Keep It Simple

People frequently ask me “how can I get started learning more about wine?” My advice is always “keep it simple.” The easiest way to learn about a lot of wines is to learn first about a few. What I mean is that you first have to learn how to learn about wines and the best way to do that is to start with only a few. Using your experience with those few will help you learn about others and so on. Confused yet?

I suggest that you limit your initial effort to three or four grape varieties from a couple of geographic regions. For instance you might select Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc as your white-wine grape varieties, and Zinfandel and Merlot as your red-wine grape varieties. A huge number of wines are produced from these four grape so you will have a wide variety of styles of wine to explore.

It is good to remember that grapes are fruit and the climate, terrain and soil (known as the terroir) where they grow effect their flavor and other characteristics. Zinfandel grapes grown in one part of Napa Valley will be different than Zinfandel grapes grown in another part of Napa Valley. As you would expect, the wines made from these Zinfandel grapes will also be different. You might like Zinfandel wines from one geographic area but not from another. So adhering to our “keep it simple” mantra, you will also want to limit yourself to grapes grown in only one geographic region (known as an appellation).

The smaller the appellation you select the more similar the wines made from the same variety of grape will be. So, again trying to “keep it simple”, I suggest you start with a couple of well known areas in California, Alexander Valley and the Central Coast. Alexander Valley is in northern Sonoma County in northern California and the Central Coast area extends from Santa Barbara County in the south to the San Francisco Bay in the north. This is a good choice because both areas produce a great deal of wine and they are diverse in geography and climate.

So now we’ve picked the kind of wine we’re going to concentrate on and the areas in which it is grown. The next step is figuring out if you like any of the wine from these areas and if so, why. The best approach is to expose yourself to as many wines from these four grapes and two areas as possible. Order wine by the glass at restaurants. Buy different wines every time you shop. Hit up your friends for a glass of wine if they have one of these you haven’t tried. Select wines from as many different makers as possible. The idea is to get as broad exposure as possible to the four grape varieties you picked in the two geographic areas you picked.Now the hard part. Pay attention to what you’re drinking. This takes a little effort. When you find a wine that you enjoy, note at least the following characteristics. In order of importance:

  • Grape variety (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel or Merlot)
  • Geographical origin, (e.g. Alexander Valley or Central Coast)
  • Vintner (the wine maker or brand, e.g. Beringer, Mondavi, Sterling, etc.)
After a time you will begin to see patterns in what you like. You may see that you enjoy Zinfandel from two or three different wine makers and Merlot just from one of these. Or that you like every Merlot you’ve had from Alexander Valley but only Zinfandels from the Central Coast. This is the beginning of really understanding what you like.

Armed with even this basic understanding you will have less fear of wine lists and wine stores. If you can’t find the specific wine you are looking for you will know that there is a good chance you will like any Merlot from Alexander Valley or an unknown Zinfandel from the Central Coast. After doing this for awhile, and eventually expanding your selections outside of these four grapes and two geographic areas, not finding a wine you are familiar with won’t be a problem, it will be an opportunity to something new.

Cellar Notes

I tasted these wines last week at a wine dinner at Raffa’s restaurant. Chef David Welch was lauded by those present for the wonderful pairings that he presented for these wines. You always hope the pairing for every course is going to be perfect, but it rarely is. This dinner was one of those rare occasions where the food and wine of every course worked perfectly. Hats off to Tony Raffa for hosting the event and Robert Gilroy with Majestic Fine Wines the parent company of Murphy-Goode.

Sauvignon Blanc
Murphy-Goode
2008 Sonoma California
Spec’s $10.00 – $15.00

Chardonnay
Murphy-Goode
2007 Sonoma California
Spec’s $10.00 – $15.00

Merlot
Murphy-Goode
2006 Alexander Valley California
Spec’s $10.00 – $15.00

Liar’s Dice Zinfandel
Murphy-Goode
2007 Sonoma County California
Spec’s $10.00 – $15.00

Cabernet Sauvignon
Murphy-Goode
2007 Sonoma County California
Spec’s $10.00 – $15.00