How to Tell if Your Wine is Bad

Corked?

Corked?

Have you ever wondered if a wine has gone bad after tasting or smelling it? Ever heard someone say, “This wine is corked!” without really knowing what they were talking about? Have you ever worried you might get sick because you drank wine that tasted “off”?

Some people may define a “bad wine” as one they simply do not like. Disliking a wine due to a preference for a particular style, variety, or characteristic should not be confused with wines that have faults. 

In this article we will focus on wine faults, typical causes, and what to do if you run across the rare bottle that is truly bad.  

Why all this worry about wine flaws?

Bad wines (or wines with faults) are not as common as they once were. Still, there are many wine consumers who may be afraid to order wines at restaurants or purchase wines from a bottle shop with the concern that the wine may be bad.

Wines with faults were more common in decades and centuries past. Before reliable transport (refrigerated rail cars, refrigerated semi-trailers, air travel) wines risked the possibility of being “cooked,” frozen, or mishandled during transit either across the country or across the oceans (we discuss specific faults and causes of faults later in the blog!).

Technology in wineries has also improved the quality of wine. Minimal intervention wines still take steps to ensure that wines are stable, whether through natural or chemical means, so that they taste great and look delicious sitting on the shelf or in the display at a fine dining establishment.

Competition in the world of wine is also increasing, which drives poorer wines out of the market. Additionally, emerging wine regions get help from flying winemakers. If you have had a bad wine from a region or rural area in the United States even 10 or 20 years ago, consider going back and trying the wines from that area again to see if they have improved.

Some consumers consider a wine to be bad if it is one-dimensional (having only one flavor) or if they simply did not like it. There is some ownership required by consumers in discerning the types of wine they might like. That’s why a sommelier may confirm your order more than once, because he/she may know that the wine you’ve chosen is outside the ‘normal’ consumer pattern and does not want to open a bottle of wine that you may not like.  

Last, if you do buy or get a bad wine, let the merchant know as soon as possible.  When purchasing wines from retail shops or the winery, keep the receipt. If the wine is bad, most wineries or retail shops will gladly refund your money or give you a replacement bottle. They realize that an occasional bottle will go bad and have factored that into their bottom line.

Still, it’s important to remember that there’s a 97% - 99% chance that your wine is just fine!  However, in your drinking life, you may come across a few bad wines. Here, we discuss a few common symptoms of bad wine and how you might detect that they are bad.

Does unopened wine go bad?

Yes, unopened and even properly stored wines can go bad. 

There are some ways to tell if the unopened wine might be bad just by using your eyes!  Here are some visual clues to tell if a wine might be bad before opening.

  • Take a look at the top of the bottle of wine. Is the top of the cork flush with the bottle opening?  Or, is it raised up (coming out of the bottle) or sunken (going into the bottle)? Raised or sunken corks could indicate that the wine was exposed to high temperatures or pressure changes during shipment or storage.  

  • Just like some beers in clear bottles (like Corona), wine in a clear bottle can suffer from light strike and become “skunky” if it is exposed to light for an extended period of time.  So if you are shopping for wine and that bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is a little dusty (and its vintage is more than three years old), consider passing that bottle up for a newer vintage. Wines in clear bottles are designed to be enjoyed within 1-2 years of release. However, there are always exceptions in the world of wine, as some ageable wines like Sauternes do come in clear bottles.   

  • Ullage is just a fancy term for the ‘headspace’ in a bottle of wine.  If the wine is fairly young, there should be no ullage and the level of wine in the bottle should be the same as similar wines on the shelf. 

  • If you find that the cork is dry and brittle when you are opening a bottle of wine, there is an increased likelihood that the bottle might be bad. However, you’re going have to engage the nose and taste buds to determine this. There’s a good chance that oxygen was able to get past the cork and into the wine if the cork shrank. We’ve worriedly opened some older bottles with brittle corks and found that the portion of the cork near the wine was just fine and the wine tasted wonderful.  

What if my wine smells bad?

When you (or the sommelier) pour the wine into the glass, take 2-3 seconds to look at the wine for anything strange, like cloudiness, or color that looks a little off. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask the server if the wine looks the way it’s supposed to. If you’re at home, there are great online tools for color of wine by style.

If you’ve visually inspected the wine bottle and have successfully freed the cork from the bottle at home (or have been presented with the wine at a restaurant), your next step is to engage the sense of smell.

In movies or on television, we often see people smelling a cork.  Unfortunately, smelling the cork is not actually going to help you determine if the wine is bad or not.  Instead, raise the glass to your nose and take a few discreet sniffs (short sniffs, like a when a dog meets another dog at the park and they check each other out) and see if there is anything strange or revolting. If you notice an unpleasant smell but have no idea if that smell is normal, just hand the glass back to the server and ask him/her to check it out. What you smell may simply be a characteristic unique to a wine you are unfamiliar with. Or, it could be a wine fault.  Remember, there is a 97 to 99% chance that your wine is just fine!

Last is the taste test.  I never trust the first taste because a lot of that first taste depends upon what you put in your mouth most recently.  I always take a tiny amount and discreetly swish it around my mouth and quickly swallow. Then, I get to the second sip. Almost always the wine tastes just as it should.

But if the wine really does taste off, you have a couple of options.  At the restaurant, ask the waiter or sommelier to pour themselves a sample to confirm the off-flavor and then ask for a replacement bottle.  If you are at home, replace the screw-top or cork in the bottle, place it in the fridge, and locate your receipt. Then take the bottle back to the wine store in the next couple of days and ask the wine seller to take a sniff or taste test. Most of the time the merchant will replace the wine or offer a refund.  If you purchased the wine from a winery, call or email the winery and ask about their wine replacement or refund policy.

What are some aromas or flavors I will encounter in a bad wine?

There are a number of descriptive words to describe wine faults (typically undesirable bad aromas).  These common words are actually associated with molecules or groups of molecules. Here are a few of the most common wine fault descriptors and the associated molecules. Some of these tastes and aromas are universally agreed-upon faults, while others are more ambiguous.

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Oxidation (addition of oxygen during winemaking) and the flavors and aromas of a Brettanomyces infected wine are two types of ‘flaws’ that some would argue are pleasant and desirable depending upon the wine and wine style.  This debate is becoming more prevalent with the increase in the number of natural wines on the market. But, this is a topic for another article!

Where do wine faults come from?

Wine faults can be introduced at any time during the winemaking process and can be influenced by vineyard practices as well.  Their presence can be influenced by vineyard management (rootstock, trellising systems, watering timing, grape cultivation, harvesting, sorting, pressing, fermentation, winemaking, aging, bottling, storage, and transportation). 

At just about any time in the wine making process, something might go wrong. Depending upon the phase in the process, the vineyard manager, winemaker, or transporter may be able to remedy an issue or not. At times, the fault may be so severe that the production of certain lots of wine is a total loss for the year.  

In summary, many of the wine faults are introduced during fermentation and aging, resulting in undesirable molecule formation that may or may not be perceptible to human noses and taste buds. 

What if my non-sparkling wine is fizzy?

So you’ve opened a bottle of wine and heard a pop, even though you didn’t purchase a sparkling wine. Or, you feel the texture of tiny bubbles on your tongue and did not expect them.

In aromatic white wines like Riesling that are bottled young, you may run across such a phenomenon. This occurrence is typically not considered a fault. The bubbles are remaining from the primary fermentation or a little bit of CO2 was added at the time of bottling for a little lift of freshness.

