Gettin’ Educated, Part 1

I want to learn as much as I can about wine. What are some good resources to get more information?

Anyone who has studied wine will agree that the more you learn, the more you realize there’s so much more to learn! None of us will ever know everything there is to know about wine, but that’s part of why it’s fun to learn, right? It’s never ending.

So you’re in luck! There are many, many different ways to learn about wine so no matter how you most effectively absorb information, there’s something for you. And because there are so many good options out there, I’m making this a two-part post. In these posts I’ll cover some of the different ways you can deepen your wine education and recommend some of my favorites.

FYI, I get no benefit, no payment, nada from these recommendations. In fact, none of these resources/people even know I’m recommending them. So these are simply my own preferences based on my own experience.

Local Wine Classes

Let’s start with where you live. Depending on where you are, there might be some opportunities for in-person classes. With a global pandemic still going on (this post being written in May, 2021) these may be limited now, but as restrictions on in-person gatherings get lifted, your opportunities will expand. Simply do an online search for “[where you live] wine school.” I’ve taken a number of classes here in Washington, DC at the Capital Wine School. If you’ve got a local wine shop or wine bar, they might offer classes too. A good benefit of taking classes at a wine school or shop is they usually include wine tasting!

Online Classes

Again, check out your local wine school (if there is one.) Chances are within the past year they’ve continued offering classes but have moved them online. If you’re not already suffering from Zoom fatigue, these can be a great way to take a class from the comfort of your couch. Wine schools, shops, and bars have also found a way to deliver the class content online while providing tasting samples (usually you have to pick them up) and making the classes fun and informative.

I’ve done several online classes in the past year, and they were all terrific. With subjects ranging from honing blind tasting skills to the wines of Italy to a discussion about soil, they were interactive without forcing anyone to participate in the discussion or be put “on the spot.” So I’d say this kind of class is perfect for introverts or those who want to have their own side conversations during the class. (But don’t forget to mute yourself!)


Books about wine can be tough. There are about four bazillion (ok I made that number up) wine books, and they can often read like an encyclopedia. (Zzzzzz!) But there are a couple I would recommend.

First is Wine Folly’s “Magnum Edition – The Master Guide” which sounds a lot scarier than it is. It isn’t a “read through cover to cover” kind of book but rather a handy reference guide when you’re trying something new or have a question about a particular grape. With sections like “Tasting Wine” and “Handling, Serving, and Storing Wine” and over 100 pages on different grapes and their flavor profiles, this is an incredibly helpful book. Madeline Puckette, one of the book’s authors, realized that she did not learn well by reading words so this book is filled with terrific images and infographics. Plus, it won the James Beard award for books in the beverage category in 2019. That’s pretty high praise!

My second book recommendation is based solely on this person’s podcast. In complete transparency, I have not read the book…..yet. But Elizabeth Schneider’s “Wine for Normal People” podcast was such an important part of my initial interest and education in wine, that I’m recommending the book – same name: “Wine for Normal People” – because if it is anything like the podcast, it’s going to give you a ton of great, easily digestible information. 


With that last book recommendation, I of course had to follow it up with podcasts. I love podcasts because I can listen on my commute so I feel like I’m making really good use of my time while learning about wine.

The Wine for Normal People Podcast has been running for more than 10 years. Considering that podcasting didn’t really take hold until the mid 2000’s, a 10+ year (and counting) run for WFNP is pretty amazing. For the wine beginner, going back to the early episodes would be helpful, as the apparent definition of “normal people” does seem to change a bit with time and by years six or seven, the topics are getting a bit deep. But the podcast is interesting, informative, and engaging, and Elizabeth Schneider, along with her husband “MC Ice”, make learning about wine fun! Don’t miss their “wine and Halloween candy pairing” episodes. They’re hilarious.

Another fun wife/husband podcast is Wine Blast. Susie Barrie and Peter Richards are both Masters of Wine and produce their podcast from their home in the United Kingdom, so there’s the fun accent (says this American midwest guy) going on. They cover lots of different topics, talk about wine and food pairings a lot, and often have interesting guests.

Another thing I love about listening to these podcasts is that you feel like you are really getting to know the people behind them. You hear their personal stories (about moving homes, having children, etc.) while learning about wine. It gives authenticity to what they’re saying and makes it a lot more fun to listen to.

So check out your Spotify or iTunes or whatever platform on which you get your music/podcasts.

That’s a lot to digest, right? And this is the point in an infomercial where they’d say, “But wait! There’s more!”

Here’s where I say, “There’s more…but I don’t want to overload you today, so we’ll cover additional things like videos and certifications in Gettin’ Educated, Part 2!” Stay tuned!

