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Wine 101: Easy Wine Facts for Beginners

California red wine

While wine can often seem intimidating or overly sophisticated, it can actually be quite simple. We spoke with a few experts whose tips will help ease your entry into the world of wine and wineries. 

 

Visiting Wine Country

Eat a hearty, mild-flavored breakfast. Staying away from pungent foods will allow you to taste the wines fully. And preserve your palate: no chewing gum, soft drinks, or cigarettes. – Rob Mondavi, Jr., winemaker for Spellbound  and Emblem Wines.

Don’t be surprised if you don’t taste it. Everyone’s palate is a little different. When one person might taste cherry, another might not. Listen to your taste buds! – Sean Green, Wine Consultant, VJB Vineyards & Cellars

Go places where you can taste an array of different varietals. Don't box yourself into thinking you only like whites or only like a certain variety. – Kerri Laz, Wine Director, Dean & DeLuca.

Beginners should take a winery tour, but don’t plan too much. Newbies will need time to breath, so take the day easy and relax. – Stefan Soltysiak, Director of Wine Education at Rodney Strong Vineyards.

 

Russian River Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Lonely Planet

Drinking, Buying and Serving Wine

While pairing wines, keep in mind "what grows together, goes together!" so California grown wines usually go great with local produce and cuisine.
– Sarah Murray, Maisons Marques & Domaine

Decanting doesn't equal buying an expensive decanter. For young, new world reds, dumping unceremoniously into a every day pitcher is fine. – Paula Brooks , proprietor, Dancing Hares Vineyard & Mad Hatter

Avoid the headache! Sulfites are often blamed for headaches, but there are more sulfites in a hot dog than most wines. Consider tannin (found in big reds and thick skinned grapes) and type of oak barrel (New and/or American Oak are biggest) as the catalyst for red wine induced headaches. Pinot typically avoids both. – Michelle Reeves, owner, David Family Wines

Find a wine store you trust and connect with a person. A relationship with a wine retailer will serve you well and give honest feedback so that he/she will better understand your palate. – Kelli White, sommelier at Press.

Putting open bottles of red wine in the refrigerator will keep them fresher longer but serving wine too cold suppresses flavor; so serve the cheap stuff chilled. Also, serving wines too warm makes alcohol volatile, so even reds should have a slight chill to them. – Master Sommelier Emily Wines, Director of Wine at Kimpton Hotels.

 

Reading a Wine Label

The year on the label is when the grapes were picked. 

If the wine label reads "California," 100% of the grapes are from California. 

If the wine label lists a specific county, e.g. Sonoma County, at least 75% of the grapes are from that county.

If the wine label lists an AVA, e.g. Russian River Valley (in Sonoma County), 85% of the grapes are from that AVA, in this example from Russian River Valley.

If the wine label is a vineyard designate, e.g. Monte Rosso Vineyard, 95 or 98% of the grapes are from that vineyard.

– Courtesy of Nick Frey,  Sonoma County Winegrape Commission