In less aromatic white wines (like Chardonnay aged in oak) and in most red wines, the presence of fizz is most likely a flaw.  The effervescence, in this case, is likely from a secondary fermentation in the bottle after bottling. If the wine is a little cloudy, that often confirms that a secondary fermentation took place as the cloudiness is yeast or bacteria bodies in suspension.  

Why does my wine have no flavor?

Sometimes the wine's fault is that it has little to no flavor. This fault is a little more tricky to figure out, especially if you are at a restaurant and the server or sommelier is hovering over you asking if the wine is “okay.”

In this case, the first thing to check is the temperature.  If there is no aroma and flavor and the wine feels almost ice-cold, then you’ll have to wait until the wine warms up a little bit to see if aromas emerge.  For the same reason that most American lager is served at ice-cold temperatures, some low-end wines are also served at a very low temperature. This is because these wines simply don’t have a lot of flavor and many quality issues can be masked by serving wines at a too-low temperature.

If the temperature of the wine is good, then it could be that the wine needs some air or decanting in order to open up its aromas.  If you are unsure if the wine needs decanting, ask your server or sommelier if this is the type of wine that needs air, especially if you’ve never had that particular type of wine before.  If you are at home, you might want to investigate your wine on an App like Vivino or CellarTracker to see if others have had the same experience.

Why does my wine taste like vinegar or fingernail polish remover?

If you detect a sharp, acidic smell, that is the aroma of acetic acid (vinegar smell) and ethyl acetate (nail polish remover).  These compounds are created naturally by yeast and bacteria native to the vineyard.  

Winemakers try to control this by controlling the amount of oxygen exposure during winemaking.  While this can be fairly easy to control in commercial winemaking, once one starts to introduce aging in oak barrels, this type of acidity can become more prevalent.  The problem becomes a noticeable flaw when there is too much acetic acid produced and the acid reaches a flavor threshold or detectable level.  

Some wine drinkers are more sensitive to - and prefer to varying degrees - the amount of these acids present in wine. There’s nothing we can do to fix this fault in wine once it is present. 

What do I do with bad wine?

If you come across a bad wine, the best remedy is to speak to the merchant at the shop where you purchased the wine.  Most people who sell and serve wine know that an occasional bad wine is just a part of doing business.

If you purchased the wine from a winery, send them an email or give them a call, explaining what you experienced. In your message, describe the fault to the best of your ability. Most will take measures to refund your money or send you a new wine of the same or similar vintage.

If your wine is bad (or you have some old wine that you suspect is bad) you might want to consider ordering a vinegar mother and making your own vinegar.

What happens if I drink bad wine?

You won’t get sick from tasting bad wine, only if you drink too much of any wine!  Alcohol acts as a preservative, so even if there is a secondary fermentation after bottling, once the alcohol level gets to a certain point, yeast and bacteria die out.  As wine ages, it becomes vinegar. This happens for some wines faster than for others.  

How to Prevent Wine from Going Bad

Proper storage away from heat and light will help keep your wines in good shape if you store wine at home.  Check out our article on wine refrigerators and storing wine if you’d like to learn more.  

Want to geek out on wine faults?

Want to know more about the color of wine as it ages and about wine faults without all the chemistry?  Check out the James Beard Award-winning Wine Folly Master Guide.

Wine Folly: Magnum Edition: The Master Guide
By Madeline Puckette, Justin Hammack

More reading on wine faults for the citizen scientist:

Reading not enough?  Try a wine fault kit and spike some wines with fault aromas!

In conclusion

Now you know the most common ways your wine can go bad.  Wine faults continue to decline as vineyard managers, winemakers, and the distribution channels use more technology to reduce the chances of wine going bad. This blog offered some tips on how to use your sense (and your wits and resources!) to determine if wine is actually bad or just unpleasing to your palate.

We’ve also confirmed that nothing bad will happen to you if you happen to taste some bad wine.  Every human has a different level of sensitivity to all these aromas and flavors, so there is no need to fear that you do or do not smell the same things as your drinking partner if you do come across a bottle with a fault and you disagree on the fault.

If you do happen to purchase a bad bottle of wine, let the retailer know.  This feedback is very useful to retailers, distributors, and winemakers. Don’t think that you are bothering the person or being a difficult consumer - your feedback is helping the world of wine!  Bring the wine to the retailer so that he/she can help you in identifying the defect, if possible. If you have a bad experience with the retailer, contact the manager or the distributor. Don’t let your hard-earned cash go to waste.

And here’s to the 97-99% of wine that’s fault-free!

Cheers!

How to Remove Labels from Wine Bottles

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If you’re a wine and craft beer enthusiast, a winemaker, or a crafter (or are just curious!), you may find yourself needing to remove wine labels from bottles. Here, we offer an overview and specific details on how to get a label off of a wine bottle for a variety of purposes. As you’ll see, there is no one-size-fits-all methodology for removing wine labels.  

Why remove the label from a wine bottle?

Wine enthusiasts and scrapbookers may want to remove a wine label to save it in a wine journal or scrapbook. Winemakers remove labels for the purpose of re-use - they remove commercial labels from the bottle before adhering their own.  Last, artisans and crafters often use wine bottles or wine labels for crafts such as wine bottle glassware, wine tile coasters, or framed wine labels as wall art. 

What should I consider before removing a wine bottle label?

First, remember to keep the bottle you want to remove the label from! Far too often, a wine bottle disappears from the table or from the party before one thinks to save the label.  Once the bottle disappears, the only option remaining is to send a self-addressed stamped envelope (via snail-mail) to the winery and ask if they have an extra label from that vintage. Explain that you did not keep your bottle and that you want the label for your wine journal.  

Next, determine if you are able to take the bottle home with you or if you must remove the label there at the event.  Not being able to take the wine bottle home will significantly reduce your options for removing a wine label. Your only options then are the Lift-Off Method and the “kindly ask your server or sommelier if they can remove the label for you” approach!  

Once you have the bottle home, you’ll need to assess the label and the associated adhesive.  Determining which item you wish to keep - the label or the bottle - will dictate the method of removal you use.  

How do I decide the method of label removal for a particular bottle?

What is the label constructed of?  If the label is plastic (more like a sticker) it will be less permeable to water.   If it is plastic, then removal will often require heat or physical means (such as a razor) regardless if you are trying to save the label or just the bottle.

If the label is paper, then it is more permeable to liquids and a different removal method may be needed depending on if you are trying to save the label or the bottle.

Labels adhere to wine and beer bottles through a variety of adhesive polymers. These include pressure-sensitive adhesives (sticker-like) and water-based glues.  Since many of us are not adhesive experts, we will be assessing the label using visual assessment to guess the composition of the glue and to select the label removal method with the highest likelihood of success.

To assess the adhesive construction, take a razor or knife and lift a corner about ¼ inch.  If the adhesive looks like traditional glue, the use of a detergent and water-based method can be considered.  If the adhesive looks more sticker-like in consistency, then heat or physical means (razor, peeling) will be your best bet.     

Wet Label Removal Methods

So, the label you want to remove from the wine bottle looks to be a more conventional glue composition - these label types are typically more water-soluble.  

The OxiClean Method

Based on our personal experience, as well as those in most wine and craft beer forums, we find that the most successful method is the OxiClean approach. We’ve used the OxiClean method on both paper/glue bottles as well as plastic labels with adhesive. If you don’t have Oxiclean in the house, try a comprable household cleaning product.  

Here’s an effective OxiClean label removal method we found in a craft beer forum:

  1. Fill sink (or bucket) with one gallon of water and ¼ cup Oxiclean.

  2. Submerge the wine bottle in the liquid.

  3. Wait thirty minutes (during which time you may as well enjoy a glass of wine!).  Depending upon the adhesive, you may return to find your wine label floating in the sink intact.  