What do you think? Have you read a great wine book or listened to a fantastic podcast? Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.

My Cellar is in the Closet

I’ve gone from buying one bottle at a time (and drinking it) to having about a case at home at any given time. What is the best way to store my wine?

I’m really happy to answer this question because I’ve been in your shoes. I went from buying a bottle and “aging” it for a couple hours or however long it took to get it home and open it to having a few bottles on hand to now storing multiple cases. And whether you’re storing your wine for a week, a few months, or even years there are a few basic principles that you want to consider.

Imagine for a moment that you’re visiting an old wine cellar in Bordeaux, France. You’re probably thinking of a place that is dark, cool, a bit musty, and the bottles – stacked on their sides from floor to ceiling -haven’t been disturbed for years or perhaps many decades.

There’s a reason wine has been stored underground for centuries That is the best atmosphere for aging a preserving wine.

So let’s look at the components of those old cellars. The main considerations are light, temperature, humidity, vibration, and position.

LIGHT: Wherever you store your wine, you’ll want to keep it in a dark place, definitely out of any direct sunlight. Essentially, the UVA and UVB rays from the sun can adversely affect the oxidation and flavor of wine. I’m not going to get into the crazy complex science behind this, mainly because (a) I’m not a scientist, and (b) I don’t want you to fall asleep. Just know that for your wine, sunlight = bad, dark storage = good.

TEMPERATURE: We need to remember that wine is a living thing. All of the components of wine are reacting to each other throughout fermentation and aging, whether in a barrel of steel vat or five-gallon pickle tub. And these reactions don’t stop once it’s in the bottle. Again, there’s a lot of science that goes into this, but know that the generally-accepted ideal temperature for storing wine is about a constant 55 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, that’s pretty cool, and not a temperature most of us want to have in our homes.

HUMIDITY: Remember that old French cellar and the somewhat mustiness of it? That’s because a really good relative humidity for aging/preserving (the complex chemical process of wine components reacting to each other) wine is about 60-70%. The average home is a little drier than that, with a humidity of about 40-50%.

VIBRATION: Wine needs to stay undisturbed. In addition to screwing with the natural aging process, vibration can stir up sediment. Those are two things we want to avoid, so we want to keep our wines still and free from vibration.

POSITION: Finally, this is something most of us know already. It used to be that most wine bottles were closed with natural cork, which could dry out and then allow air into the bottle, which would speed up the oxygenation of the wine. So to combat that, wine bottles are best stored on their sides so the wine itself can stay in contact with the cork and keep it from drying out. Nowadays, bottles can be closed with synthetic corks, screw caps, you name it. Most wine storage systems still focus on storing bottles on their sides, so no matter what stopper the bottle has, you’re covered.

How do all of these things factor into how you store your wine when you don’t have a French chateau cellar? Let’s look at the possibilities, from the most basic to the more complex.

Everybody’s home is different. Some people live in a small apartment, while others may have a large single-family home with a basement. While not every situation is ideal, there are things you can do to store your wine in the best way possible for you.

Just keep these things in mind:
– Keep it dark. (out of direct sunlight)
– Keep it cool. (as close to 55-57 degrees F as you can)
– Maintain around 60-70% humidity.
– Minimize vibration.
– Lay bottles with natural cork closures on their sides.

Let’s say you live in a city apartment like I do and perhaps you’re on a budget. Not a lot of extra space. No basement. What can you do? Do you have an interior closet? I found that when I cleared out part of a closet, I had enough space to put some basic wine racks where they would be out of the sun, a little bit cooler (I tested it and found that for some reason, this particular closet is about 4 to 5 degrees cooler than the rest of my apartment), no perceptible vibration, and bottles can be on their sides. Admittedly, I couldn’t do much about humidity.

Was this solution perfect? No, but it began to address several of the major issues. And I’m guessing that if you’re in this situation you probably are storing wine for weeks or a few months and maybe not years.

What should you avoid?

Many apartments and some single-family home kitchens are designed with a wine rack built in to the cabinetry. It is often over the refrigerator or above the counter. The designers who did this are obviously not wine aficionados. The heat, vibration, and sometimes direct sunlight that bottles in these racks are subject to would harm them quickly.

If you’ve got a basement, you’re a step ahead. Again, look for a closet (maybe under the stairs) that is cool, dark, and undisturbed. Often basements can have a higher humidity than the upper floors of a house so it is generally a better location for your wine.

Want to go a bit further and keep your wine longer?

It’ll cost more than some racks in a closet, but you may want to consider a wine storage chiller. When I decided I wanted to start collecting more seriously and purchase wine that I might not drink for five or ten or even 15 years, I bought a wine storage chiller. They can be a good option because they can hold wine out of the sun, at a constant, cool temperature, at the right humidity, with little to no vibration, and with bottles on their sides.

