When it comes to wine, our decision-making abilities look something like this: We're either gambling with a hastily-grabbed bottle from the wine shop's suggested section, or we're playing it safe with the first recognizable glass on the wine list. Unless we go for our usual $12 Sauvignon Blanc (you know, the one with the trusty critter-adorned label), the chances of ending up with a wine we don't really enjoy are high. Although we should feel empowered to ask shop owners or restaurant sommeliers to help with our selections, finding the right way to ask — without looking like a total newb — often escapes us. "I know it seems hard, but don’t get overwhelmed," Sayle Milne, certified wine educator and founder of Wine Savvy NYC, tells Refinery29. Because according to Milne, all that stands between feeling like a beginner and unleashing your inner wine expert is filling in the blanks to the following statements and then repeating them to your sales associate, server, or sommelier:
The last wine I had that I enjoyed was ____.
The reasons why I enjoyed it were ____.
I want to spend ____.
Milne stresses honing in on the "why" when building off past bottle successes for future purchases. "There are no wrong answers. Just focus on really paying attention the next time you drink a glass of wine. If you can pinpoint two things you really like about it, that’s great....In the same way, if you aren’t enjoying it, try to find two reasons why and tell those to the person helping you," she says. But even pinpointing previous qualities in the wine we've enjoyed can feel difficult to verbalize — so when in doubt, Milne suggests using a mental checklist first for guiding yourself in answering the "why":
Was the wine really fruity?
Was it bright and acidic, salty, or was it oaky?
Did it taste like citrus fruits (lemons and limes), tree fruits (apples), or fruits like strawberries and black cherries?
Was it light or heavy in your mouth?
Did it have earthy flavors like something you would pick out of your garden (mushrooms or green bell peppers)?
Did it smell or taste like cooking spices (cinnamon or nutmeg)?
Did it smell like cedar or tobacco or coffee?
Was it smoky or savory like cured meats?
If all else fails and you still feel tongue-tied, Milne recommends turning things around by asking the sales person or server which wine they're most excited about and why. "True wine lovers cannot wait to geek out on you and share their knowledge. By asking them what wine they think is exciting, you can let their talents shine and take some of the pressure off of you," she shares.
Whether you consider yourself a savvy expert or timid beginner, wine should never feel exclusive. With its wide ranges in price, flavor profiles, and geographical origins, we can all feel empowered to try something new. "Just remember, wine is your passport to see the world. What country do you want to go to tonight? Think about what hands were in that soil? What was happening in the world the year those grapes were harvested?" says Milne. Next time we'll be leaving that $12 Sauvignon Blanc with its trendy-looking label behind, because as Milne explains, "Drinking the same wine every night is like turning down a first class, round trip ticket to anywhere."