  4. Take a utility knife and slowly lift up on the edge of the label.  If the label is not easy to peel off after thirty minutes of soaking, it’s not going to come off using this method without significant elbow grease. You might as well resign yourself to drying the bottle and trying a dry method. 

  5. Work the utility knife under the label at a diagonal angle. Resist the urge to use your fingers to help speed along the process, as using fingers may result in adding wrinkles to the finished product.

  6. Place the wet label on a piece of waxed paper so that the wet adhesive does not stick to your counter

  7. Once your label is dry, use an acid-free glue stick to adhere your label to your wine journal, your prepared coaster, or photo frame.  Check out this article for making your own wine label coasters.



    Other Household Cleaners to Use for Wine Label Removal

    Ammonia

    No OxiClean?  No problem. Household ammonia is another product, in combination with water, which can aid in dissolving adhesives. Instead of using ¼ cup OxiClean replace it with ¼ ammonia. The ammonia method, in our experience, is a little less effective than the OxyClean method.  

    Baking Soda

    Only have baking soda on hand?  Add 5 to 10 tablespoons to one gallon of warm water and follow the same steps as the OxiClean method.  

    Hot Water

    No OxiClean, no ammonia, no baking soda?  Try placing the bottle in boiling water, or filling a sink with hot water and dish soap and letting the bottle sit overnight.  Regardless, there is going to be some elbow grease involved to remove the adhesive residue.  

Accessories for Wet Method Wine Label Removal

Regardless of your method - OxyClean, ammonia, simply hot water - if your aim is to discard the wine label and use the bottle for crafting or home winemaking, two products are indispensable.

First, you can scrape the residue with a straight razor or this slightly safer razor with a handle. If you scrape too hard, you can scratch the bottle.

You can also try a non-abrasive scrubber that is gentle and won’t scratch the wine bottle unless you apply superpower strength.  

Still a little bit of adhesive?  Goo Gone is our go-to product for adhesive removal.  After using the Goo Gone, we recommend thoroughly washing the bottle soapy water before re-using to adequately remove the Goo Gone (Goo Gone residue may interfere with your crafting products).

Dry Label Removal Method

Label Lift Method

This method is for the crowd who wants to keep the label in a wine journal or affix it to cardstock for a souvenir.

Our favorite Label Lift is the Onephile Label Lift. We’ve found that this label lift works well when following instructions - we’ve yet to come across a label that gets ripped or torn by the process.  

To apply the Label Lift, simply place it over the label, rub for 1-2 minutes with the backside of a spoon or other hard object, then peel the label. 

Before placing the label in the wine journal or book, you can trim the edges.

These label lifts come in packages of 10 or 50.  To get the hang of it, we recommend getting your technique down with a label from a wine or beer you don’t intend to keep, or practice by first removing first the back label (which most people don’t collect).

This lift label package also fits nicely inside a notebook or wine journal for easy transport.  

The one downside is that the wine label now appears laminated.  If that is not a look you are going for, then try the Oven Method.  

Heat (Oven) Method

So, you don’t like the idea that your wine label appears laminated after removal. Perhaps you would like to make a wine label trivet or mount the wine label onto cardstock for framing.  Or maybe you collect them for eventually making a collage for your wine cellar (lucky you!). Try the heat method! You’ll need some oven mitts for this one.  

First, make sure there is no wine inside the bottle.  Also, make sure that the foil cap or wax bottle cover is removed so there are no foul odors when heating the bottle.  

Place the wine bottle on a cookie sheet (or in a baking dish so it is not rolling around in a dry oven) at 350 degrees F for 5 minutes.  Remove the bottle from the oven and check the readiness of the label for removal by testing the back label. Slip a razor or knife under the label and start to peel slowly from one corner. Don’t force the label or push with your fingers as this is how labels get crinkled during removal. If the label does not give, give it another 5 minutes in the oven. If after 15 minutes the label will not come off, you will have to use another method (like the OxiClean method) as the adhesive needs to be dissolved to come off cleanly.

That’s a wrap … and a few bonus tips!

We’ve provided you with several options for removing wine labels from the bottle, whether you are wanting to keep the label or the bottle!

Removing a label from a bottle of wine is never a perfect endeavor.  A little trial and error is involved in the process as well as some elbow grease.

If you don’t want to go through all this effort, here are two options:

  • You can ask the waiter to remove the wine label for you if you are enjoying a special bottle of wine in a restaurant.

  • You can send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the winery and ask for a pristine label.  They may have one available to send to you (however, it won’t, of course, be from the specific bottle you drank).

Let us know which methods you’ve used in the comments!

Cheers!

Opus One Winery: The KnowWines Review

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We’re fortunate to have been visiting the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country for about ten years. In those years, we have visited  Opus One multiple times. As fellow wine enthusiasts and seasoned travelers, we understand that anonymous reviews in public travel forums often give little insight into the wine experience (and you often can’t gauge the experience of the person writing the review!). As the price of wine tours and wine tastings increases, we aim to help our fellow experience seekers know what to expect! In this blog, we’ve put together our insights on the renowned Opus One winery.

Things to Consider Before Purchasing an Opus One Tasting

The Opus One tour is ideal for anyone interested in a luxury wine tasting experience. It’s perfect for the following types of travelers: 

  • Wine enthusiasts who want to see and taste the fruits of the historical collaboration between Napa’s Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild

  • Wine collectors who want to taste the current vintage of Opus One, one older vintage of Opus One, and/or the winery’s second label Overture

  • Fans of architect Scott Johnson of Johnson, Fain & Pereira

  • Fans of Bordeaux-style wines 

  • Fans of cult Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine

This experience is not ideal for wine enthusiasts looking for a fast, boisterous, casual tasting.  This experience is not for wine lovers seeking out white wines, sweet wines, or a range of different wines. Finally, this wine tasting experience is not for travelers seeking out small, independently owned wineries specializing in bespoke grape varieties. 

Before purchasing the Opus One wine tasting or tour experience, you will need to consider the following: 

  • How much do you want to spend on the experience? 

  • How long do you want to visit and what do you want to see? 

  • Do you want to taste the current release or three different wines?

What is Opus One?

Opus One started as a partnership between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The aim was to craft a wine combining winemaking approaches from both Napa, California and Bordeaux, France.  They aspired to craft a wine that would become their “Opus.”

While the two met first in 1970, it was not until 1984 that the first vintages (1979 and 1980) were released. Opus One was not crafted in the present facility in Oakville until 1991. Prior to 1991, the wine was made at the nearby Robert Mondavi winery.  

To learn more about this partnership and its significance in American Wine History, check out the House of Mondavi. It’s quite amazing (from both from an enology and from a marketing perspective) that a First Growth Bordeaux - Château Mouton Rothschild - would partner with a newer winery from ‘upstarts’ in Napa Valley.  

Opus One wine (and the second label wine Overture) are Bordeaux-style blends comprised of  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The grapes in Opus One originate from the estate’s approximately 100 acres of vineyards.

Here are the pros and cons of an Opus One tasting experience at the winery.

Pros

  • A serene and elegant tasting experience

  • No one under 21 allowed

  • Great views of Napa Valley

  • Unhurried tasting experience

  • Arrive early and avoid crowds

Cons

  • Tasting fee not waived with purchase

  • No picnics, no pets

  • Plan several days ahead for reservation during the peak travel season 

Choosing Your Experience

Booking

Opus One makes it very easy to book your visit. The website outlines several types of winery visits depending on your budget, interest, and desired experience. When you purchase your ticket online, you quickly receive an email confirmation.