Chillers run the gamut in size, features, and price, so you really need to decide what your needs are…and what you think they are going to be in the future. You may be holding on to a couple dozen bottles or so at a time now, but a few years from now will you want to be storing five cases or more?

How much do you want to spend? Chillers can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars to many thousands. Keep in mind that this is something you will (hopefully) be using for many years to come, so it is an investment. And with that, you do need to determine how important it is to you to have your wine stored this way.

Where you put it is also a consideration. Chillers come in all sizes, so chances are you’ll be able to find one that works with the space you have. They can be built in to fit under a kitchen or bar counter or free standing.

When I decided to upgrade from wine racks to a wine storage chiller, I simply put the chiller in the space where I’d put the racks – my coat closet. It took some shifting around of other things I store there, but I’m happy with the result.

(The lights in the chiller aren’t on all the time, but they look good for a photo!)

How to find a good wine chiller?

Like any other big purchase, you need to do your homework. A good place to start is They’ve got a range of chillers with different features and price points, so it is a pretty good resource for seeing what’s available. From there, you may want to shop around so you can get exactly what you want for the price you want.

There are a couple more options for wine storage, but these are really for the serious collector. Most major urban areas have wine storage facilities. They are temperature and humidity controlled and your wines are kept safe. This ain’t cheap, but if you’re storing expensive wines, it could be an option.

Bottom line: How you choose to store your wine is really dependent on your unique situation – your budget, how many bottles you think you’ll be storing, and how long you’ll be storing them. Whatever you choose, remember that wine isn’t meant to be looked at; it’s meant to be enjoyed. So create a great space for your wine, but don’t forget to drink it!

How are you storing your wine? Leave me an comment in the comments section.


Back at it!

Hoo boy! It’s been a while.

When I started this blog I had grape expectations! (Yeah, I just did that.) Seriously though, I had it all thought out. I’d outlined out my schedule of posts, had my research all planned, thought about promotion…

And then life derailed me.

My last post was (gasp!) over a year ago. Shortly after it went live, I got a new job – which I still have and love. It just took more of my time and attention at the outset. Then COVID-19 hit. Ugh! That has thrown us all for a loop. I’m surprised any of us are still writing. Or reading. Or wearing pants.

So as my life has started to stabilize, I’ve been able to think about this blog again. So I’m back! (And yes, I’m wearing pants.) And here’s what I’m planning:


That’s right. No plans. But my intent is to continue to answer your questions about wine. Without plans, however, I’m not keeping myself to a set schedule (and then getting down on myself when I don’t meet deadlines) or to a set format. So while Q&A will still be my main priority, I’ll also be throwing in some posts about wineries I’ve visited, what I’m currently drinking, what I wish my friends would stop drinking (you know who you are), and other random wine news.

So stay tuned. More is on the way. (In fact, I’m just about done drafting a post all about storing your wine at home.)

In the meantime, here’s a tip for New Year’s Eve if you’re planning on popping more than one bottle of bubbly. (But this year please remember to keep gatherings small, and preferably with only the people in your household or with those who have been self-quarantining.)

Open the best champagne first! Have it early in the evening while you’ll enjoy it. By the time midnight rolls around and everyone has had a few drinks, no one will appreciate the quality of a good champagne. Save the inexpensive stuff for that midnight toast.

What am I having for New Year’s Eve? I plan to open a Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with a couple close friends. Other bubbles may follow!


Fighting Crime….Wine Crime

How fast does an opened bottle of wine go bad?

By “go bad” I’m assuming you’re not wondering if your wine joins a gang or becomes a criminal.

Bear with me. My humor (much like an opened bottle of wine) can go bad.

Yes, opened wine will eventually lose its original flavor and can develop a vinegar taste. When a bottle is opened it’s exposed to oxygen. The oxygen interacts with the wine and begins a chemical process that will make the taste of the wine different. And by different I mean bad. Essentially, oxygen provides fuel for bacteria to produce molecules that affect the taste. And when you think about it, that’s kind of criminal.

So how long have you got to fight this crime?

That depends on the wine.

Let’s assume that you put the cork back in all open bottles and put sparkling wines and white wines in the refrigerator, and that you put red wines in a cool, dark place. The following chart gives you a pretty good estimation of how long your wine will last under these conditions.

Chart showing how long opened wine lasts

Why do some wines last longer than others?

For a few reasons. 

First, fuller-bodied whites like oaked Chardonnay are not going to last as long as lighter whites because through their aging process they’ve already been exposed to a certain amount of oxygen. It’s not enough to make the wine taste bad, but it has given the wine kind of a “head start.”

