10 Tips to Up Your Wine Game in 2020
By Nancy Bauer
10 Tips to Up Your Wine Game in 2020
A survey I read recently said that half the respondents drink wine several times per week or daily. Now, you might think that at that level of consumption, they’d know something about wine, and some did. But a whole bunch of the group surveyed – 32 percent – said they actually know very little. And I get that; it describes the first few years of my wine-drinking life.
Gradually, though – maybe it was the first French wine I tasted, during the Pouilly-Fuissé craze of the 70’s, or my first “local” wine, a bottle of Viognier from Horton Vineyards, near Charlottesville – gradually I began to get curious.
What IS this stuff? How’s it made? Are the French grapes in American wine grown in France? If there’s an aroma of grapefruit in Sauvignon Blanc, does that mean (God forbid) there’s actually grapefruit in it? How does all that work, anyway?
Walking into a wine store and being asked, “What style of wine do you like?” was agony. What was the correct answer? “Well, I like white AND red wine!”
Having to open a bottle with a proper waiter’s corkscrew in front of a tableful of businessmen – or a rock band – was guaranteed stage fright. (I once waited on the Oak Ridge Boys and was so terrified about opening an expensive bottle of Bordeaux that I begged another waiter to handle it, which he did, spilling half of it down his sleeve when he fumbled the cork.)
While I am eons away from being a wine expert, I’m also eons away from fearing a corkscrew, or a wine salesman. I can find my way around a (reasonable) wine list, and I know that if there’s actual grapefruit in wine, you probably shouldn’t drink it. These days, wine is, mostly, a whole bunch of fun, and the more I learn, the more fun it becomes.
If you’ve been wanting to up your wine game, here are a few tips for 2020. Here’s hoping your 2020 is full of new discoveries.
- 1. Read a book (or two, or three)
The ultimate reference guide for wine from around the world is The World Atlas of Wine, now in its 8th Edition, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. If you like your words dressed up with pretty pictures, you’ll love Wine Folly: Magnum Edition: The Master Guide, by the master (mistress?) of the infographic, Madeline Puckette. For a Virginia-specific text, Richard Leahy’s Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia is your best bet. (Though if it’s winery travel and insider info you’re looking for, you may prefer my own Virginia Wine Travel Journal.)
- 2. Follow a blogger
There was a time when you couldn’t lift a glass in a Virginia tasting room without elbowing a wine blogger, but that’s cooled a bit, as blogs themselves have lost some luster. Still, if you like first-hand accounts of winery visits by regular people (read: they appreciate the overall experience at least as much as the subtleties of the wines), you may enjoy one of these.
Wine Trails & Wanderlust by Matthew Fitzsimmons (winetrailsandwanderlust.com). Matt is new to the blogging world, but is arguably more up-to-date on Virginia winery visits than anyone else on earth. At last count, he was just 6 wineries away from having visited them all.
Virginia’s first wine bloggers, Paul Armstrong and Warren Richard, are still at it, more than a decade later, at Virginia Wine Time. (virginiawinetime.com) They know where the good stuff is, and their 1-2 posts a month often reveal their preferences, as they stop by some of their favorite wineries to pick up their Wine Club member allotments.
- 3. Try a vertical tasting
I love this term; for some reason it always makes me think of the upside-down margaritas my summer co-workers and I tossed back at our favorite bar in Ocean City, Maryland. Which makes no sense at all, really, since a vertical tasting of wine is a sampling of different vintages (years) of the same wine, imbibed upright, in small sips, instead of tequila and lime juice gulped upside down.
Vertical tastings are an especially fascinating way to see the impacts of weather on a wine. You can usually find vertical tastings offered as special events at some of Virginia’s more established wineries, such as Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, Gray Ghost Vineyards in Amissville, and DuCard Vineyards in Madison County.
- 4. Compare grapes from different areas
Merlot is merlot is merlot, right? Well, sure. Unless you’ve lined up three merlots from different parts of the world, say France, Virginia, and Chile. Or Australia. Or Italy. In that scenario – one in which your merlot origin story is set in fair-weather California – then merlot is definitely not merlot.
Comparing varieties of grapes from different regions in a roomful of lively people can be as delightful and, shall we say, spirited, as comparing regional barbecue styles or NFL teams. Everyone will have their favorite, and everyone will be right.
- 5. Take a class
I can’t say enough about the Intro to Wine Basics and Essential Blind Tasting Skills workshops offered by the Capital Wine School in northwest DC. These two-hour, evening sessions pack in a ton of information (and wine). capitalwineschool.com
Little Washington Winery in Washington, Virginia, has been doing a two-hour Wine Boot Camp for years that still sells out and gets rave reviews. They offer more than a dozen 1-2 hour workshops via their Foodie U program. littlewashingtonwinery.com/wineschool
- 6. Try a food & wine pairing
Despite food’s ability to elevate a wine from “meh” to “more, please,” only a handful of Virginia wineries have tapped into this sales-boosting strategy as a regular part of their tasting menu. Check out the wine and food pairing tastings at Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg, Aspen Dale Winery in Delaplane, Fox Meadow Winery in Linden, and Hillsborough Vineyards in Hillsboro (additional charge).
- 7. Visit 25 wineries
Why 25? Well, beside its being a nice, round number and semi-aggressive goal, a focused year of visits to wineries (Virginia or elsewhere) will let you learn – and retain – mountains of wine knowledge through comparison and repetition. By the time I’d visited my 150th Virginia winery in five months, I could pick out a Traminette without tasting, easily tell you which wines go with spicy appetizers, buttery entrees, chocolate desserts and everything in between, and forevermore identify the difference between acids and tannins. To a wine expert, all that comes naturally, but even the experts had to start somewhere.
- 8. Host a blind tasting party
What is obviously a cabernet sauvignon and clearly a chardonnay becomes a lot murkier when the bottle’s wrapped up in a paper bag. A blind tasting party is always a hoot, and is one of the best ways to get your mind off your eyes and into your lesser-used senses. Just Google “how to have a blind wine tasting party” and you’re in business.
- 9. Take a cellar tour
Your first winery cellar tour will be revelatory. Your tenth will bore the heck out of you. But if you keep at it, your 50th will bring you right back around to revelation. The more you learn about the processes of wine making – why ferment in a tank vs. a barrel? Why are reds aged longer than whites? – the more you realize you don’t know. It’s an endless cycle of amusement for the curious.
- 10. Volunteer for a harvest
Smaller wineries are almost always in need of volunteer help around harvest time in the fall. Just ask your local winery if you can pitch in, and what you learn will make every glass of wine you drink afterwards just that much more interesting. You’ll see the difference between ripe, healthy grapes and rotten grapes. You’ll learn how to quickly sort out MOG (material other than grapes) and see firsthand why a bad sorting process can affect the wine’s flavor. You’ll see just how much equipment is needed to process grapes, and get a big “aha” about why small-batch wine is so much pricier than those ubiquitous labels in the grocery store. And when you’re finished, they’ll give you a free lunch, with wine, of course.
Nancy Bauer (Nancy@VAWineInMyPocket.com) writes about Virginia Wine Country travel on the Virginia Wine in My Pocket website and smartphone app, and is the author of the book, Virginia Wine Country Travel Journal, available at Amazon.com.