Learn your own tastes, first
You walk into a bar and sit down with a drink menu. You glance back and forth at the page, desperately grasping for a familiar word, but all you see are some specific obscure brands of liquor, a French wine from a grape called Viognier, and fancy words for sugar. It’s not a problem that this restaurant has chosen to differentiate its stock from the bars next door, but it is most certainly a problem when you simply want a glass of Chardonnay—I mean, not inherently, but in this situation. It’s a problem because you know you like unoaked Chardonnay from California, but you’re not hip to all the wine lingo that would allow you to properly express that to a complete stranger. You look up at the bartender, who you can tell is already expecting you to say something dumb, and ask, “What’s good?”
Well, what’s good is subjective. That bartender can respond a variety of ways. One of which is the eyeroll, accompanied by something like, “All of it, that’s why it’s on the menu,” or another comment of equal snark and boredom. We’re all familiar with this, but, luckily, it isn’t the most common response. To make yourself feel a bit better, know that it likely comes from lack of ability or desire to properly engage in the conversation. Maybe the bartender hasn’t even tried any of the wine offerings by the glass, or maybe he just broke up with his significant other. Who knows? Humans, right? The other response, and, hopefully, the more frequent, sounds a bit more like, “What do you usually drink?” That’s more like it. The bartender has opened up discourse and is asking you to trust him. See if it works. Even if it doesn’t, at least you had a good interaction, and these days those are worth at least ten dollars.
You could, however, try to eliminate the attitude gambling altogether and be clearer with your desires. Notice I didn’t use the word “should.” Only you know what’s right for you. Start with the last time you had your favorite wine. So, before you keep reading, go get a glass of your favorite wine. If it’s midday, and you still have responsibilities, grab a quarter glass. We won’t tell anyone.
Dunk your nose in the glass and slowly breathe in. Close your eyes and scroll through your index of familiar smells. Think of fruits, vegetables, pets, sports, outdoor environments, and weather patterns. Think of every olfactory memory you can recall, and try to connect the dots between the wine and the memories. Take a sip of the wine, and swish it around. Make sure it hits every part of the inside of your mouth before you swallow (or spit it out if you’re not drinking). Then totally disregard whatever your mouth is telling your brain. That first sip is just an acclamation sip, and your mouth will think of most decent wines as more laced-up upon the second.
Take your second medium-sized slurp of this wine, get some air into it, and, again, make sure the wine touches every surface inside your mouth before you swallow it. This process will yield two separate experiences. How does the wine feel in your mouth? Think of its sweetness, alcohol, acid, and whether or not it feels viscous, thin, slippery, chewy, or gritty. There is no wrong answer, there is only what you experience. Right after you swallow, slowly breathe out through both your nose and your mouth. This is called retronasal olfaction, and it refers to smelling not through your nostrils, but from the back of your mouth. This is largely what we call flavor. This is where you’ll really pick up pear, peach, mineral, damp leaves, tennis balls, blueberry skins, or whatever other wild tasting notes wines from around the world can produce. Play that game again where you try to connect the memories to the juice.
Your favorite wine, as you now know, feels like AB&C and tastes like XY&Z. If you’re describing this to a bartender with hopes of finding something you’ll like similarly, stick to broad strokes such as “I like bright, tart white wines with a little fruit to them.” If the bartender knows the wines being served, he’ll be able to make the best choice for you. Ask to have a sample of whatever is suggested, and, if the wine in front of you isn’t your cup of tea, perform the same analysis we discussed above, and try to pinpoint exactly what it is you don’t like. Try to express what you’d fix about this wine in order to make it your favorite. Dial back the sugar, and bring in a little more tart. Use any words you think make sense; there is no objective truth to this. There might be a lot of commonly accepted ways to talk about booze, but the beauty of tasting wine and spirits is that it’s all a moving target, an exercise in human communication.
So, when you ask that bartender “what’s good,” the only information available to that bartender is what most people think is good. Odds are that if you’re reading this article right now, and you’ve made it this far, you’re not into what most people think is good.
The only way to get what’s good to you is to get good at recognizing and verbalizing the experiences you like having. I suppose this translates well into almost every piece of life, but the only one I’m qualified to talk about is this one.
In an ideal world, we’d all be so good at expressing ourselves that no one would even have cause to roll their eyes and blurt, “All of it, that’s why it’s on the menu.” Learn who you are and what you like, and your drinks will get much, much better. But, please don’t get too good at this, or I’ll be out of a job as a bartender. That said, the more you know, the better I can serve you.
WHITE: Aligote. It’s a white grape grown in Burgundy where Chardonnay (and pinot noir) is known to have originated and thought to show its best self. This wine is no slouch and can be a slight veer off the beaten path for a Chardonnay drinker.
RED: French Malbec. Get into it. The flavors you’re used to will still be there, but, this time, they’re more likely to be back up vocals. There’s a really, really wide variety of expressions of this grape, and they all go with foods in the meat family flawlessly.
ROSE: Val de Mar Brut Nature Cremant Rose. This is a champagne method sparkling rose not from Champagne. Rather, it’s from Burgundy and made from 100 percent pinot noir. Brut Nature is the lowest sugar level designation of sparkling wine, so this one is a great sipper or pair for food, as it doesn’t require excessive acid to balance its very minimal sugar. This is one of my desert island bottles.