Second, red wines have tannins. And the higher the tannins (and acid) the slower the oxidization process will be when a bottle is opened, giving red wines just a bit longer time to enjoy. But remember, different red wines have different tannin levels. So your Syrah is going to last longer than your Grenache.

Third, fortified wines like Sherry and Port will last much longer because of their higher alcohol and sugar content. They’ve got higher alcohol and sugar because a grape-based liquor like brandy is added during the production process. The higher alcohol and sugar will slow down the oxidization process. Port can last three weeks or longer, and Sherry can go for a couple months.

So how can you make your opened bottle last longer?

The key is to slow down the oxidization process, and there are a couple of steps you can take to do this.

1. Recork the bottle right after you pour. Too often we pour a glass and let the bottle sit out uncorked, letting in lots of oxygen.

2. Put the bottle in the refrigerator – even the reds and fortifieds. Oxidation is a chemical process and the cooler temperature in the refrigerator will slow down that process. Just remember to take the bottle out to warm up before serving the next time. For more on that, see my previous post on serving temperature.

There are also a couple of gadgets you can try to make your opened wine last longer.

The cheaper option is vacuum stoppers. These are stoppers that you place on the bottle then use a pump to remove the oxygen. Do they work? Maybe. Some wine experts love them; some think they’re a waste of money. There have been some studies done on these that have been fairly inconclusive about their effectiveness. But they’re pretty affordable (you can get the pump and two stoppers for $15 or less) and easy to use. I use them and believe I get about an extra day from an opened bottle with them.

The more expensive gadget option is the Coravin®. At about $200 for the basic model, this had better work! And according to wine experts, it does. Essentially this contraption sticks a needle through the cork so you aren’t removing it. It then injects an inert gas into the bottle to increase the pressure so you can pour out wine through the needle. Then you remove the needle and the cork expands to reseal the bottle. So no oxygen gets to the wine and therefore there’s no oxidization. In full disclosure, I’ve never used the Coravin® but I hope to one day.

So there you have it. Opened wine does go bad, but you can take steps to make it last longer. Personally, I think the best way to ensure an opened bottle’s taste is to invite enough friends over to finish the bottle together because wine should be enjoyed with others.

But wait! One more question: What about boxed wine? Doesn’t it say on most boxes of wine that it will last six weeks?

Ok, technically that’s two questions, but yes, boxed wine will last longer. And it had better, since a lot of boxes of wine have the equivalent of four bottles or more! What makes boxed wine last longer is the spigot and bag help keep oxygen from getting to the wine. When you pour a glass, air doesn’t get in the bag. The volume of what’s in the bag (wine) just gets smaller. I don’t have experience seeing how long a boxed wine can last, but perhaps that’s an experiment I’ll try and report back to you.

But for now I’m going to go make sure that bottle of pinot noir I opened last night hasn’t gone and joined a gang.


(Note: Mention of products or brands on this blog does not imply endorsement.)

Have a question you’d like to see answered on Grapevines, Sunshine, and Dirt? Send me an email and I’ll cover it in a future post.

Wine for Thanksgiving Dinner

For Thanksgiving dinner, I got “volunteered” to bring wine. I have no idea what to bring!

Ah, the great American meal is also a great wine pairing challenge. Basic wine and food pairings can be difficult enough, but because there are so many different dishes in the typical Thanksgiving dinner, pairing wine for it can be even more problematic.

Thanksgiving meals have evolved a lot to include variations on dishes, vegetarian or vegan options, and different cultural influences. For this post, we’ll focus on the traditional Thanksgiving meal. That means a roast turkey with all the “fixin’s” – stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes and/or sweet potatoes, green beans (or green bean casserole), cranberries, and pumpkin pie.

Now, many wine and food pairings are based on pairing a wine with a dominant food item and its particular flavors and texture. (We’ll get into the basics of wine and food pairing sometime soon.)

The problem that Thanksgiving poses is there’s a whole lot of flavors and textures going on. It’s hard to choose one thing to focus on. You’ve got the savory cooking spices like sage, rosemary, and black pepper, the umami flavor of the gravy, the creaminess of the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, the tart tang of the cranberries, and the baking spices of the pumpkin pie.

So you’ve got to think about wines that will go well with a wide variety of flavors and textures.

I’m going to give two answers to this question because bringing wine to a four-person dinner can be different from bringing wine to a 12-person dinner. And it also depends on if others are bringing wine too. The first answer is the “one bottle answer” – what I’d bring if I was only choosing one bottle. The second answer is the “three bottle answer’ – if the dinner party is larger and you want to have more options.


