How to not embarrass yourself while talking about wine

Andy Kryza
Andy Kryza

If you’ve ever choked up at a restaurant when the sommelier asks if you’ve had a chance to look over the wine list, or developed an immediate vendetta against anyone who claims to be a “wine expert”, then fear and hate no more. While your vino knowledge may be lacking, read up on these nine scenarios to save yourself from being pigeonholed as a wine philistine.

bottles of wine
Flickr/Jeff Kubina

1. Don't say you'll just drink anything

Whether you're at a bar, restaurant, or house party, if someone asks what wine you’re in the mood for, don’t say that it doesn’t matter and that you’ll drink anything. It’s good to have an opinion, because it shows confidence. If you’re really unsure, a good rule of thumb is to think of your preference for beer or coffee as similar to your preference in wine. Let’s say you’re a fan of hoppy lager beer; that means you might enjoy delicately fruity and floral wines, like a Beaujolais. If you take your coffee black, this says you might prefer wine that's a bit earthy with bright acidity, like a Pinot Noir. Form your opinion by thinking through other beverages (foods, too!) that you gravitate toward and make a choice: “I’m feeling like red wine today.” Bam, red wine coming up. 

wine grapes

2. Don't guess on the grapes

Sometimes people who work in winery tasting rooms will try to stump visitors with a question like, “Can you guess what grape this is?” If you don’t know the color of a wine based on the name of the grape, don’t play this guessing game: 50/50 odds do not a Kentucky Derby winner make. The next time you’re asked, don't embarrass yourself by confusing Pinot Noir (red wine) for Pinot Grigio (white wine). Rather, turn the tables and ask your own question: “Can you guess how much money I’m going to spend here?”

3. Don't be a grape racist

Don’t ever announce that you “hate white wine” or “hate red wine”. This is an immediate tip of the hat to any discerning wino who is looking to sniff out the defensive novice. Declaring war on a wine because of its color will warrant a barrage of questions and humorous jabs at your expense from any wine aficionado within earshot. Instead, if you really hate red wine, come up with a good reason, like “my ex drank it” or "I don't drink things that are the color of blood" or “I had a bad experience with red, so I'd prefer to stick to white tonight”. Also, realize that no two red wines are alike. It's time to put those long-held grudges behind you and pick up a bottle of red again.


4. Remember that Bordeaux is not a grape

If you've ever heard someone say “Bordeaux is my favorite grape”, you've probably seen every wino around them wince. People confuse the region of Bordeaux, located in the Southwest of France, with the label “Bordeaux blend”, which refers to the five noble Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. You can mention any of these five grapes as your favorite and avoid confusing a critical wine-growing region with a fruit.

bottles of wine
Andy Kryza

5. Don't say you prefer 'dry' reds

If ordering a glass of red, and the server asks what style you prefer, don’t say, “I like reds that are dry.” Eyes will roll immediately because all wine pros know that most red wine is dry -- that is, all the sugar has been fermented into alcohol. The sensation of “sweetness” in a bone-dry red wine is caused by the presence of super-ripe fruit, which tricks your palate into thinking “sweet”. Instead, say that you prefer reds that are “less fruit-forward in style”.

bottles of bubbly
Dan Gentile

6. Know your Champagnes vs. sparkling wines

If you are not drinking a bubbly that hails from the Champagne region of France, do not announce that you “really love this Champagne!” If you make this mistake in the presence of basically anyone who works in the beverage industry, you’ll get the age-old lecture that unless the bubbly was made in Champagne (a region in the Northeast of France), it ain’t Champers; it’s sparkling wine. And while you’re at it, don’t call Prosecco anything other than Prosecco. And don’t call Cava anything other than Cava. Play it safe and talk about the “bubbly”.

Charles Shaw wine
Twitter/Conor McDonough

7. Don't announce an arbitrary price limit

When discussing the price of wine, don’t say, “I won’t spend more than $20 on a bottle.” Capping yourself to an arbitrary dollar amount makes you look amateurish. The rules of supply and demand apply to wine and account for why one wine might cost $80 and one $8 a bottle. The expensive wine might be one bottle of just 1,200 made, while the $8 wine is one of 4 million bottles produced. There are a number of factors that affect prices, from production size to the cost of grapes to the reality of how far it traveled to find your glass, so keep an open mind. Talk about your ideal budget for spending money on wine at a bar or a restaurant. You might also learn something by finding out what others spend.

wine list

8. Don't fear the wine list

When the sommelier asks if you’ve had a chance to look through the wine list, don't freak out and pass on the 200-page vino novel for a beer -- breathe and remember: Yes, he’s way better-dressed than you, but it comes with the prestige of his role at the fancy restaurant where he works and where you are the dining customer. Don't be afraid to ask questions -- his job is to offer helpful information. Try ingratiating yourself with something like, “I’m not familiar with many of these selections, but we really like white wine. I’m having the duck and she’s having the Mahi Mahi, and we’re looking to spend about $75 on a bottle.” There, you’ve proved yourself in front of your date, and the somm has a roadmap to help you find the perfect bottle.

9. Quit hating on Merlot and sniffing corks

Stop talking about the movie Sideways and how you don’t drink Merlot, because someday you’ll say it to a winemaker who makes Merlot, and he’ll punch you in your Merlot-stained teeth. And don’t ever smell a cork to determine if the wine is good -- do you sniff a dog’s ass to see if it’s male or female? We hope you won't do either.

Jonathan Cristaldi is the deputy editor of The SOMM Journal. He thinks his friend Michael is an idiot for storing his favorite Sicilian wines on top of his refrigerator. If anyone wants to know why Michael is an idiot for doing this, follow and tweet JC at @NobleRotNYC.