person. That's a lot, and not surprisingly the list includes bottles that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more.
This might be the occasion to be extravagant with the wine. It's not a time to skimp, on quality or amount. But you can also spend carefully and drink very well for under US$100 a bottle. You'll be drinking Loire whites and Languedoc reds, perhaps, instead of Burgundy and Bordeaux, but it will be good.
The important thing, however, is to plan, pick a reasonable budget and stick to the spirit of it.
3. What do I like?
This is perhaps the hardest question of all, and one that can be answered only with experience. Even then, it can be hard to put into words.
One hint: Try to be as general as possible. "I love rich, fruity reds," allows far more leeway than, "I love wines that taste like crème de cassis, with a core of plum essence and hints of shiso."
Developing a vocabulary for describing wine is not easy. Tastes and smells can vary widely. One person's strawberry is another's cherry. But the term "red fruit," or just "fruity," conveys a message that a more specific reference may not.
Perhaps other elements, beyond the flavors, are important. We've already referred to emotions. You may also care how grapes are farmed and how wine is made. All of these factors are important to keep in mind.
Using modern tools might be a better solution than relying on a personal vocabulary. Take photos of the labels of wines you like, as well as those you don't. Store them separately in your phone so you don't confuse the two. It may perhaps be easier to convey your taste by displaying these photos than by trying to verbalise it. Or you can use an app like Vivino as an organisational tool.
4. What am I eating?
No, wine does not always have to go with food. But wine is at its best as part of a meal, whether at a restaurant or at home. So it pays to select bottles that will go well with what's being served.
It's far simpler when choosing a wine for home consumption, when everybody is generally eating the same meal. The cooking tends to be less nuanced, and generalised pairings tend to work just fine.
Despite all the ink devoted to precise food-and-wine pairings, most people are satisfied with combinations that do not clash. That is, as long as the food does not ruin the wine, or vice versa, it's good enough not to warrant undue fussing.
The exceptions would be old, rare or fragile wines, which require more thought, and perfectionist personalities, whose obsession with transcendence can interfere with their appreciation of the good.
Restaurants are another matter. A party of four may order four contrasting dishes, making it a challenge to choose a wine that will satisfy everybody. Luckily, most restaurants with even decent wine selections have a wine professional to help you select a bottle. It's that person's job, and pleasure, to help you. Even the most seasoned, confident wine lovers make use of the expertise of the professionals in a restaurant, while guiding them as to occasion, budget and taste.
5. Can you give me some guidance?
With an idea of the occasion, the budget, your taste and the food, now it's time to ask for help.
A good shop or a restaurant will always have somebody who is fervent about wine and ardent about hospitality. They want you to be happy enough to return.
In a store, you need to define your mission. Are you browsing without purpose, always a pleasure for wine lovers? Stocking up on reds or whites? Building a home cellar? Or maybe you're shopping for dinner tonight.
Whichever your aim, enlist help. If nobody knows much about wine — and believe me, I've seen plenty of shops like that — go somewhere else. Finding the best possible store, with a helpful staff and wide selection, is paramount.
Restaurants present a clearer situation. If you want wine to match the food, you need to decide first what you are going to eat. For a party of four, this may take some time. Don't allow yourself to be rushed into ordering before you are ready, though you may want an aperitif or cocktail while you ponder.
When you are ready, ask to speak to the sommelier. Give the details of your order, and your budget, and ask for a couple of recommendations. It may be that you will want a bottle with the appetisers and another with the main course, or perhaps one bottle will do. That part is up to you.
The ritual of tasting a wine may also require help. The point is to determine whether a wine is flawed or not, and if you suspect a problem, ask a sommelier for confirmation. Increasingly, though, this has become an opportunity to determine whether you like a bottle.
It's most definitely not a time to be picky, asking a restaurant to open bottles until you find one you like. That's rude. But it is a chance to determine whether you dislike a wine intensely, in which case many restaurants would be happy to open something else. This dance works best when both consumer and restaurant err on the side of generosity, not suspicion.
In the end, it's up to each of us to determine the role wine plays in our lives. The size of the budget, for example, swells or ebbs depending on the importance that we attach to wine.
Nobody is obliged to care about wine. Sometimes insecurity stems from feeling you ought to be knowledgeable when you really don't care. If you are not sure of how you feel, you could follow along with our Wine School, a monthly interactive column that is intended to help answer the question of what wine means to you.
Written by: Eric Asimov
Photographs by: Korn Shadmi
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