Let’s first focus on the smaller dinner where you’d bring only one bottle. This is difficult because you want a wine that pretty much universally pairs with everything. My go-to for this is a German Riesling. Riesling comes in all different levels of sweetness, from dry to super super sweet (which is not an actual wine term but a pretty good description of some Rieslings!) Even for people who say they don’t like sweet wines, a Riesling with a little bit of sweetness is going to pair quite well with most of the Thanksgiving meal dishes.

Rieslings tend to be a bit lower in alcohol than the average wine (good for that relative who sometimes overindulges) and higher in acidity (making it a generally good food wine). The higher acidity will actually counterbalance some sweetness in the wine, making a sweeter wine seem less sweet. Riesling is a really versatile wine when it comes to food.

So how sweet should you go? And how do you know how sweet a particular Riesling is? And if you don’t read German, how do you know what the German wine label says?

When buying a German Riesling, look for the words Kabinett or Spatlese. These are categories of wine styles based on when the grapes were harvested, which can give an indication of sweetness. You might also look for the words halbtrocken or feinherb. These words are sweetness indicators stating that the wine (wine nerd alert!) has between 9 and 18 grams of sugar per liter. That’s not much, and it means that the wine is going to be “off dry” (between dry and medium sweet.) Finally, because producers and importers know that Rieslings can be confusing, some wines have a “sweetness scale” on the back label that makes it much easier.

I’ve got a nice Riesling Kabinett (pictured) for the Thanksgiving dinner I’m attending. This one is super affordable (under $20) and can be found at most major wine retailers.


Now let’s look at the three bottle answer. This might be for a larger group and/or to give you more options (like when Aunt Betty swears she only likes red wine.)

Bottle #1: Stick with a Riesling.

Bottle #2: Beaujolais!

Beaujolais comes from the (surprise!) Beaujolais region (just south of Burgundy) in France and is made from the Gamay grape. It’s a fruity – not sweet – light-bodied red wine that is also pretty versatile with food. It won’t overpower the flavors like other reds can, and its simplicity, lighter body, lower tannins, and higher acidity all make it a great wine when you’ve got a lot of competing flavors and textures on your plate.

Beaujolais is quite popular at this time of year because of Beaujolais Nouveau. On the third Thursday of November (one week before Thanksgiving) some producers, mainly in the southern part of Beaujolais, release Beaujolais Nouveau, which has just been harvested, fermented, and bottled in the preceding weeks. So it’s a lighter style of wine that hasn’t spent any time aging. You can spot it pretty easily on the store shelves because it often has very bright and colorful labels. This is NOT the kind of Beaujolais I would recommend.

I recommend a Beaujolais of higher quality – a Beaujolais-Village or a Beaujolais Cru. There are 38 villages, mostly in the mid-section of the region that produce Beaujolais based on higher standards and are thus allowed to use on their labels the term “village” (sounds like vi-lahj, with emphasis on the second syllable), indicating a higher-quality wine. There are ten villages in the northern part of the region that adhere to even stricter standards. These are the Beaujolais Crus.

For most Thanksgiving dinners I’d go with either a Beaujolais-Village or a lighter style of Beaujolais Cru. You’ll be able to identify these by the name of the village on the label: Chiroubles, Fleurie, or St. -Amour.

In addition to the Riesling above, I’m bringing a Beaujolais Cru (pictured here) from the Fleurie appellation to Thanksgiving dinner this year. Like the Riesling, this particular Beaujolais comes in under $20 and can be found at many wine retailers.

Bottle #3: Sparkling white wine

Sparkling is a great option. It’s got higher acidity (a food plus!), and a festive occasion like Thanksgiving deserves a festive drink like sparkling wine. Like Riesling and Beaujolais, sparkling wine can be fairly versatile. Sparkling wine can also be a great pre-dinner drink. And personally, I’ve yet to have a Thanksgiving that didn’t include wine before the meal.

There are a bunch of different sparkling wines, the most well-known (and the most expensive) being Champagne. But you don’t have to break the bank by buying Champagne. Champagne is only made in the Champagne region of France. Sparkling wine made elsewhere with the same grape varieties and same production method as Champagne is not called Champagne simply because of labeling laws and agreements between France and other countries. Sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region but made the same way may have something like “Methode Champenoise” or “Traditional Method” on the label.

A Cremant d’Alsace is my choice alternative to Champagne. It’s produced in the Alsace region of France (bordering Germany) and is much more affordable than most Champagnes. Cava from Spain is another good – and affordable – alternative.

And don’t forget to serve your wines at the right temperatures!


Ok, so you’ve got your basic wines, feeling good about Thanksgiving dinner. But you want to do something more. (Maybe something that will impress the in-laws?)

