We get it. Wine can be intimidating. But a glass of vino is supposed to help you unwind, not cause a nervous breakdown. If walking into a nice restaurant or a fancy wine bar has you breaking out in flop sweat, we’re here to answer your deepest, darkest wine questions—with a little help from an expert.
Paul Grieco, who runs Terroir in New York, could read through the most inscrutable wine list with ease, but the outspoken vino virtuoso is also an outspoken advocate of undermining the traditional wine establishment. Here, he answers all the wine questions you were afraid to ask (and maybe a few you didn’t know to ask).
How do I pick a wine from a wine list?
Some wine lists arrive at a dinner table thicker than a phonebook. And unless you’re willing to dedicate some serious reading and tasting time, you’re not going to cheat your way through the wine list or sniff out any value finds. “Of all the things that have changed in what we do, the presentation of the wines has remained relatively static for 100 years,” Grieco says, admitting that the service industry could do a better job helping neophytes find the perfect wine. “The best thing to do is to close the f*cking book and have a conversation.”
Is the sommelier really interested in talking to someone with no experience?
Grieco is pretty fed up with the stereotype of the snooty somm. He takes a big-picture view of the host-guest interaction: “Human nature causes us to yearn for a relationship. There is no greater way to ingratiate yourself with the staff than to engage the staff, whether you’re buying clothes, getting your hair cut, getting a car or buying a bottle of wine.” Talk to your server like you would talk to a friendly bartender. “Look at them in the eye and engage,” Grieco says. “Say, ‘Listen, I’m here celebrating my birthday. The four of us are here to have a fun time tonight, and we need your help.’ That server is going to be like, ‘Yes! I get to have some f*cking fun.’ None of us just want to be order takers.”
When talking to a sommelier, what should I say to get what I want?
“There are two statements that you, the guest, need to tell me,” Grieco says. “Tell me a wine that you’ve had in the past that has made you f*cking happy, or you show me a picture [of the bottle]—however you want to do this sh*t. Say, ‘I want something like that.’ That simple statement tells me everything. Because then I say, ‘OK. The guest just told me the name of this exact Argentinian Malbec that rocks their world. So I now know what stylistically floats their boat.’ And number two, tell me what price you’re happy with. And with those two pieces of knowledge, it’s done.”
What if I don’t like the wine the server brings?
“If you don’t like it, you can say, ‘You know what? It’s not f*cking rocking my world.’ Good! I’ve got other sh*t for you to drink. Don’t be afraid of us. Our job is to help you. Not try to make you spend more money,” he explains.
Sometimes there may actually be a problem with the wine, Grieco says. For example, the wine may be “corked,” which causes the wine to smell wet and dank and taste flat. It’s a phenomena that naturally affects about 5 percent of wines due to microorganisms in the cork. When your somm gives you a small pour, that’s the time to test for such spoilage. Give it a whiff and a taste, and don’t be afraid to speak up. Your table will thank you.
If the wine isn’t corked but just doesn’t strike your fancy, that’s crucial info you need to relate to your server. But you can’t just say it’s bad. “If you don’t like the flavor profile of it—based on the flavor profile you told the sommelier you were looking for—then say that,” Grieco says. “Don’t be afraid.”
How do I hold the glass and taste it right?
Technically, if you want to avoid warming your wine up too much, you should hold the glass by the stem, rather than the bowl. As for swirling, that just takes practice. But to Grieco, none of that really matters. “I don’t give a f*cking sh*t how you hold the glass,” he says. “Are you drinking the wine? Might you order another glass? OK, good!”
What do I say to sound smart after tasting a wine?
There’s no right answer to this question. “We’re dealing with a very subjective thing: taste,” Grieco says. “You start peeling off a huge battery of adjectives to describe wine: weight, acid, fruit, all of these things—they’re specific to you. There is no scale that you can put a glass of Cabernet on that says it’s full-bodied or medium or light. There’s no device you can dip into the wine that says, ‘This has 55 percent blackberry and 23 percent blueberry.’ You taste it and to you it’s light, medium or full-bodied. To you it’s bone-dry, medium-dry, semi-sweet or full on sweet. To you it has the acid of an orange or it has the acid of milk. To you it has the tannins of 10 tea bags stuffed in a pot of tea that’s been steeping for a f*cking hour, or to you it doesn’t have any f*cking balls.” So go with your gut and give voice to any impressions you do receive.
