Drinking wine can be one of life’s more pleasurable experiences, whether you’re enjoying a glass over a good book, drinking with friends in celebration of a special event, or pairing with a delicious dinner. But if you don’t know much about wine, the dizzying array of available options can seem bewildering and overwhelming. In this article, we ask Camille McDonald, food and beverage manager at Restaurant 506 at the Sanford House Inn & Spa, to offer advice for the would-be wine enthusiast:
Let’s start at the beginning. What are the main categories or types of wine?
“Very simply, the three main categories of wine are white, red, and rosé. White wines tend to be lighter and more delicate in terms of appearance, consistency, and taste. Red wines can be more full-bodied and they are typically aged longer than whites. Rosé wines exhibit some of the fruit profiles of red wines, but they are usually made in a light-bodied style like white wine.”
Rosé wine seems to be having a moment right now.
“They do appear to be enjoying a surge in popularity, especially as a summer drink. Rosé wines can vary greatly, so if you try one you like, sample others in the same flavor family (drier or sweeter, depending on your preferences) to find your way to your favorites. There are also a lot of fun drink recipes online that have rosé as their starring ingredient.”
What advice do you have for someone who wants to build up a favorite wine list, but doesn’t really know where to get started?
“One way to become better acquainted with your own preferences is to think about which varietals you’ve tried and enjoyed in the past. (If you don’t know what a varietal is—this term refers to wines made primarily from a specific type of grape. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are all examples of popular wine varietals.)
“Let’s say you’ve noticed that you always like Chardonnay wines. A good next step would be to go to your local wine store and ask for recommendations in the Chardonnay varietal. Try as many as you can, making note of the different regions where each wine is made. As you find wines you like, try more from the same region.
“A particularly fun way to find out more about your palette is to visit wine bars that offer tastings or wine flights. You can try three different wine varietals side by side, and then ask for more recommendations based on your reaction to each.”
How can you tell if a wine is “good” or not?
“If you enjoy it, then it’s a good wine! Remember, it’s your palette and your experience, so don’t be afraid to like what you like or have strong opinions, even if you don’t know much about wine.”
Got it! But until you find out more about your own palette, how can you order wine without looking like you don’t know what you’re doing?
“Again, it’s okay to have an opinion, even if you don’t know much—and it’s even more okay to ask for help. Let the server or bartender know what you like and what you’re thinking about ordering for your meal, and then ask for suggestions. If he or she knows that you prefer sweeter wines to drier wines and that you’re thinking about having seafood as your main course, they should be able to offer some informed recommendations.”
Any tips for the budding wine enthusiast who wants to build a home wine collection?
“It’s always good to have a few bottles of red wine on hand, especially the full-bodied varietals like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. They age better, so you don’t have to worry about the wine losing flavor because of a limited shelf life. Next, you might also add some popular whites based on the guidance of your local wine shop or your observation of your white wine-drinking friends’ preferences.
“Then you can start adding bottles of your favorites as you discover them—and it doesn’t hurt to get a little adventurous, too. Ask your wine shop for recommendations from different regions—Spain, South Africa, Napa, Sonoma, and so forth. Or do your own research to find intriguing options that you can pour or offer when you or your guests are in the mood to try something new.”
Speaking of research, any suggestions regarding books or websites that can help someone learn more about wine?
“You bet! I really enjoy The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil—it’s full of fun facts, information about wine producers, historical backgrounds of different wines, etc. I also highly recommend winefolly.com. This site offers a “Wine 101” guide that’s great for beginners, wine reviews, tips about food pairings, you name it.”
Tell us a bit about the wine experience at Restaurant 506.
“Our goal is to offer a wine drinking experience that is consistently reliable in terms of variety and quality, but that also allows guests the opportunity to discover interesting new favorites. In addition to rotating our wine selection regularly, we periodically offer a specialty wine list or a wine-themed dinner, and we also offer some of our more expensive wines by the glass (instead of just by the bottle) so that cost isn’t a barrier to trying something new.
Camille McDonald is food and beverage manager at Restaurant 506 at the Sanford House Inn & Spa, one of Arlington’s premiere fine dining and lodging destinations.
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