There are a few tasting and tour options available. However, Guided Tours and Library Tastings are not available until the end of 2019 as the winery is undergoing renovations.  Opus One Tasting Appointment at the Pavilion is the only tasting currently available during the renovation.  

We purchased our tickets three days in advance for a 10:00 am tasting on a Sunday.  The weekends can be very busy, as well as weekdays during summer and harvest. To avoid crowds and get more 1:1 attention, we recommend choosing tasting times earlier in the day.  

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Arriving

The Opus One winery is located near Oakville, California at 7900 St Helena Hwy, Oakville, CA 94562.  It is located 70 miles north of SFO airport in San Francisco and 13 miles north of Napa, California. Drive time from downtown Napa is about 20 minutes in the off season, but can be an hour or more during peak season as the road narrows from four lanes to two lanes north of Napa.

If you are approaching the winery from the south on Highway 29, look for Oakville Grocery on your right. The entrance to Opus One is the next driveway on the right. If you approach the winery from Oakville Cross Road from the east, there is a service entrance that is sometimes open if you want to avoid Highway 29.  If you approach the winery from the north on Highway 29, you will need to take a left turn across northbound traffic (which is not a pleasant experience on the busy weekend or on a rainy day!).

The gates to Opus One are closed outside business hours. However, there is enough room off of Highway 29 to pull off onto the driveway to get out of the flow of traffic.  

As you approach the winery from the main driveway, you will see its distinct architecture, which say is reminiscent of a spaceship.  There is ample parking on the north and south sides of the winery.  

As you walk to the main entrance, you are greeted by creme colored limestone columns, olive trees, grassy lawn and the large wooden doors.  

It is behind these doors where you find the concierge who will direct you to your tasting.   During renovations, a temporary tasting pavilion will be set up near the winery.  

Opus One 2013 Opus One 2015 Overture Tasting Napa March 2019.jpeg

Our Tasting Experience

On our most recent visit, we chose the Opus One Tasting Appointment as this was the only tasting currently available during the renovation. This tasting consists of one 2 oz. pour of 2013 Opus One, 2015 Opus One, and Overture for $75. Wines by the glass were also available for purchase.

The concierge checked us in and walked with us to the tasting salon called the Partners’ Room. The check-in process was much like a visit to a high-end department store like Saks or Bergdorf’s.  

In the Partners’ Room (or Pavillion, during renovation) you can select wine by the glass or by the tasting flight. 

Seating is available in the Partners’ Room as well as outside the tasting room. Alternatively, you can climb the stairs and take in the views of the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains as well as a good portion of the Napa Valley.

We planned for 90 minutes to enjoy the wines and walk the grounds.  Water and crackers are available upon request at no additional cost.  Feel free to ask the host questions about the wine and winery - if the room is not crowded, most are happy to visit with you for several minutes to answer any questions.  The staff has always been helpful in recommending additional tasting rooms, dining options, and lodging recommendations in the area.  

When you return your glasses to the tasting salon, you have the option to purchase bottles of the wines you tasted.  Opus One is distributed throughout the United States and the world, so check with the hostess in the Partners’ Room or Pavilion to find out if the wines are available in your state or hometown.

If you do purchase one or more bottles at Opus One, check out our article on getting your wines home safely.

Social Proof

Throughout the years, we’ve been sending friends and colleagues to this winery.  Most enjoy the experience, as do many online reviewers. Like us, the positive reviews highlight a serene tasting environment, knowledgeable staff, a relaxed pace, great views, and attentive but not pushy service.  

Most negative reviews of Opus One are on the topic of price and the winery not accommodating children and pets.  Also, some visitors prefer ‘warm’ country-cozy ambiance or the rustic elegance they experience at some other wineries. This winery’s ambiance is much more ‘cool’ and Neo Classical, true to the intention of combining European traditions with California wine.  There is only one style of wine to taste here, and some are disappointed in that as well.

Alternatives

We’ve visited 100 wineries in Napa Valley in the past 10 years, and as such, we’re able to provide recommendations for other wineries in the area should you find the price too high or you are simply not able to get in for a tasting.   

Wineries that allow children

Wineries that specialize in Bordeaux-style blends:

Other Cult Cabs:

Conclusions on Opus One Winery

If you like serene tastings and savoring one wine for 30 minutes or more, go here - you won’t regret it.  Also go if you just want to see what all the fuss is about. We do recommend going during the off-season or in the morning hours before the crowds descend.  We’ve never felt pressured to purchase wines after the tastings.  

If you are looking for a boisterous experience that never gets too serious about wine, don’t go here.  Don’t go here if you are looking for a glass of "cheap" wine or a bar-like experience.

If you are wanting to partake in a library tasting or a cellar tour, contact the winery and check when these tastings will be available again following construction.  

Cheers!

Top Nine Wine Books by Women

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There are so many books that can aid you in learning about wine!  

Spend any time around wine lovers and experts and you will quickly find that most are avid readers. In studying for any of the wine certifications through entities such as WSET (Wine and Spirit Educational Trust), CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers), Wine Guild, and Certified Specialist of Wine, one will find that a lot of reading is involved.

It is no surprise, moreover, that many of these books are written by women - 8 out of 10 bottles of wine consumed in home are purchased by women! 

Each book on an aspect of wine has different ideas and different goals for the reader. When picking out wine books, there are many things to consider. 

This blog will help you differentiate typical types of wine books and help you decide which is best - and most interesting - for you.

Wine 101 Books

All wine novices, wine enthusiasts, connoisseurs, and sommeliers all started at the same place … the beginning!  But not all beginning wine books are the same. Some encourage us to memorize specific regions, while others focus on discerning aromas and flavors and demystifying “wine speak.” Some encourage us to explore the world of wine with abandon, while others suggest we focus on the classics. Some are text-heavy while others appeal with images and tables. 

Wine Folly: Magnum Edition: The Master Guide
By Madeline Puckette, Justin Hammack

Best Wine 101 Book for the Visual Learner

Wine Folly:  Magnum Edition

If you learn best through maps, eye-pleasing graphics, and smaller snippets of text, then Wine Folly:  Magnum Edition is the best wine book for you. This book was awarded the 2019 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Beverage. Wine Folly co-founders are Madeline Puckette (sommelier) and Juston Hammack (digital strategist). If you are a fan of the Somm movie series, you may have seen Madeline in Somm: Into the Bottle.

The book begins with a short overview of wine basics presented with graphics and images.  Basics covered include wine labels, types of wine, how to taste wine, how to choose wine, how wine is made, and how to pair wines. It then shifts into an overview of the major grape varieties and wines of the world, with charts and diagrams outlining their geographic distribution, acreage and what smells and tastes to expect. The book recommends wines to explore from each region.  

 
The 24-Hour Wine Expert
By Jancis Robinson

Best Wine 101 Book When You are Crunched For Time

The 24-Hour Wine Expert

Jancis Robinson, the most respected wine critic in the world and well known for authoring and co-authoring some of the heftiest wine books, distills over four decades of wine knowledge into this petite book. 

We love this easy-to-read overview written, with humor, in plain English. The book introduces key concepts then gets right down to the business of choosing the right bottle, matching wine and food to the occasion, and seeking out wine values. After explaining how to handle wine, the book covers the most common grapes and wine regions.

Fun and concise, this book answers many beginner wine questions and may leave you wanting to learn more about wine after following the suggested exercises. You can also check out Jancis in The Somm Series.

