Week 9: Buying Wine—a Guide for the Frightened
By Natalie van Hoose
It's a classic scene: a customer selects a wine from a dizzying list of choices at an upscale restaurant, and the mustachioed server bristles with disdain. Or a patron finds herself the object of frigid stares in a tasting room where everyone is sleekly dressed and swirling glasses of wine, their pinkies raised.
Stumped by a wine label? Here is how to decode the information.
- Year: The year listed on the label is the vintage year, the year the grapes were grown. The vintage year may differ from the year the wine was bottled.
- Variety: Legally, at least 75 percent of the wine in a bottle must come from the grape variety named on the label. That 25 percent "wiggle room" allows a winemaker to add other varieties to make the wine more interesting or correct for imbalances in sugar or acidity.
- Alcohol percentage: This is not an exact measurement. The actual percentage of alcohol in a bottle may be a percent lower or higher than what the label states.
- Reserve: Usually, "reserve" means this bottle of wine is special, perhaps the winemaker's best that year or part of a smaller batch. But as "reserve" has no legal definition, seeing it on a label does not guarantee that the wine is somehow unique.
- Estate: An estate wine is made in the same location that the grapes were grown.
These kinds of images cause many people to steer clear of wine. But they shouldn't, says Bill Oliver, president of Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Ind.
"The basic premise that wine should be fun and not intimidating gets to the heart of what we have been doing at Oliver for 40 years," he says. "I’ve been in California tasting rooms and felt either sized up as to whether I was worthy of their wines, or just treated like a dummy. At our tasting room, we work hard to make sure that guy in the John Deere hat—who might have a Ph.D. in agronomy from Purdue—is just as comfortable and welcomed as the certified wine snob."
Sarah Shadday, wholesale and marketing coordinator of Mallow Run Winery in Bargersville, Ind., says that Hoosier friendliness makes Indiana a great place to discover wine.
"Indiana winemakers tend to be a little bit more laid-back while still passionate about their product," she says. "We don't expect you to swirl and smell, but if you ask us how, we'll be more than happy to teach you. You may think that a wine tasting will be intimidating, but we hope to break that expectation by showing how approachable, diverse and fun Indiana wineries can be."
Larry Pampel, president of the Indiana Winery and Vineyard Association, says that tasting room staff is trained to put customers at ease.
"Wine tasting rooms are welcoming places," he says. "The staff is there to make you comfortable, and they have a lot of experience with people who are new to wine culture. They'll help you find something you like."
One advantage of visiting a winery's tasting room, particularly if you are a beginner, is the opportunity to try a series of wines and discover what you enjoy.
"Going to a tasting room can help you figure out if you lean more toward sweet or dry wines, for example," says Pampel, who also co-owns Whyte Horse Winery in Monticello, Ind. "And there's no right or wrong preference. That's the beauty of wine."
If you're brand-new to wine, Pampel suggests starting on the sweet side. Oliver and Shadday recommend Catawba for sweet-toothed consumers while those who favor a dry wine should try Chambourcin, a rich and fruity red wine. Traminette, Indiana's signature grape, is a spicy, semi-dry wine with floral notes that tends to be popular with consumers on both sides of the sweet-dry divide.
If you just can't let go of your favorite brew, consider these words from Pampel: "There's a great degree of difference among wines, a broad range. You will find something you enjoy. And let's face it—opening a bottle of wine over dinner with the one you love is much more romantic than popping open a beer."
Facing that wall of wines in the supermarket need not be a frightening experience either, says Christian Butzke, Purdue professor of enology. See the video below for Butzke's tips for the timid.
Purdue professor of enology Christian Butzke offers wine-buying advice to the nervous or intimidated consumer.
Credits: Video by Kelsey Getzin. Photo by Natalie van Hoose. Web version by Andrew Banta. Through the Grapevine graphic by Russ Merzdorf.