Let’s talk dessert. Pumpkin pie is the traditional Thanksgiving dessert. But apple pie and pecan pie are quite popular too. (My Thanksgiving hostess the past few years makes a ridiculously amazing apple pie.) For dessert I’d go with a Tawny Port. You’re going to spend more (sometimes a lot more), but if you’re going for extra credit, it’ll be worth it. Plus, an open bottle of Port lasts much longer than other wines so don’t feel you have to drink it all right away.

The flavors of a Tawny Port – caramel, cinnamon, walnuts or hazelnuts – are going to go well with the baking spices (allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger) and pumpkin flavor of the pie. 

The same goes for the spices and flavor of apple pie. And if you go one step further and have your apple pie the Wisconsin way, it’ll be even better. I grew up in Wisconsin and my dad claims it should be against the law to have apple pie without a thick slice of sharp cheddar cheese. Yes, cheddar cheese. (Really, try it.)

If your Thanksgiving pie of choice is pecan, you might want to try a Ruby Port instead of a Tawny Port. This will be a bit fruitier and the sweetness of the Port will complement the sweetness of the pie’s brown sugar.

But keep in mind, Port is a fortified wine so it has a higher alcohol content. You’ll want to pour much less than a regular glass of wine.

The important thing is to not stress about the wine. Thanksgiving isn’t a time to be fretting about whether you made the right choice. It’s a time to be with people you care about (and who care about you), to enjoy being with them, and to count your blessings for the good things in your life. So be sure to take a moment during dinner, look around you, and be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Say What?

Sometimes when I hear people talk about wine I get confused by some of the terms they use. Help?!

Wine language can be confusing, but when you know some of the basic terminology it gets a lot easier. Let’s start with some of the more common terms that may be difficult to understand.

Terroir  You may hear someone talk about a wine expressing terroir or how terroir affects the taste of a wine. Terroir is a French word that really doesn’t have an English counterpart or easy translation. A pretty good descriptor for terroir is “sense of place.” It’s a combination of environmental factors like soil, sunlight, climate, and topography. Terroir is one reason why Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, CA tastes different from a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Colchagua Valley in Chile…or even from Paso Robles, CA.

Body  Full-bodied, light-bodied, medium-bodied. You’ve probably heard all of these. Body refers to how the wine’s structure “fills” your mouth – not in the sense of a big gulp will fill it more than a sip, but the feel of it in your mouth. Think of the difference between drinking skim milk (light body) and whole milk (medium body). Or cream (full body). Sometimes you’ll hear somebody use the term “mouthfeel” to mean body. How do you know if a wine is light or full-bodied? Wine labels – usually – won’t tell you, unless the winery’s marketing department thinks it’ll sell more wine by telling you. But I like a different way better: experience! The more you taste, the more you’ll get a feel for the body of various wines. Here’s a general guide of some popular wines to get you started:

  • Full-bodied Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot, Malbec
  • Medium-bodied Reds: Grenache, Sangiovese
  • Light-bodied Reds: Pinot Noir, Beaujolais
  • Full-bodied Whites: Chardonnay
  • Medium-bodied Whites: Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc
  • Light-bodied Whites: Riesling, Vinho Verde

Tannins  Tannins contribute to a wine’s body. Tannins are (wine nerd alert!) a phenolic compound found in the skins and seeds of grapes. That’s why white wine (which has the juice from the grapes pressed off the skins and seeds before fermentation) does not have any tannins of significance, and red wine (which is fermented with the skins and seeds) does have tannins. Tannins are what cause your mouth to feel a little dry when you drink certain wines. Think about how your mouth feels after eating a plain cracker. That’s how tannins work – the more tannic the wine, the dryer your mouth will feel. Tannins aren’t bad. They just…are. And some people like them; some people don’t. Tannins are a big enough topic that they might get their own post sometime. (stay tuned!) But in the meantime:

  • Higher tannin: Zinfandel, Syrah, Bordeaux blends
  • Medium tannin: Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Lower tannin: Pinot Noir, Grenache

Old World/New World  You might hear these terms when somebody is comparing two or more different wine styles. The Old World is considered to be essentially the wine producing regions in Europe and the Mediterranean. The New World is everywhere else (North and South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and China.) The Old World and New World are separated by more than geography. In general, winemakers in the Old World tend to focus more on minimal intervention in the production process, thereby letting the wine express the terroir. (See, now you know what that means) New World winemakers more freely manipulate the production process to have the wine express the flavors and structure that they want it to have.

Legs  “This wine has good legs.” Just what the heck does that mean? Think about swirling some wine in a glass. When you’re done swirling, you see that some of the wine has coated the glass and is slowly (or quickly) sliding down the sides. Those are legs. For sweet wines, legs will be an indication of how much sugar is in the wine. The thicker the legs and more slowly they slide down the side of the glass, the more sugar the wine has. For non-sweet wines, legs will be more of an indication of alcohol content. Wines with higher alcohol will have thicker/slower legs. So when somebody says, “This wine has good legs,” they probably mean that the legs are pretty thick and/or slow. Whether that’s actually a good thing is up to the individual drinker.

