Grappling with grapes: A beginner’s guide to enjoying red wine

Be open to trying what you don’t like and enjoy the adventure.

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Recently, I’ve found myself writing about wine more than I ever have before, and of course it has me thinking about my own experiences with the delicious adult grape juice.

A reader, ConductedInPeaceClosedInHarmony, commented on my article about how wine was more valuable than gold in 2021, in which I mention that I don’t understand much about wine, and that it’s all just fancy juice to me. The reader shared a great idea: “Taking the readers along your learning/exploration process [with wine] would be a really cool series.” Well, kind commenter, you read my mind. I now embark on a journey to mature my taste in wine. I can see it now: me elegantly holding a glass of deep, dark red, swirling it around under my nose and taking in the notes like a pro—the epitome of sophistication.

The wine I often reach for is sweet, more akin to fruit juice with a touch of alcohol than a robust dinner pairing. For these reasons, I have actively avoided red wine whenever I have other options.

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My go-to wine brand, whether white or red, is Stella Rosa. This brand sells the only red wine I actually enjoy. My two favorites from this brand are the Moscato D’Asti, a “semi-sweet, semi-sparkling” white, and the Rosso, “a semi-sweet, semi-sparkling” red. This brand can be found in grocery stores and I usually buy it for $12.99.

If there are people out there in the world willing to shell out $57,000 for a very old bottle of bubbly and others who deem wine a better investment than gold, then I think it may be time to expand both my knowledge and my palate.

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My biggest struggle along this journey will be to learn to enjoy red wine. Upon first sip, most of what I have tried has made me want to put the glass down and walk away because of the bitter taste and overall dryness. My current wine preference is only a small improvement from what I would drink back in college, but on the bright side, even successful sommeliers have had humble beginnings.

Take, for example, Jim Bube, a master sommelier and the current National Wine Director for Hogsalt restaurant group. Bube says his initial interest in wine began in college when he picked up a jug of wine to drink with friends and switch things up from the usual beer. From there he began to wonder what other wines he could try for just a few dollars more. That curiosity for wine has not only driven his career, but has also helped Bube drop some knowledge on me that has changed what I thought I knew about wine.

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Find a wine expert

The hardest and most important question I needed to answer was: If I want to become more knowledgeable about wine, where do I start? Well, the first step is finding someone with the knowledge you lack.

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“Wine is so personal,” Bube says, “So for anybody just getting into wine it’s important to have somebody they trust and can go to.”

With that in mind, I’d say the experience of finding the right wine is sort of like someone shopping for a wedding dress. Most of the time you walk into the store with no prior knowledge of what it’s like to buy one, but you have an idea of what styles you like or dislike. Choosing the right dress is very personal and all about what works best for you. This is why people tend to lean heavily on the sales associate helping them pick out the dress.

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Bube says it’s best to find a local, ideally independent, wine retailer where you can go in and ask questions. Unfortunately, most grocery stores aren’t going to have the expert you’re looking for, so swinging by the supermarket on the way home won’t cut it here.

“Finding someone that you kind of vibe with and that will take the time to learn and is interested in your journey is probably the most important thing.” stresses Bube. Once you find that person, Bube says to stick with them, because if you jump around to different shops it will become more difficult to come back and explain what you did or did not like about their recommendations. The more your wine guide gets to know your taste, the easier it will be for them to pick styles you’ll grow to enjoy.

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Be open to trying everything

Whenever trying anything new it’s always best to keep an open mind, but Bube strongly recommends keeping your taste buds on their toes as you start getting into wine. He advises not drinking the same thing twice. “Embrace novelty,” he says.

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A great way to do this is by attending retail wine tastings. Though Bube cautions that these specific events are rare now due to COVID safety concerns, some retailers do conduct them virtually. The benefit of these virtual tasting sessions is that the wine samples are shipped to you directly and you’re given the opportunity to explore different wines from the comfort of your home.

In addition to being an affordable way to try a variety of wine, tastings can also help you to grow your own knowledge of the different regions wines come from, how they are made, and how they are similar or different from each other. Gaining this knowledge will only help you to further develop an understanding of your own palate and the flavors you’re willing to branch out to try.

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However, there’s a reason people spit out the wine at tastings.

“Wine has a lot of alcohol in it, and if you’re not super diligent about spitting it out, you’ll find yourself an hour in just slamming wine,” Bube says. “It can get out of hand.”

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Pair wine with food

Turns out there’s a reason charcuterie boards and wine are such a popular combo, and it’s not just the fancy vibes. To help get your taste buds accustomed to the dry alcoholic assault of red wine, eat some food between sips.

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“Going into the red wine experience knowing that you might have to have a glass slowly, tuck into calibrating your palate to the dryness… it’s almost like getting into cold water where the initial shock of it will eventually go away and you’ll get a lot more comfortable,” explains Bube. It’s a comfort to know that even after years of professional wine tasting, a sommelier might also need a moment to adjust.

Because not all red wine is fit to be sipped like a cocktail, food can make the experience more enjoyable. Specifically Italian red wines, whichBube names as being more acidic and astringent. The astringency of a wine has to do with the dry, rough sensation it leaves in the mouth. That feeling can pair nicely with the tomato sauce in pasta or pizza, which Bube calls magic.

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“It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy,” he says. “Those were some of my early, great food and wine experiences: frozen pizza and a $10 or $12 bottle of
Chianti.

So, before I hit up my local wine shop for a personal guide on diving into reds, I’ll be sure to grab a pizza to pair with my new bottle. Rest assured my journey does not end here. Learning to love wine is a process, and I plan to leave no bottle unopened. I now have a thirst for wine knowledge that must be quenched.