 

Wine Consumer Review Books

Not everyone who shops for good wine values is interested in learning a lot about wine. I get it. I love grilled veggies, but I’m not that into outdoor grills. If I need to buy a new grill, I’d consult a consumer review publication or do some online research to find the best grill at a certain price.

General wine review books focus on getting you the best value for your dollar on wines you see year-in year-out in large wine retailers like Total Wine, Target, and Wal-Mart.

For the more wine savvy, other annual publications focused on getting you the best value in a given vintage or vintage + growing region. These books are aimed at emerging or serious collectors placing orders online or through a local wine shop, or at those purchasing wines at restaurants.  

Best Wine Consumer Review Book

Good, Better, Best Wines

If you are looking for a good, cheap wine under $15 that’s available almost anywhere you shop, then this book is great to have on your e-reader App as you browse the aisles.  

Canadian wine judge and wine columnist Carolyn Evans Hammond covers the best $5 to $15 wines distributed throughout the United States and Canada. She covers Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Red Blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Rosé, sparkling wines, and other great inexpensive red and white wines.     

Harried shoppers will enjoy this book’s simplicity - Carolyn lists “Good, Better, Best” with an image of each bottle to make shopping a breeze. She also makes recommendations for those looking for a super low-priced Tuesday night wine as well as dessert wines and party wines.  The book ends with best hidden gems.

In addition to checking out Carolyn’s book, see our recommendations for wine shopping at the grocery store.

 

Wine Books About the Pleasures of Wine

Let’s face it, we consume wine for pleasure.

People who enjoy wine derive different pleasures from its consumption, which can include

  • The rituals surrounding wine service in fine dining

  • Relaxing with a complex glass of wine in your favorite chair

  • Exploring the pairing of wine with different food flavors and cuisines

  • Gifting or sharing a coveted bottle with family, clients, or friends 

  • Seeking out and finding underdog wines

  • ...and much more

These books encompass several aspects of the world of wine. The best combine culture, travel, gastronomy, and poetry.  

Best Pleasures of Wine Book for Short Story Lovers

Wine in Words

Wall Street Journal Wine Columnist Lettie Teague shares mini-essays on many wine topics including wine myths, wine culture, and wine exploration. We’re a big fan of Lettie’s wine advice, including “Drink what you don’t know.”

Lettie has been writing about wine for years and the stories in these essays dispense knowledge while gently poking fun at wine insiders.  





 
The Art of Eating
By Joan Reardon, M.F.K. Fisher

Best Pleasures of Wine Book for Foodies

Art of Eating

This book is a compilation of some of the most sensuous books on food and wine. Sixty years have passed since these works were written and they continue to delight readers.

If you want to go back to a time before busyness, microwaves, fast food, and food blogs, then get a taste of M.F.K Fisher’s food and wine writing. His dark humor is a reprieve from today’s “look at me” wine and food social media gastronomy content.

 

Wine Reference Books

Sommeliers and wine lovers collect books in much the same way we collect wine. Book collecting is a pleasure, as well as a necessity, for those in the business. Most wine certification programs require prospective sommeliers to read literature produced or recommended by the certifying body.  Wine reference books can be heavy tomes (some weigh in at more than six pounds!) which makes e-reader versions better on the back.  

Some of the books in this genre focus on breadth of coverage for wine servers, while others go in depth on topics like soils, production practices, wine chemistry, or wine region. 

Best, Most Comprehensive Wine Reference Book

Oxford Companion Wine

From “amphora” to “Zinfandel,” this is the wine reference book for serious enthusiasts and those studying for various wine certifications. Comprised primarily of definitions, maps, and images, it also includes topics such as the following: wine regions, history, viticulture, winemaking, grape varieties, famous wine people, and labeling and tasting terms. The book won the James Beard Award and many others.

 
The Wine Bible
By Karen MacNeil

Best Wine Reference Book for Tasting a World of Wine

The Wine Bible

Hey, it’s not called The Wine Bible nothing. 

Karen MacNeil’s wine tome checks in at over 1000 pages, so we find Kindle the easiest way to carry around all this wine knowledge. This book is the accumulation of years of tasting and wine education since she got her start in the male-dominated wine world of the 1980s. Where many wine books either skim the surface or go very in depth, Karen’s Wine Bible touches on a breadth of topics for both beginners and intermediate-stage wine lovers.

Its many maps, photos, travel stops, wine flavor profiles, and wine pairing suggestions make this the best wine book for travel to wine regions when you know just a little about wine. This book is good for analytical types who prefer text, tables, and diagrams that are clear and efficient. If you are looking for more infographics and less text, some of the other wine books we recommend here might be a better fit.   

 

Wine Essays and Wine Trends

Essays on trends in wine have emerged as a popular kind of wine writing over the past 10 years. These books often cover hot topics like sommelier and restaurant culture as well as vineyard and cellar practices.  

Best Unpretentious Wine Book of Wine Essays

Wine All the Time

Marissa writes about drinking in the real world, four-letter words and all.

Her journey started with drinking all the “two buck Chuck” wines of the world. Then she made a video series called Wine Time. After working as Mindy Kaling’s assistant for four years, Marissa landed a book deal and a role as Bon Appetit contributor.  

Between all the jokes and LOL moments, Marissa dispenses with some good beginner wine information.

 

Best Journalist-Infiltrates-Wine-Connoisseurship-Culture Book of Wine Essays

Cork Dork

Those wanting a front row seat to “rock-star” sommelier culture will enjoy this book. It reveals the lengths that somms and serious students of wine will go in pursuit of certifications. 

Journalist Bianca Bosker takes an investigative reporter approach to learning the world of wine in New York City. Fans of Kitchen Confidential and other “foodie” books may really enjoy this look into the world of the wine-obsessed.  

 

In Conclusion

As you can see, there are many different types of wine books meeting different needs. And we’ve only taken a closer look at wine books written or co-written by women!

Regardless of your wine reading intention, we hope you have enjoyed our recommendations of some of our favorites!

Cheers!








































Sweet Wines: More Sophisticated Than You Think

Wine trends come and go. Currently, sweet wines are the underdogs of the wine world. Why is this the case?

First of all, myths abound in the United States about sweet wines. The prevailing myths are that sweet wines are for “beginners,” or they’re “unsophisticated,” or they’re cheap and low quality.  The reality is much different; some of the most desired and collectable wines are sweet wines.

The snobbery that leads people to regard sweet wines as inferior may be the result of the stocking of your local wine aisle. There’s little doubt that a fair amount of the cheap and artificial-tasting wines in grocery and big box retail stores in the United States are sweet wines.  

Another reason sweet wines get a bad rap may have to do with larger trends of health consciousness in our culture, and how that consciousness shapes our perceptions of the word “sweet.” The digital world’s health gurus may push many of us toward orthorexia – the obsession with extreme healthy eating and little pleasure. However, those of us who enjoy some of the greatest sweet wines of the world in moderation will collect and consume those wines without the side of guilt the digital health gurus would serve us.  

What is a sweet wine?

Like many fruits, wine grapes are a source of natural sugar. This natural sugar accumulates in the fruits during the growing season. Yeast (Saccharomyces) consumes these sugars during fermentation. Dry wines result from the yeast consuming all of the sugars. In sweet wines, some amount of unfermented sugar, known as Residual Sugar, is left after fermentation.

Residual sugar finds its way into wine in different ways. Below are several ways sugars are concentrated or introduced into sweet wines. In addition, a few common examples of sweet wines are detailed and different pairings explored. At the bottom, you will find exciting videos about how sweet wines are made!

What is the history of sweet wine?