Now, let’s look at a couple terms that are often misused or misunderstood.

Dry  We just learned that tannins can make your mouth feel dry, right? When a wine is described as dry, it doesn’t have anything to do with tannins…or your mouth feeling dry. For wine, dry is essentially the opposite of sweet. Yes, that’s kind of a new concept for a lot of us. Put another way, the less sugar a wine has, the more dry it is.

Here’s a very basic explanation of sugar content, with the promise of a longer explanation of wine production in a future post. Grapes have lots of sugar. During fermentation that sugar gets converted into alcohol. Sometimes fermentation goes all the way and ferments all of the sugar. That wine is dry. Zero sugar = bone dry. Sometimes the winemaker will stop fermentation before all the sugar is fermented, leaving some level of sugar in the wine. That’s called “residual sugar.” There are varying degrees of sweetness, so you might hear the terms “off-dry” or “medium sweet.” But for our purposes today, know that dry doesn’t mean mouth-drying. It means not sweet.

Fruity  Many times I’ve described a wine as fruity only to have somebody respond, “Oh, I don’t like sweet wines.” It’s happened so often I’ve started to say “fruit forward” or “fruit focused” instead. The thing to remember is that a fruity wine has flavors that might include plum or blackberry or raspberry or melon or apple, to name a few of the many fruit flavors associated with wine. Think back about 30 seconds or so. Sweet means the presence of sugar, right? Ok, so you can have a wine (Zinfandel is a good example) that is fruity but dry. You can also have a wine that is fruity and sweet, like a Port or Muscat. Just remember, fruity describes flavor, dry/sweet describes sugar content.

Extra credit! While this isn’t really a wine term, it’s something that a LOT of people get wrong and you’ll be a star if it ever comes up in conversation. Paso Robles is a city and a wine region (we’ll talk about American Viticultural Areas, aka AVAs, in a future post) in California. What people get wrong is the pronunciation of “Robles.” It’s not the Spanish pronunciation (like ro-blaze) that one would assume. It actually should sound like ro-bullz — rhymes with “nobles.” (Or you can just call it “Paso.”)

What else? Have you heard a wine term that is confusing? Let me know. Send me an email or comment on this post. 

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Talkin’ Temperature

My roommate puts red wine in the refrigerator. I thought red wine is supposed to be served at room temperature. Which one of us is right?

It’s tricky, but you both are.

Wine, whether it’s red, white, rose, or sparking, should be served at a temperature that fully expresses its aromas, flavors, and structure. That means that different wines should be served at different temperatures.

Here’s where you’re right: There is an old adage that red wine should be served at room temperature. And red wines are generally served at a warmer temperature than white, rose, and sparkling wines. But what exactly is “room temperature?” Everybody has a different idea of what that is.

Here’s where your roommate is right: Back when the whole “room temperature” thing actually began, which was before we had central heating, homes were much cooler than they are today. So red wine would be served cooler than what we think of today as room temperature. 

So how do you know what’s the best temperature to serve your wine?

I say drink wine at whatever temperature you like. Everybody’s tastes are different. But if you really want to bring out the best in a wine, serving it at the optimal temperature is the way to go. A basic rule of thumb is reds are served warmer than whites and the fuller-bodied the wine is, the warmer the serving temperature, and the lighter-bodied and higher acidity of the wine, the cooler you’ll want it. So your Merlot will be slightly chilled, while your Sauvignon Blanc will be well chilled.

Here’s a handy chart I use:

* White wines with oak aging should be closer to 55; unoaked whites should be closer to 50.

According to this guide and the old standard, “room temperature” is a cool 54-65 degrees. Brrrr! Now do you see why simply saying “serve reds at room temperature” doesn’t really give the full picture?

If you’re not convinced of the effect that temperature has on wine, try this experiment: Chill a bottle of red wine so that it is cooler than what the chart recommends. Then open it and pour yourself a glass. Sniff it and make a note of the aromas and how pronounced they are (or aren’t.) Take a sip and note the flavors and how intense they are (or not.) Then hold the wine glass for about five minutes, cupping it in your hand (not holding the stem) so that your hand warms it up a bit. Sniff and sip again. Notice any difference? Cup the glass in your hand again for about five to ten minutes this time. Warm it up even more. Again, sniff and sip. Did any of those flavors get more intense? Did they diminish?

