I don't know a hell of a lot about wine and that's exactly why you should trust me.
I love wine. But like most people, I'm confused and intimidated by the secret language and rituals of the swirling, gurgling, nosing, wine drinking elite. Until recently, I always let others make the decisions for me or did the sensible thing and based my purchase on the aesthetic appeal of the label. Then, for some inexplicable reason - likely a case of mistaken identity - God smiled down upon me, and randomly mixed cases of fine wines suddenly began arriving at my doorstep. With nothing to lose, I dove in, corkscrew first. Yes, ignorance can be bliss. To my surprise, I slowly discovered that once you learn to trust your own instincts, the mysteries of wine unmask themselves. All it takes to crack the code is a sense of wonderment and a will to discover. Here's the key to the clubhouse.
drink and thrive
Just because a wine aficionado gives a wine his or her blessing doesn't guarantee that it will appeal to you. To empower yourself to trust your own palate, begin by paying attention to the main characteristics of the different wine varietals. Save labels, scribble notes and steal a taste from everybody's glass the moment they turn their backs. This will lead you to the particular genres that you prefer -- a major step toward finding your own wine identity. And don't be surprised if, over time, your tastes evolve. The light velvety flavor of a pinot noir, for instance, is instantly gratifying, whereas the subtleties of a Bordeaux can be more of an acquired taste.
champagne taste on a Spaghetti-O budget
In your search for affordable, easy drinking wines, let others do the leg work for you. A good place to discover new wines is at restaurants that have designated "house" wines, which are usually selected for their good value, broad appeal and availability. Or, stay at home and experiment. The same $16 that buys the least expensive selection on a restaurant's wine list (make that $20 after tax and tip), can let you feel like a big spender in the wine section of your grocery store.
one is the loneliest number
Wine, like sex, can be enjoyed alone, but it's infinitely more pleasurable when paired with the right partner. Once you've lead yourself to the wines you like, dabble in the art of matching them with food. Eventually, you'll discover the combinations that work for you and gain the confidence to boldly go where no one has gone before. (My favorite fusion is a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon and chocolate cake.)
waiting to exhale
There's a lot of mystique attached to the ritual of letting wines breathe and the "art" of decanting. It's true that older reds tend to reach their full potential after they've been uncorked and left to stand for a bit. But for a wine to breathe properly, it must be poured out of the bottle, because the amount of surface area at the neck doesn't expose enough of the juice to the air. At home, I pour the first two glasses while I'm cooking. This simple version of decanting allows the wine to breathe to its heart's content in both the glass and the bottle. Even if you do nothing the wine will "open up" as you drink your way through the bottle. Becoming conscious of the subtle changes that occur as the wine breathes takes you to the next level of awareness.
Different parts of your tongue are sensitive to different tastes. The tip senses sweet, the sides acid, the back bitter and the middle salt. To fully appreciate the virtues of a wine, don't just swallow it in reckless abandon -- roll it all around your tongue and savor its characteristics. (For those of you with pierced tongues, try not to dribble.)
less is more
Sampling too many fine wines during the same dinner can lead to the this-is-great-but-I-can't-wait-for-the-next-bottle paradox. I've observed this phenomenon at many exclusive multi-chef, food-and-wine orgies. In many instances, the great wines cancel themselves out. Sharing a single bottle with one person gives you the opportunity to savor all of its nuances and provides enough elixir to leave an enduring imprint on your palate.
timing is everything
Avoid the temptation to uncork your treasured bottles at the end of a night of drinking -- despite the inevitability that the idea will seem inspired at the time. (And trust me, no one will attempt to discourage you.) Always serve the best stuff while the taste buds are sober.
hoarding is still legal in most states
Save your most treasured wines for those who will appreciate them. To weed out anyone who would've preferred a Bud but didn't want to inconvenience you, use the following multiple choice quiz: Cabernet is (A) a new Volkswagen convertible, (B) a piece of French furniture or (C) a desirable grape.
now is Zen
Confucius say, "He who holds out too long for 'the perfect occasion' may leave behind many unopened bottles."
it never feels like the first time
The company (especially a dream date), occasion, surroundings and accompanying food can have more influence on your lingering memory of a wine than the grapes themselves. To avoid disappointment, don't expect another identical bottle to ring the same bells it did the first time.
It's true that specially shaped (read: pricey) stemware can bring you closer to a state of oneness with a wine's bouquet. It's also true that the Concord gets you to Paris faster. Does that mean that you should take the Concord? Only when you can comfortably afford it. Paris is Paris. Stemware is stemware.
There's a proverb in the art world that says if a work of art isn't selling, double the price. In my travels I've been privy to conversations revealing that certain winemakers inflate their prices substantially, simply as a marketing ploy. Gaga reviews and over-the-top ratings by wine magazines can also drive the price of a wine well beyond its true market value. Abandon these "masterpieces," and search for a similar wine with an inferior publicist.
just drink it
Learn when to ignore everything everyone (including me) has ever told you about wine protocol. Sometimes wine drinking, like spontaneous sex on the kitchen table, is just more satisfying when you throw out all the rules.