The Bottle of Wine.
First, there is the selection. Even if you don’t know anything at all about wine, except that sometimes it’s red and sometimes it’s white, you’re already expressing a preference. From there, it’s easy to develop your preference to the point where a selection can be made. It’s important to keep in mind that this selection is not supposed to be a stressful experience; remember that, no matter what you end up getting, you’ll be drinking wine, which is always a good thing. Even more importantly, the wine you get is very likely to be palatable and interesting. It will help if you try to think of it less as a question of good wine vs. bad wine, and more as an exploration of different wines.
It seems like many people don’t find wine a subject worth studying. That’s fine, but remember that refinement of taste brings about greater pleasure. That’s where the idea of a connoisseur comes from. Contrary to what you might believe, it doesn’t take much to dramatically increase the pleasure wine can give. I’ve tried to synthesize here a few pieces of information that have been useful to me over the last few months, as I’ve gone from being a person who would only drink it if there wasn’t any whiskey around, to a person who can’t pass by a wine store without going in to browse. (Seriously, wandering in a decent wine store, armed with even a little information, is the same as wandering in a decent bookstore.)
Obviously, one of the key issues here is empowerment. Diners, even in wonderful restaurants, shy away from wine lists not only because they’re afraid to make an expensive mistake, but because the feeling of butting your head against a mass of encrypted information feels unpleasant. I have a big celebratory dinner coming up in a month or two, and out of curiosity, I downloaded the restaurant’s wine list ahead of time. 60 pages. That’s a novella. What I’m trying to say is, “I understand the confusion.” Keep in mind, though, that wine lists like those are created to give options, even to experts. For long-standing restaurants, it’s unlikely that even the wine director has tasted everything on the list. In other words, you aren’t supposed to know every bottle of wine on a huge list; if you find even one you recognize, that should be considered a significant success.
Enough bucking-up. Here’s the dirty.
1) Price points. This has a lot to do with how much money you have, but it has even more to do with how much experience you have tasting wine. Anybody can enjoy a beautiful wine, and most wine enthusiasts can recall a single bottle or two that pushed them along the way towards a real passion. That said, the only curve steeper than increasing enjoyment is increasing price. There are just as many mediocre bottles at $100 as there are at $40. What this means is that, unless you know what you’re buying, there’s no reason to spend that much money. On the other hand, there is a significant difference between, say, the $20 and the $40 bottles. (Remember that all of this is restaurant pricing.) I like to set a price point by looking in a category of wines I like—say Chianti Classico, or California Zinfandel—and looking at the price of the second cheapest bottle. I set the price point there and then fan out into the rest of the list, looking at what that same money can get me.
2) Terms/Nomenclature that indicate quality. France has a classification system called the AOC, which stands for Appellation d’Origine Controlee. Italy has one, based on France’s, called DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata. These are systems intended to classify the origin and traditional production methods of wines from various prestigious regions, like Bordeaux in France, or Piedmont in Italy. These wines are typically more expensive, since they’re more prestigious to produce, but there is also a higher level of quality control. This is what you will see:
I just grabbed these off the internet (forgive all the typos), but there is a lot of useful information here. What we’re talking about are the small words that say Appellation Cotes de Castillon Controlee and Appellation Chateauneuf-du-Pape Controlee. These are the AOC designations of these wines. What these tell you is that these wines are produced according to the varyingly rigid specifications demanded of producers in those areas. A good rule of thumb is that, the smaller the AOC region, the more strictly the quality is controlled. For example, you will sometimes see Appellation Bordeaux Controlee. Bordeaux is an enormous region, with all types of soils and grapes and other factors that affect wine production. This is a fairly high level of certification, but not as high as an AOC within Bordeaux. In other words, the smaller the AOC region, the stricter the control. If a wine has an AOC certification in a place you haven’t heard of (AOC Maranges, AOC Blagny, e.g.) chances are that, while the wine may be expensive, it is likely to be of very high quality.
Beneath AOC certifications are what are known as VDP, or Vin du Pays (“wine of the country”). These have the most lax regulation, and may vary in quality from very low to very high. Mas du Daumas Gassac, a legendary producer from Provence, uses grapes from dozens of regions—while his wines may be of exceptional character, they do not meet AOC standards. Do not let a certification deter you from trying a wine; it’s simply a guiding point.
Another source for understanding wine labels
NEXT TIME: WHY BRINGING CHILDREN INTO A RESTAURANT MEANS YOU HAVE TO LEAVE A BIGGER TIP; THOUGHTS ON THE FREUDIAN CHARACTER OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION; AND SOME OTHER STUFF! PROBABLY!