A Sommelier Demystifies Ordering Wine
"Can you recommend a full, fruity red wine?" I asked the waiter. "Something like a malbec or a syrah." My dinner partner squirmed. "You sound like you know a lot about wine. I don't know anything!" Wine is funny like that-people are always offering up disclaimers about their lack of expertise, as though they've somehow missed a lesson the rest of the world has committed to memory. I've never once heard someone order a Tito's and soda with the caveat that they don't know much about vodka. Truth be told, I'm far from an expert-with just a few winery tours, a corporate workshop, and plenty of happy hours as my reference-but finding a few go-tos has allowed me to successfully bluff my way through your average restaurant wine list. Ask me about tasting notes or vintages, though, and I'll freeze like a wino in headlights.
So, why are we so intimidated by "winespeak?" Certified sommelier and award-winning illustrator Maryse Chevriere has a few ideas. "I think there's a bit of a barrier because there is so much to learn…there's a different language around it," she says. "You have the geography thing, the history thing, the different taste profiles and the fact that taste itself is subjective. It's a lot, and it freaks people out."
Unlike food, which is often described in ways that feel familiar and personal, wine seems to demand that we level up and discuss it in "proper" terms which, Chevriere says, casual drinkers often use incorrectly. "People cling to words like 'dry'… saying you want a dry red isn't as helpful, as most red wine made around the world is dry," she explains. "Beyond the question of what color you want, think of the body scale; do you want something lightweight, brighter, fuller-bodied, rounder? How do you feel about tannins? Do you like red fruit flavors or darker, inkier flavors? Things like that will help us sommeliers and waiters suss out what you might like."
If you think a "tannin" is a new cream to give you a sun-kissed glow, don't be afraid to get creative. "I love words like funky, loud, aromatic, and savory," Chevriere says. And it gets even weirder: "I recently heard someone say, 'I like the way this tastes, but it smells like feet,'" she recalls. "She wound up ordering a glass…a little sweaty sock never hurt anybody!"
Above all, she encourages those who want to learn more about wine-and feel more confident discussing it-to taste as much as they can. "Find a good wine bar or wine shop that hosts tastings. Talk to reps or winemakers. Go to a bar where you can have three different tastes of something, and really pay attention to what you like," she suggests. And don't feel self-conscious about rejecting a wine, either: "Never apologize for tasting!" Chevriere says. "Be open to trying new things, but don't be afraid afraid to defend your palate. Communicating what you don't like about something can help us find a wine that you do like."
Once you understand your preferences, feel free to talk about them however you like. Sure, a few meaningful phrases can be helpful but Chevriere encourages people to approach wine in the same way they do food, using descriptors that feel true to their own tastes and experiences. Translation: Not everyone needs to sound like a sommelier. Just maybe don't ask your bartender if they can recommend a wine that smells like feet.