Fructose plus ethanol. Need we say more? In addition to satisfying our primal human desires for sweets and a buzz, residual sugar can help preserve wine. Sugar has been used for centuries as a natural food preservative (think sugar-cured ham and fruit preserves) to inhibit or prevent the growth of food-borne pathogens like Clostridium botulinum or Salmonella.

This kind of preservation was important in the time before corks, bottles, or refrigeration. In that time, wines were kept from spoiling by two main methods. The first was to add brandy or neutral flavored alcohol to wine to raise the alcohol percentage. The second way was to leave some residual sugar in the wine.  

In ancient and, even more recently, colonial times, these sweet wines were not always 100% stable – the presence of sugar and “sleeping” yeast could be a proverbial ticking bomb. Yeast, waking up from its slumber inside a container in warm conditions surrounded by all that yummy fructose, would consume the sugar and generate carbon dioxide bubbles. Winemakers discovered that adding sulfur dioxide suppressed the yeasts, preventing it from unintentionally waking up while in the bottle.

This sulfur dioxide innovation boosted an already expanding market for sweet wines, which were hugely popular in northern Europe and Russia from the 1500s through the 1800s. That love for the sweet stuff spread across the Atlantic and found raving fans in colonial America, some of whom included the founding fathers of the US.  

Sweet Wine Is for Beginners (and Other Myths)

A prevailing myth is that people start with sweet wine and “graduate” to dry and “more sophisticated” wines. Some wine consumers may indeed find that they take this path in their wine journey. More early sweet wine consumers switch from wine to cocktails, beer, or commercial concoctions (remember Zima!) because they are teased for liking sweet wines or for not being “real wine drinkers.”

One need only look over the fence at the beer world and its hyperfocus on IPAs to see that this phenomenon of the perception that there’s a “correct” beverage is not unique to wine. However we don’t see too many stout and sour beer lovers saying “I’m not really a beer drinker” because they steer clear of hoppy IPAs.  

As more research is done, we are learning that there are genetic and environmental factors that affect our preferences for sweetness, acidity, and tannins in wine. The wine industry is finally starting to incorporate these recent findings in some wine education curricula. Like any type of change, though, this incorporation of new ways to understand wine preference is happening slowly.  

If you are a beginner, start by drinking wine that you like. As you begin to understand what you like, start to test different food and wine combinations to see what appeals and what doesn’t. If you take notes on memorable pairings and stand-out wines, you’ll soon see that your taste in wine is not “simple” and that there is much to explore.

What is a good sweet wine?

Because sweet wines drinkers have been marginalized in the wine community, we are the first to doubt our taste in wines and seek out confirmation that the sweet wine we are drinking is good. Sweet wine lovers can rest assured that by stepping back and taking in the whole world of wine, one will see that sweet wines have been made for centuries in renowned wine regions for a variety of purposes.

Many of these sweet wines are highly sought after by wine collectors and sommeliers.  

Sweet wines like Sauternes and Auslese Riesling, and fortified wines like Vintage Port, are adored by collectors because their flavors and aromas evolve so much during their lifetimes, which can exceed 50 years.    

Big retailers are also interested in wines with residual sugar and have innovated with sweet wines to appeal to a mass market. Because the wine industry knows many of us have a sweet tooth, many red wine blends we find in grocery stores and big box retailers contain residual sugar. These wines fill a niche for consumers seeking sweet and fruit-forward wines ready to drink now.

What are some types of sweet wine?

Sweet wines made from frozen grapes harvested from the vine

In cold climates, grapes destined for sweet wine production are allowed to remain on the vine until the temperatures drop below freezing. These mature, frozen grapes are then picked by hand from the vine and pressed. These late harvested grapes are very mature and high in sugar.  When the frozen grapes are pressed, water is left behind with the skins, so what remains is a grape full of sugar and flavor. Yeast has a difficult time surviving high sugar conditions, so fermentation stops at lower alcohol levels.

A lower cost way of making sweet wines using freezing is to pick very mature clusters or berries and freeze them at the winery. These wine are labeled as “iced wine,” or in some cases, simply “dessert wine.”

Eiswein/Icewine are from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, France (Savoie), China, and Japan.

These wines are typically still (not sparkling), however some sparkling Icewine is made in Canada.  

The wine varieties used in the production of eiswein/icewine vary by country and region.  The more common varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay.  

These wines can be enjoyed upon release or following decades of aging.  Collectors and sommeliers love it due to the rarity and the pure varietal expression of the grape used.  This wine can be enjoyed by itself or with soft and blue cheeses.

Don’t worry about finishing that expensive bottle in one sitting!  These wines, once open, can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or two due to their high level of acidity and sugar.  

Video of Eiswine harvest and winemaking:

Sweet wines made by harvesting grapes late in the season

Drying (Passerillage) on the vine. Mature grapes stay on the vine and the natural forces of wind and heat dehydrate the grapes.  

Late harvest wines that wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter here in the US come from France (Alsace), Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and the United States.  

Other names for late harvest wines that you might see on wine labels:

France (Alsace):  Vendange Tardive

France (Jurançon): Vendange Tardive

Germany: Spätlese

Austria:  Same as Germany, plus Ausbruch

These wines are typically still (not sparkling), however there are some sparkling late harvest wines.

The wine varieties used in the production of late harvest wine vary by country and region.  The more common varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, Vidal Blanc, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng.  

These wines can be enjoyed upon release and some benefit from aging.  Collectors and sommeliers enjoy these wines because they pair well with sweet desserts and cheeses.

Don’t worry about finishing that expensive bottle in one sitting!  These wines, once open, can be stored in the refrigerator for three to five days.

Yes, there are a lot of names of late harvest wines.  And vignerons who make late harvest wines may make several types of late harvest wines.  This video shows how this is done in Germany.

Sweet wines made from naturally dried grapes

Drying (in a bin or in the hayloft!). Grapes are dried in trays or on straw in attics.  Yes, making raisins and then making “raisin wine”.  This is called the passito method.

Sweet wine made from partially desiccated grapes that wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter here in the US come from France (Jura and Loire regions), Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Dominican Republic, United States, Denmark, New Zealand

Here are some examples of terminology you might see indicating sweet wines originate from naturally dried grapes:

Italy:  Recioto della Valpolicella

Austria and Germany:  Strohwein or Schilfwein

Croatia:  Prošek

France:  Vin Paillé or Vin de Paille

The varieties used to make these wines are typically indigenous to the area, however international varieties are used as well.

These wines, once open, can be stored in the refrigerator for three to five days.

This is not an easy way to make wine.  The grapes are harvested late and then laid out to dry before being pressed.  This video shows how this is done in New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc.

Sweet wines made by Noble Rot (Botrytis)

Botrytis is a naturally occurring fungus that punctures the ripe grape. When this occurs, liquids ooze from the grapes, leaving behind a slightly desiccated pulp.

Sweet wine made from grapes with a desirable infection of botrytis come from France, Hungary, Germany and the United States.

France

  • Bonnezeux, Vouvray, Quarts de Chaume made from the Loire Valley (Chenin Blanc variety)

  • Sauternes, Barsac, Cérons, Bordeaux-Haut-Benauge, Cadillac, Loupiac, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, Saint-Foy-Bordeaux, Graves de Vayres, Premières Cȏtes de Bordeaux, Cȏtes de Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire, Francs-Cȏtes de Bordeaux, as well as Bordeaux Supérieur (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle varieties)

  • Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN) (Riesling, Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris varieties)

Hungary

  • Tokaji Szamorodni, Tokaji Aszú,  Aszúeszencia, Tokaji Eszencia (Furmint, Hárslevelű, Sárgamuskotály)

Germany

  • Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese

These wines can be enjoyed upon release, but some benefit from aging. Collectors and sommeliers enjoy these wines because they pair well with sweet desserts and cheeses. Once open, these wines can be stored in the refrigerator for up to seven days.

