Don’t get flustered about what wine to choose — get smarter instead

It’s only natural to get a little flustered when a waiter hands you an impenetrable wine list. Or when your mind goes blank trying to decide what to pick up at the local wine shop, the one that mostly seems to carry bottles you’ve never heard of.

But becoming smarter about wine — figuring out what you really like and, perhaps more important, what you should plunk down good money to buy — that’s not as hard as it might seem.

Take it from Michael Franz, editor of the excellent Wine Review Online.

“You can learn a lot in a hurry,” Franz told a gathering of wine enthusiasts at a recent tasting event hosted by the Washington Wine Academy.

Wine democracy

Franz is one of those experts helping to promote a democratization of the wine scene with a philosophy that essentially says your own palate is the best judge of what tastes nice and what doesn’t.

The trick is learning to tell the difference between various styles and brands. And that, Franz said, comes down to just a few basic questions: What’s the grape variety, where was it grown and how was it made at the winery?

Much of that kind of information can be absorbed by doing a little homework. One place to start is the Wine 101 tab of the Professional Friends of Wine website. Focusing on some 80 selections that are of most interest to U.S. consumers, the listings not only tell you what aromas and flavors to look for in a grape variety but also how and where it’s grown.

Nothing beats sipping

Reading about wine is all well and good. But nothing beats actually doing some sipping at an organized wine tasting, where you’re likely to be more attentive and analytical about what you’re imbibing. Other advantages include having a large collection of types to test all at once, being able to compare tasting notes with others and getting encouragement from an experienced group leader.

Case in point is the Washington Wine Academy’s two-part “ABC’s of Wine” program. Each delicious part featured four pairs of different wines (not to mention a glass of chilled bubbly on your way into the conference room to shake off the workaday cobwebs).

Guiding us through the tastings with steady humor as well as expertise, Franz would point out, for example, how geography and climate can lead to some not-so-subtle differences that we might notice among wines made from the same grape variety.

Don’t despair

“But if you get them all wrong, it does not mean you should go back to beer!” Franz declared to a round of friendly laughter in advance of a blind tasting. The odds get better with practice, he assured us.

To find a place to “practice” near you, check out and Wine Events Calendar.

Or try out the Advanced Wine Search tool on the upper right of this page: Just type your city and state (e.g., Napa, California) in the text box, hit the Search button and then click on the “Tastings” link just above the initial results.

Trust me, you’ll feel much better next time you face a snooty wine list or find yourself roaming alone around wine shelves.

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