How do I pick the right bottle in a wine shop?
It’s just the same as buying a bottle in a restaurant. Grieco recommends you find an attendant, introduce yourself, lay your money on the counter and let the expert go to work for you. Give an example of a wine you’ve liked in the past and see what you get. It may be a hit or it may be a dud, but either way, it’s an opportunity to build a relationship with the store.
How do I store wine at home?
“Wine is a living breathing beverage. Don’t f*cking abuse it,” Grieco insists. “If you’re going to take care of your record collection by not putting them on the heater and standing them up, why would you take a bottle of wine and stick it on the window sill in the middle of July when it’s been 95 degrees for a f*cking week?” But unless you’re planning to age your wine for years, in which case you already have the equipment and knowledge necessary to do so, you don’t have to be too precious with your bottle. Just don’t store it above your oven or in a sunny spot where you’ll end up cooking the wine. Room temp is fine.
How do I serve wine at home?
Many people know to chill their whites in the fridge before serving and not to do so with reds, but in both cases there is a vague ideal of “cellar temperature.” Grieco clears it all up: “When we talk about ‘cellar temp’ we’re talking about Old World European cellar temp,” i.e., around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. “White wines that are taken right out of a fridge at 42-44 degrees are served too cold. I get why people do that—the colder it is, the less the flavor profile, so the wine just goes down like Miller High Life. But if you want to be respectful of the beverage, take white wine out of the fridge a half hour before you serve it to allow it to get close to that 55 degrees.”
Red wine, on the other hand, needs a quick chill before serving. “Put red wine in the fridge half an hour before you drink it. When you consume wine at 72 degrees, the initial impression could be more of alcohol and big extracted fruit. When the wine is cooler upon serving, it warms up in your mouth, which is where you want that flavor development. You don’t want it evaporating out of the f*cking glass because it’s too damn hot in your apartment.”
How long should I let wine breathe?
You may have heard a backseat sommelier warn you to let a wine breathe before drinking it. Some reds benefit from a brief interaction with the open air—a perfect opportunity to break out that eye-catching decanter. For whites, sparklings and rosés, there’s no need, so pour away.
How do I pour wine (into a glass and not all over myself)?
Pouring and stopping the pour with confidence is the best way to avoid errant spittle, but twisting the bottle just a tad as you finish pouring may help as well. As for how much to pour: A standard glass of wine is five to six ounces, but that’s not a whole lot of help when you’re staring down an empty glass. Don’t worry; the glassblowers have your back. Many wine glasses are designed so that the ideal pour will level out just above the widest part of the bowl. If you don’t trust your eyes, trust your hands. Practice pouring out a glass with water until you can feel the rhythm of the correct amount.
What type of glass should I use?
There are actually quite a few types of glasses, but the standard tulip glass will serve most wines well. “In terms of the vessel, the reason the universal glass has a tulip shaped bowl is that when you do swirl it, the aromatics come together so when you stick your schnoz in there you can smell everything,” Grieco explains, but don’t feel you need to drop serious cash before you’re ready to invest properly. “If all you’ve got at home are coffee mugs, that’s cool. Or go to the store and buy some utilitarian glasses, preferably with stems. It’s going to cost you around $5-6 a glass. That’s enough. You don’t need—though they’re very nice—highfalutin glasses that are going to be $50-60 for a single stem.”
How long will an open bottle of wine keep?
If you recork the bottle and stick it in the fridge (next to your vermouth and fortified wines), you should be able to save it for a few days. Red and white usually last three to five days, while sparkling and natural wines could go quicker, from one to three. Just check it before you serve it, and don’t worry if a bottle has turned. Don’t think of it as losing a bottle of wine. Think of it as gaining a bottle of vinegar.
Is it okay to mix wine into cocktails?
If you’re trying to learn to appreciate wine, it’s best to stick to straight pours. But if you’re just trying to cut loose and polish off a bottle, go ahead and mix up your favorite wine-tail. Wine-based drinks range from simple spritzes, to old-school classics like the New York Sour, to mulled Glogg, to Instagram-bait like this Spiked Red Velvet Hot Chocolate.
Any other advice?
“Ultimately, if I had one request,” Grieco says, “never, ever, ever drink the same wine twice. At any one time there are 55,000 different wine labels that you can buy. Why would you ever f*cking drink the same wine twice? You don’t need to. Explore the entirely of the world of wine.”’