1. Buy good stuff
By “good stuff,” I don’t mean expensive stuff. Sure, some very high priced wines can be amazing. Just because it’s an expensive bottle, though, doesn’t mean it’s going to be good, or ready to drink, and there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from simple, well made, inexpensive wines. I mean wines made by people who produce wine because they have a passion for it. Stay away from the industrially produced, mass market, grocery store selections and head to your local wine store. They stock good, everyday drinking choices too—wines they’ve handpicked that will give you more complexity and enjoyment than what you’ll find at the grocery store, for as little as $10, $15 and $20. I guarantee you’ll be much happier with a real wine from a good wine store at that level than you would be with something for the equivalent price from a place that doesn’t specialize in wine. Just like a tasty, memorable meal starts with good quality ingredients, so does a tasty, memorable wine experience. Buying a well made, inexpensive wine (or even a costlier one, if you feel like a splurge), is the first step toward real wine enjoyment.
In the Palo Alto area, you can’t go wrong getting a staff person to help you find a good, inexpensive wine at places like Vin Vino Wine (on California Avenue), K&L (on El Camino Real in Redwood City or 4th Street in San Francisco), Beltramo’s (on El Camino Real in Menlo Park) or Artisan Wine Depot (Villa Street in Mountain View).
2. Use proper wine glasses
Again, good wine glasses don’t have to be expensive. I buy my stemware for $5 a glass, or less. The wine glass should be clear, not colored, so you can fully enjoy the color of the wine. Most importantly, it needs to have enough room in it so you can pour the wine to about a third of the volume and swirl it, without the wine ending up all over your hand or the floor.
A surprising number of good restaurants still provide patrons with only tiny wine glasses and then fill them up to nearly the top. This totally deprives the diner of the pleasures to be had from smelling the wine, which nearly always requires a bit of swirling of the glass to aerate the liquid. Often if one asks, though, the restaurant will provide better quality stemware for the wine knowledgeable diner. At places my wine buddies and I frequent that don’t have good stemware, but excellent food, we take the trouble to bring along our own wine glasses, to allow us to obtain all the pleasure that’s available in a good wine—from the smell, as well as the taste of wine that’s been properly aerated in the glass.
3. Serve at the right temperature
At restaurants, I often find white wines are served too cold, while reds are served at room temperature, which in California is usually too warm. Wine that’s served a little on the cool side isn’t a problem, as with time in the glass it will eventually warm up and then show more of the complexity and depth that is usually concealed when poured from a bottle that’s been taken right out of the refrigerator. Wine that’s served too warm, however, is a real waste, as it’s not easily possible to cool it down once it’s been poured into the glass. When wine is too warm, the alcohol starts to vaporize and change the wine’s balance, making the alcohol smell and taste predominate. Under those conditions, the wine loses all the subtle flavors and nuances it will show at more ideal temperatures. Room temperatures typically run from 65 to 70 degrees. Red wine should be served more at the 54 to 60 degree range; whites should be served at the 48 to 52 degree range, and even cooler in the case of sparkling and very light white wines. Lighter red wines, like Pinot Noir and Tempranillo, benefit from being served even cooler than bigger, richer reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
The easiest way to quickly, yet gently, cool a bottle is to place it in an ice bucket with some ice and water for several minutes. If a restaurant brings you a warm bottle, which too frequently happens, ask them to bring an ice bucket for it and give it eight to 10 minutes in the ice bucket before pouring.4. Give the wine some air
Most wines—except for old and very delicate wines—will benefit from some aeration. Younger red wines especially need some air to help them open up and soften their firm tannins.
There are a variety of ways to provide wine with some air—the easiest of which is to pour it into a glass and leave it for several minutes. Pouring wine into a decanter (which can simply be a glass pitcher) is also a great way to give the wine some air, both from the act of pouring it into another vessel and from the larger surface area of the wine in the decanter that comes in contact with the air. There are also a variety of oxygenating devices sold these days that can give some added airing to wine as it is being poured from the bottle into a glass.
I highly recommend testing this for yourself: try a young red wine when it is first poured into the glass, and then again 20 minutes or so later, so you get a sense of how exposure to air helps soften and “open up” the wine. Or take a taste of a wine when a bottle is first opened, and then pour it into a decanter and give it 15 to 20 minutes before tasting it again. Once you compare, I am sure you too will prefer giving your wine some air whenever time and circumstances allow.5. Spend time smelling the wine
I can’t stress this final tip strongly enough. Too many of us start sipping a wine immediately after it is poured without getting the benefit of all the wonderful sensations a wine has to offer. Much of the beauty of a well made wine comes through its delicious aromas, which often change over time while the wine sits in our glass. I always spend at least a minute or so drinking in those aromas, by putting my nose deep in the bowl of the glass, before any actual drinking. The smells are often quite complex and remind me of a variety of spices, fruits or foods, as well as bringing back memories of other experiences and locations. Once I do taste the wine, I compare the taste to what I sensed through my nose. Often the smell was quite similar to what comes through in the mouth, but many times the taste will be very different from what I expected by smelling the wine.
By following these five simple tips, I guarantee you will get more enjoyment out of your next glass of wine. And I, for one, believe that’s what wine is there for—to be enjoyed, as well as to add to our enjoyment of a meal or special moment. As Benjamin Franklin so wisely wrote in his 1779 letter to the Abbé Morellet, wine is “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” We owe it to this divine gift to make sure we do what we can to enjoy it to its full potential.