Sweet wines made by stopping fermentation by adding grape spirits

Yeast is not only sensitive to high sugar levels, but is also sensitive to high alcohol conditions.   Hundreds of years ago, winemakers in various regions of the world discovered that fermentation can be stopped by adding neutral grape spirit (mostly flavorless alcohol from grapes), dropping the temperature, or adding sulfur dioxide to the fermentation vessel.  

The following are favorite sweet wines made by stopping fermentation with still grape spirit:

France

  • Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise of the Rhône Valley (variety)

  • Vin Doux Naturels of Roussillon (Grenache)

Australia:

  • Rutherglen Liqueur Muscats and Liqueur Topaques aka “Australian Stickies”

Spain

  • Sherry, Andalucia/Jerez, Palomino and Pedro Ximenez, Oloroso Sherry, Pedro Ximenez (PX)

Portugal

  • Madeira - Malmsey (aka Malvasia)

  • Port (Late-Bottled Vintage, Ruby, Tawny, Vintage).  Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão and Touriga Franca.  

Late bottled vintage and ruby port can keep for a few weeks after opening in fridge.

Tawny port can keep in the refrigerator for a few months. Vintage port does not keep well after opening – we recommend sharing with friends in one setting.

Sweet wines made by stopping fermentation by chilling then using filtration to remove the yeast

Sweet wine can be made by fermenting in a neutral vessel like stainless steel and stopping the fermentation before the yeast have converted all the sugars to alcohol. A common way of stopping fermentation is to bring the temperature of the must close to freezing then filtering it to kill the yeast.  

In the United States, we are most likely to see two kinds of wines made this way. These are Moscato and Brachetto d’Acqui from the Piedmont region of Italy. What makes these two wines popular is their low alcohol, subtle effervescence, light body, and fresh fruity flavors.  

There are many different styles of Asti including Moscato d’Asti. The grape that these sparkling white wines are made from is called Moscato Bianco or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. These sparkling white wines can range from semi-sweet to sweet.  

If you like Moscato d’Asti and want to explore a bit, try demi-sec Champagne. If you find Moscato d’Asti not sweet enough, try Asti (formerly known as Asti Spumanti).  

Here’s a video outlining how Moscato and Brachetto d’Acqui are made:

How to serve sweet wines

Sweet wines are typically served in 2 to 3 oz pours in an 8 to 10 oz glass.

When serving sweet wines, white wines should be served between 40 and 48F, Tawny Port and sweet Sherry 54 to 61F, Vintage Port 64 to 68F and sparkling sweet wines at 40 to 50F.

There’s no need to purchase a dessert wine glass. I love universal glassware, like this glassware I’ve had for two years. It is a tulip-shaped crystal glass, amazingly clear, featherlight, and a pleasure to swirl. Also, the lip is super-thin.

In addition to pairing well with creamy and/or blue cheeses, sweet wines also pair well with fruit or nut desserts, with rich meats like foie gras and pate, and with ice cream.

A key to serving sweet wines with sweet foods is to make sure that the wine is sweeter than the food. If the food is sweeter than the wine, the wine may taste too acidic or tart for most drinkers.

Summary

As you can see, there are many types of sweet wines, and the work of making them is generally more intensive than the work of making dry, still wines. Many of these sweet wines are sought out by collectors and sommeliers.  

These artisan wines are often undervalued. The price difference between a “cheap” commercial sweet wine and a premium product is often less than a Frappuccino.  

The industry misses a lot of potential customers due to myths and stereotypes of sweet wine drinkers.  

Your Foolproof Formula For Finding Great Wine At The Grocery Store

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KnowWines understands that the wall of wines at the supermarket can be an intimidating place.  Often, people choose wine with a label that catches their eye or they grab a bottle they’ve tried before and know they like well enough (Apothic, Meiomi, Prisoner?). The problem with these approaches? Great labels don’t always mean great wine, and drinking the same Kendall-Jackson all the time can get pretty boring. Still, we understand that you’re busy and don’t always have time for a stop at the bottle shop, where you’re likely to get decent advice on the proper wine for your palate. That’s why we developed this quick checklist to increase your odds of selecting great cheap wines at a grocery or big-box retailer (like Wal-Mart, Target, Costco), where finding knowledgeable staff can be hit (or mostly) miss.

While understanding your palate  and preferences is the best go-to for finding great cheap wine, we know some tricks for zeroing in on the best wines when you’re on your own at Trader Joe’s or Safeway. Here’s what to look for:

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  1. Region. The more the bottle says about where it came from (specific appellation, specific region), the better the wine. Grocery stores know that many American shoppers purchase wine by variety from a specific region. Often, the best cheap wine will be your favorite wine variety from an up and coming region.

  2. Climate. If the climate of the origin of the wine is warm, the wine will likely be fruitier and sweeter. If the climate of origin is cool, the wine will likely be more tart or acidic. (You may need to brush up on your high school geography for this one!).

  3. Price. Ignore sale stickers. Whether or not a wine is on sale is not an indicator of quality or value. Instead, read the back of the bottle and look for descriptors that sound like something you would enjoy or not enjoy. The more it says about winemaking and the less its says about lifestyle, the better the value. In a similar vein, ignore supermarket shelf talkers. These are the colorful tags and other flair hanging below the wine shelf - usually they offer very little in the way of understanding a wine’s actual value.

  4. Labeling. Be aware of trendy gender and generational advertising norms and how they are applied in grocery and big-box wine aisle advertising. If the label is trying to appeal to these assumptions with phrases like “frazzled mom,” “diet-obsessed,” “lumbersexual,” or  “bRose,” chances are it is overpriced. Same goes for a really cool font. There are plenty of good wines and good wine stories that don’t pander to offensive assumptions.

  5. Bulk discounts. To explore a broader variety of wine, take advantage of the bulk discount by buying wine by the case. Most grocery stores like Whole Foods and Harris Teeter offer a discount on 6 or 12 bottles (typically 10% or more) at certain times of year. Perhaps your go-to wine is $9 but you want to try a different sparkling wine that sells for $25 — buying five of the $9 wine and one $25 wine can bring that $25 bottle down to $22.50, and you’ll save almost a dollar on each of your old standbys.

  6. Conversation. Talk to the person stocking the shelves. You might get lucky and find someone passionate and knowledgeable about wines. Show them what you like and ask what they consider a value. If they judge your selection, talk to you in a condescending manner, or simply can’t provide any good answers, just stick with our trusty checklist.

  7. Refunding or Repurposing. If you do buy a wine and it tastes like bandaids or cardboard (yuck!), has no flavor, or looks strange, ask for a refund.  Wine flaws originating within the winery are less and less common due to better sanitation and technological advancements in the vineyard and winery, however it is possible that the wine was mishandled after it left the winemaker. Most retailers like Total Wine, ALDI and Whole Foods would rather give your money back and have you return for another purchase. Also, if the wine is just not to your liking, consider using it for a wine cocktail, sangria, or mulled wine before pouring it down the sink. Then, try again next time! 

Happy wine shopping, friends! We hope this checklist will make it a little bit easier to end up with a great tasting wine on your table tonight. For an in-depth set of wine shopping resources, check out our list of great wine books!

Cheers!

