10 Essential Tips for the Modern Wine Drinker

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"The 'red with meat' and 'white with fish' rules — throw those right out the window."
"The 'red with meat' and 'white with fish' rules — throw those right out the window." Photo: Steve Lupton

With all of the excellent new wine bars now open in New York, it’s basically the perfect time to expand the range of things you drink — especially if you want to venture into “natural”-wine territory. But the renewed emphasis on wine also brings back some familiar challenges: Where do you begin to break down a long list? How do you talk about your bottle budget without coming off cheap or tacky? Do you really need to pair your wine with your food? What’s with all these new wine apps?

Richard Betts (author of The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert) and Carla Rzeszewski (formerly the wine director at the Spotted Pig) have come to the rescue: Starting in November, they’re teaching wine classes at Journee, a members-only club for restaurant professionals that will make some of its classes, like the wine-focused ones, available online to the public, Netflix-style. But before that happens, Grub got some quick, practical advice from Betts and Rzeszewski, who shared their top tips for buying wine these days.

Use your phone.
“I hear all the time, ‘I can’t remember what I liked,’” Betts says. “Okay, well, you have a phone in your pocket. Take the picture. You’ll be so stoked when you have it next time. Super, super important. I do that all the time, and this is my job.”

“There are apps that help you keep track of what you’ve had to drink, or help you find out whether a certain wine you’re looking for is at the restaurant you’re headed to,” Rzeszewski says. “You can be sitting at the table and do it discreetly. Delectable helps you catalogue your wines, and Pickabottle allows you to check out many restaurant wine lists ahead of time, which is helpful when the list is overwhelming.”

Just ask a human for help.
“It’s a fantastic idea to put yourself in the hands of the sommelier or someone at a retail store,” Rzeszewski says. “It can oftentimes feel like you are admitting you don’t know anything, and that can make people vulnerable. It just requires a bit of easing up.”

“It’s about being candid and realizing people are your advocates, not your adversaries,” Betts says. “They’re there to make it easy — not to fleece you. Someone’s more likely to down-sell you than up-sell you if you’ve developed a relationship.”

Set a firm budget.
“I remember my mom teaching me to always choose the middle ground — never the highest, never the lowest,” Rzeszewski says. “And while that’s such a safe way to begin, there’s a more fun way to get what you want out of a situation. Tell the sommelier what range you’re looking to spend — it takes the person off the hook for trying to guess. And then it’s on them. It’s not your job. You could say, ‘This is the price range, and I tend to like light and fruity reds, or whites with a little more bit body.’ And if you have a grape or a style of wine or even a brand that you like a lot, then shout it out, man. Wine directors can then follow those Hansel-and-Gretel crumbs.”

“As a consumer you can make it super easy and disarm the whole process by giving people a general idea of where to play, not just stylistically, but also by price,” Betts says. “I think there’s an elegant way to avoid saying — and not that you need to avoid, because I think it’s fine — ‘Look, I got $50 in my pocket.’ If you say, ‘I like Rombauer Chardonnay,’ you’ve given them a style and a price range in one very elegant little package.”

Speak up about dislikes.
“If you find yourself with a bottle of wine that you were open to trying, and you weren’t sure whether you would like it or not, it’s up to you to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t what I was looking for. Can maybe we look for something else?’” Rzeszewski says. “And if you aren’t comfortable with that — you’re at the table with friends or a date — then use it as a lesson and know that you won’t go down that path again. I think it’s helpful for the service professional if you can help give them a heads-up on what you’re not interested in.”

Pick two wines by the glass and go from there.
“In terms of walking into a restaurant and having no idea what you want on the list, you can start by asking, ‘Which is the most fruity, and which is the earthiest?’” Rzeszewski says. “Have two glasses. Say, ‘Hey, we’d like one very dry, earthy white, and one white with a little bit more body’ — and you can say the same with red using that exact same terminology. And then just see what you like between the two. Doing comparative tastings is insanely helpful.”

Don’t worry so much about which wine pairs with the food you’ve ordered.
“If the restaurant has a real point of view on it, sure, listen to them,” Betts says. “But if they don’t, then drink what you like, and eat what you like. I had a very regular guest for a long, long time who had a penchant for a white Burgundy and cheeseburgers, and it made him so happy. And that’s all there is to it. Classically, does that work? According to somebody’s rules, probably not. But who cares? … The ‘red with meat’ and ‘white with fish’ rules — throw those right out the window.”

Don’t focus on a wine’s age.
“Older is not better,” Betts says. “Old doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worthwhile. And more expensive is not always better.”

As with anything, “fancier” isn’t always better.
“There are certain producers who have higher-end cuvées, and we prefer their lower-end cuvées because they’re less handled and have less oak,” Rzeszewski says. “They’re less serious and more enjoyable to drink.”

You can always count on Champagne.
“If you’re showing up to a party, you can always bring a magnum of bubbles,” Rzeszewski says. “It’s inclusive, as no one is going to be left out because the bottle’s not big enough. And it’s bubbles!”

Just learn about the things you like.
“Take the time to get a little bit smarter — it’s the same time that someone would dedicate to reading what a critic has to say,” Betts says. “I actually think the role of the critic has never been less important to the role of wine in America than it has been and is right now. Instead of paying attention to what someone else says is good, figure it out for yourself.”

“If you know, for example, that you tend to prefer red over white and, within that category, that you tend to prefer red fruits over black fruits, then there are a few grapes in the red-fruit category for red wines that you should be able to look for on a list,” Rzeszewski says. “If you do want to go a little bit deeper with your own knowledge, then you can learn where those grapes are grown. But just a basic understanding of what you prefer is kind of a great jumping-off point. And part of that comes from tasting widely.”

10 Essential Tips for the Modern Wine Drinker