How to explore the world of wine without going broke

Photo by Dan Murphy

Photo by Dan Murphy

For a long while, being educated about wine made you fancy or, so it seemed, automatically a snob. Knowing about liquor meant you were a drunk. Knowing about sake made you exotic but somehow not in a good way. Knowing about beer, though, went from being blue-collar to kinda cool to being practically mandatory depending on your neighborhood.

The wide-open firehose of enthusiasm around craft beer, thanks especially to taprooms and sampler flights at beer bars, has made trying and learning about a wide range of beer easy and economical. But in wine’s case, the cost of exploration escalates quickly. So how do you learn about wine without ending up penniless?

First: the internet. It’s free! My go-to for fun learning is Madeline Puckette and her team started with some clever infographics and have built a great resource for education without pretension. Maps, graphics, and pictures galore with accurate information. From there, googling a specific topic will turn up articles from Decanter, Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and a host of other reputable sources. However, treat blogs with a measure of caution; some are outstanding, while others can be inaccurate or biased to the blogger’s perspective, which will hinder you from forming your own perspective.

Second: Drink at home. When I switched from being interested in wine to studying wine, I gave myself a budget every month and went out and tried as many new wines as I could within that budget. You can spend it all in one shop, but I encourage patronizing several stores for this reason: retail buyers have their own preferences. When you’re starting out you want to taste a wide range of styles and wines to get familiar with the whole spectrum, not just what one buyer is into.

Related Post: Wine in the Age of Beer: A lesson in hedonism

After you get the wines home, look them up (during the first glass, not the fourth) and see what makes them tick. After a while, terms like “lees aging” and “battonage” will start to make sense. Key things here are to A) use a wine app to track what you’re trying and B) do not repeat purchases. If you find you really like garnacha from Calatayud in Spain, find a new one and not the one you bought last time, (e.g. one from Campo de Borja, Cariñena) before branching out into French grenache (same grape).

Don’t like the new wine? Why? Look up the last one, compare them and see what’s different about them. Also, change up how you use your budget. Instead of six bottles for $10 to $15, get three or four bottles for $20 to $25. The only danger here is that eventually you’ll be unwilling to spend less than $15 because you’ll get used to better wine (but thrilled when you find that amazing $13 bottle).

The tasting room at Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

The tasting room at Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Third: Take it on the road. Try flights of wine at restaurants and wine bars. Take advantage of the Coravin system at restaurants that have it. Hit up tastings at your wine shops to try new things (for free!), or take a class. In between, a book like “The Wine Bible” (one I always recommend) can shed light into the more far-flung corners of the wine world. In short, leave no stone unturned. See a weird grape on a restaurant menu? Try it or ask for a taste. See a really boring label in a shop? Ask about it instead of going for the cute label (marketing).

Once you have more knowledge, you can find the deals. You’ll have X-ray vision with restaurant wine lists. You’ll walk through the France section of a liquor store and know Pouilly-Fumé is a great value option when Sancerre is getting more expensive or that you prefer your Provence rosé with some cinsault in it. Or, if nothing else, when you’re looking for bubbles for mimosas you’ll know “brut” is dry and “extra dry” is slightly sweet. Depends on your goals.

Above all, have fun with it. Don’t let anyone tell you you shouldn’t like something or a particular grape or region is always bad. Be the judge of that for yourself. Good luck!