Experimenting like this is not only a fun way to learn how a wine tastes at different temperatures, it’s also a great way to start to develop a sense of what you like best. 

So how long should you chill a bottle to get it to the right temperature? Let’s add a third column to the chart.

** Most refrigerators are set at approximately 37 degrees. (The US Food & Drug Administration recommends staying under 40 degrees. Most food safety experts say you should stay between 35 and 38.) You probably won’t need to change your chilling time if your refrigerator isn’t right at 37, unless you go outside the recommended 35 to 38.

If you’re short on time, you’ve got a couple alternatives for quickly chilling a bottle:

  • Put it in the freezer. Shoot for roughly a quarter of the time you would have it in the refrigerator. If you do this, I recommend setting a timer. I once put a bottle of Pinot Grigio in the freezer, then got distracted and forgot about it. The next day I had a slushy mess in my freezer because the water content of the wine expanded as it began to freeze and pushed the cork out, leaving me with a Pinot Grigio disaster to clean up.
  • Place the bottle in a large bowl or ice bucket filled with ice water…and salt. The salt lowers the freezing point of water, which makes the ice melt (that’s why salt is used in the winter on roads when they get icy) and the water gets colder. That will make the bottle get cooler faster. Try about 15-20 minutes for whites and 8-10 minutes for reds.

Also note, if you’ve had a bottle of wine (even white or rose) in the refrigerator for a few days, you’ll want to take it out and let it warm up for a while before you serve it.

What should you do if you’re served a wine at the wrong temperature?

First, don’t be a jerk, especially if you’re at somebody’s home. Not everyone knows about wine temperature. And nobody likes a wine snob. If you’re at a restaurant or bar, chances are you’ll have one of two things happen: either you’ll get a red wine that’s too warm or a white wine that’s too cold. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about the red. For the white, you can always do the “cup the wine glass with your hand” to warm it. (Watch for a future post on what to do in a restaurant when the wine you get isn’t “right.”)

Bottom line: When it comes to serving temperature, I encourage you to experiment and find what you like best. But chances are, because of the science of wine, you’ll generally like wines best when they are served at the recommended temps. (This is a theme that will reoccur, we’ll find, multiple times.)

What do you think? Feel free to add your two cents in the comments.

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An Introduction

Hello, and welcome to my first blog post all about wine. My goal is to answer your questions – kind of an “everything you felt you should already know but don’t.” I’ve talked with so many people who say they feel like there’s this expectation that if you enjoy drinking wine you should be knowledgeable about it. So people start feeling bad when they don’t know about how wine is made, or where certain wines come from, or specific terminology. If you’re one of those people, please understand this: you’re not expected to know anything. Really. We all need to start somewhere. And this is going to be a good place for you to start learning.

I’m going to break things down as much as I can to make it easy to understand for those of you who are new to wine while providing some additional insight for those who’ve already got the basics down. And then sometimes I’ll get in the weeds for those of you who like to get a little more wonky about wine.

A little about me…

I’m a wine geek…totally proud of my wine dorkery. I love to drink wine, talk about it, learn about it. And that’s one thing I’ve learned over the years – that as much as we know about wine, there’s always more to learn. Our wine education is never done.

Speaking of education, I’m a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators of America, hold a Level 2 Award in Wine from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and I’m one course away from earning a Certificate in Wine Business Management from Sonoma State University. Am I a sommelier? Simple answer: No. (More on the complicated answer in a future post.)

I’ve loved all of my classes on the various wine regions (their history, geography, climate, grape varieties), viticulture and production techniques, labeling laws, wine marketing, you name it! But the most fun I’ve had is exploring and tasting as many different wines with my friends as I can. And I say tasting, because the majority of the wines I’ve tried have truly been tasting and spitting rather than drinking. (Although as I write this, I’m drinking – and rather enjoying – a wonderful red blend from Spain.)

Why am I publishing this blog? It’s pretty simple. I’ve found that the more I’ve learned about wine, the more I’ve enjoyed tasting (and drinking) it. And while I’ve run the risk of being that annoying guy who talks about wine too much at dinner parties, my friends have liked the extra info and insight I give when we open a bottle. So if you’re like me – and you probably wouldn’t have gotten this far if you’re not – you know that learning more is always a good thing. This blog, for the most part, is going to be for beginners, but every now and then I’ll give you oenophiles a “Wine Dorkery Alert!” when I’m going to go further.

I think of wine as a participation sport. So I want your participation in this blog. Feel free to email me your questions (on the Contact page) and I’ll put them in future posts. Let’s have a conversation.

I’ve found that the grape growing and wine production methods affect how a wine tastes. But when, where, and with whom you drink affects how much you enjoy it.  So share this blog with a friend or two, open a bottle, and enjoy!