“What’s the best way to learn about wine? Like, quickly?”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question, both as a writer and as an educator about wine. More important than its frequency, though, is the motivation behind the words. When someone asks me this question, I think that what they’re really asking is how they can know about wine without spending huge amounts of time or effort.
To be clear, this question about the best way to learn about wine, quickly, isn’t unique to today’s consumers, and I’m not about to wave my arms in despair and generalize sweepingly about evaporating attention spans. The desire to know wine touches more bases than that. Knowing wine isn’t a universal desire, I wouldn’t say, but wine does manage to generate a unique curiosity to understand.
It’s just that, today, consumers would like to know wine without all the time or effort that seems to be needed if they even glance at any one of the standard reference books on wine, whose spines are inches thick, whose page counts number in the many hundreds, and whose glossaries themselves are daunting for their length and detail.
There’s an easier — and quicker — way. Here are three pathways for today’s consumer to learn about wine.
Let’s dive right in on the not-a-lot-of-time front. How does “30 seconds” sound?
Try giving 30 seconds of undivided attention to the first sip or two of wine from each glass you taste. Let yourself fully experience wine sensorially, one sense at a time: first sight by really looking at the color and describing its different shades, then smell by naming aromas even if they seem strange, and finally taste by quietly observing what happens in your body once you take a sip and for an extended pause afterward.
Several things will happen to boost your comfort level with wine. You start becoming familiar with it. You’ll start to form your own opinion about it, and your confidence will grow. You’ll also learn what you like (and what you don’t like) when it comes to wine.
Learning what you like about wine isn’t exactly the same thing as learning wine, but it’s on the right track. That’s because now you’ve personalized wine by observing its interaction with your own senses.
Make It Sticky
Make wine relevant to yourself — make it “sticky,” that is, to borrow the phrase from business book authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The basic principle here is that you’ll learn more about wine if it means something to you.
Try starting with current events that interest you, like the COVID-induced alcohol bans in South Africa, for example, or the impacts of climate change that we’re seeing in Australia or the western US from Oregon to southern California. The next time you’re looking for a wine to try, either in a retail shop or on a restaurant menu, choose one from a place that’s caught your interest even if it’s for reasons other than wine. Then enjoy the wine with “the bigger picture” in mind.
It’ll be stickier that way, plus you’ll have boosted your “learning about wine” by linking information you’ve gained intellectually with the physical experience of drinking wine.
Compare and Contrast
There’s a reason why educators have been relying on this method for generations. Comparing and contrasting two similar but different things hones our understanding, and ramps up our learning about both of those things. It highlights important details, and reduces confusion between related ideas.
The same applies to wine. Set two similar but different wines next to each other, and compare and contrast them in order to learn about them both. The expense of time and effort is not great but it’s a fun exercise, and the potential to learn is high.
Take malbec, for example. Taste a malbec from, say, the Cahors region of France side-by-side with a malbec from Argentina. The compare and contrast opportunities start to flow, which means learning has started. You’ll be comparing an Old World wine with a New World wine. You’ll contrast a French wine with one from Argentina. You’ll experience structured tannins relative to a softer, more velvety texture. You’ll explore wines made in a traditional way versus a modern take on the same grape versus a return to tradition again.
The Rhône varietals are another excellent compare and contrast opportunity, notably between their homeland in southeastern France and their adoption in different parts of California like the Central Coast where grapes like syrah, grenache and mourvèdre thrive.
In our next post, we’ll experiment with a deeper dive into the compare-and-contrast opportunity for today’s consumers to learn about wine, quickly. In this case, the two wines side-by-side will be sauvignon blanc, one from a very well known origin commercially (that is, New Zealand) and the other from Alto Adige, in Italy, which is distinctly different in terms of landscape and market exposure.
Please stay tuned for that. In the meantime, let me know: Have you ever tried a side-by-side, compare-and-contrast exercise with wine? Which bottles did you try? And what did you think?