14 Fun Facts About Champagne

Whatever your plans for February 14th and whoever you might be sharing it with (a lover, a spouse, a friend, or your very worthy self!), we’ve got fourteen fun facts to help you enjoy that celebratory bubbly. Even better, our list is a guide to champagne itself: where it comes from, what’s on the label and in the bottle, and how it’s made. Get ready to love that bubbly even more than you did before!

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  1. Champagne is closer than you think. In fact, the region is just an eight hour flight (RDU to CDG) and a thirty minute train ride (to Reims) away!

  2. With champagne, capitalization matters. When you see Champagne with a capital C, it refers to the region of Champagne; the little c refers to the wine itself.

  3. Bubbles used to be considered a defect! Up until the 17th century, sparkling wine was often considered defective by winemakers. Sparkling wine naturally occurs in cellars if temperatures drop in the autumn before fermentation is complete and the wine is bottled.  When temperatures warm in the cellar, the once dormant yeast become active and feast on the remaining sugars, causing effervescence when carbon dioxide from restarted fermentation is trapped in the bottle. We’re glad someone finally recognized the benefits of those bubbles!

  4. Champagne labels are written in a secret, coded language. (And we’re not talking about French!). Each bottle of champagne includes a code indicating the type of producer who made the wine in the bottle, but it’s not actually a secret. Here’s how to crack the code:

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RM (récoltant-manipulant): Grower producer, aka grower champagnes. Estate fruit for 95% or more of production.

SR (société de récoltants): Union of growers who pool resources and make wine under one or more brands.

MA (marque d’acheteur). Sell champagne as their own but don’t produce it themselves. One example is Kirkland Signature at Costco.

RC (récoltant-coopérateur): Grower-cooperator. Grape grower takes his/her grapes to a cooperative for winemaking and the wine is sold under the grower’s brand.

ND (négociant-distributeur): Merchant-distributor. Wine merchants who buy finished wine and put their own labels on them.

NM (négotiant-manipulant): Merchant-producer. Most of the large champagne houses and some of the smaller houses - they purchase more than 6% of their fruit from growers. Veuve Clicquot is an example.

CM (cooperative-manipulant): Cooperative-manipulant. Cooperative of growers band together and share resources and sell resulting wines under one brand.  

5. September is the magic month. This is when grape harvest typically occurs in Champagne, though it will vary depending on the weather. Grapes are harvested by hand and the amount harvested is regulated.

6. In France, there are over twenty rules governing the pressing of grapes! Grapes are pressed in either traditional presses or through mechanical means such as a pneumatic press. It’s possible that a single Champagne house will use a traditional press for Pinot Noir, but the pneumatic press for Chardonnay.

7. Not all the pressed grapes from Champagne end up as champagne. Some juice also goes to produce still wine, vinegar, fortified wines, and spirits.

8. In France you can grow up to be a cellar master (which is kind of like a French superhero!). It’s the cellar master’s job to blend the vins clairs (separate batches of still wines produced from different vineyards, varieties, and plots) and réserve wines (wine reserved from previous vintages to contribute to later cuvée blends). This creates a cuvée (which simply means, blend).  This process of blending is called assemblage.  

9. In Champagne, even red grapes can make white wine. Confused? Here’s how you know what color the grapes were before they turned into that beautiful bubbly:

Blanc de Blancs is white wine from white grapes. In Champagne, blanc de blancs is almost always 100% Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs is white wine from red grapes. In Champagne, blanc de noirs is either Pinot Noir or a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Rosé is typically Pinot Noir pressed or undergoing a short maceration before pressing to make a pink base wine.

10. Champagne is the perfect drink for blowing off steam (because it knows what it feels like to be under pressure!). The secondary fermentation of champagne takes place in cellars - it happens very slowly due to the cool temperatures. Carbon dioxide given off during the fermentation is dissolved into liquid, creating the signature fizz.  The pressure builds to between five and six atmospheres, or seventy-five to ninety pounds per square inch. That’s at least two times the pressure in your car tires!

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11. The cork on a bottle of champagne can withstand six atmospheres of pressure.  That seriously strong mushroom-shaped cork is secured by a muselet (wire cage). The bottles are placed in the cellar for a few months to allow for the dosage to integrate well with the rest of the wine. The dosage is a small amount of wine and sugar added back to the bottle once the yeast sediment has been removed.

12. In Champagne, there are no Champagne flutes or coupes. In the land where champagne originates, and increasingly in restaurants here in the US, champagne is served in a white wine glass so that one can enjoy the unique aromas of the wine. And while coupes are fashionable for building champagne towers, their broad shape allows bubbles to quickly dissipate. Personally, we love the Gabriel Glas Gold for any fine wine!

13. It’s possible to open a bottle of champagne without anyone getting hurt! Good news, right? Check out this short (< 3 minute) video and photo series for (safely!) opening and serving champagne.

14. You don’t have to drink the whole bottle. If you want to finish off that bottle, we’re not going to judge you. But if you want to save some for later, no worries. Champagne stoppers can be purchased from a kitchen supply store or from an online retailer. You can get a well-crafted champagne stopper from Italy or France for no more than nine dollars. The wine will keep for two to three days.

Happy February 14th from KnowWines!

Cheers!

Your Most Pressing Wine Questions Answered

Learning about wine can be as enjoyable as drinking it. This is what the KnowWines founder, Jolene, discovered once she decided to stop skirting the edges of the wine world and dive right in. Unfortunately, learning about wine can sometimes be intimidating, too, because there’s just so much to know. The key is to start where your interests lie. Love sweet white wines? Find out what makes them sweet. Learn where those grapes grow and how they maintain their sweetness in the winemaking process. Love earthy, dark reds? Start trying Cabernet Sauvignons from different regions and compare their aromas and textures. We believe that learning about wine is a personal, organic process, and that it can be fun, too. Even better, the more you learn about wine, the more you’ll enjoy it, because you’ll be able to find just the right wines for your palate.

In the spirit of a relaxed and lighthearted wine education, we asked our social media followers for their most pressing wine questions. Here’s what they asked, along with our answers:

What is the difference between Syrah and Shiraz?

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Syrah and Shiraz are actually the same grape variety (confusing, right?). The grape variety Syrah is commonly grown in the Rhône Valley of France (Old World), as well as in Australia, Washington State, and South Africa (New World). When Syrah was brought to Australia from France, the Aussies simply called it Shiraz.  

What is rosé, exactly? Is it a blend of different grapes?

It depends!  Since the insides of most red grapes are clear, winemakers get some that red pigment into the juice through a process called maceration. There are four approaches to making Rosé. Each of these approaches yields wines with varying levels of pink color due to the amount of time the red grape skins are in contact with the normally clear juice.  

In direct pressing, red grapes are crushed and pressed just like white grapes are when making white wines, but not too much — just enough to extract some red color from the dark skins.

In the drawing off method, red grapes are crushed and once fermentation starts, juice is “drawn off” for up to 48 hours of fermentation. These wines typically have deeper color than the direct pressing method.

The saignee (or, bleeding) method is like drawing off, but the remaining red wine is made into a more concentrated wine and the rosé is essentially a byproduct of the normal red wine making process.

The final method is blending, when red wine is added to white wine. This is only permitted in the EU for rosé Champagne. In New World regions, blending of red and white wines to make rose can be allowed.

None of the methods for making rosé indicate more or less quality. If you are new to rosé and would like to try one as an aperitif, I’d recommend starting with Provence. If you’d like to pair rosé with your meal, try some of the darker rosé from Southwest France, which tend to be a little more savory and have more tannins. As you learn what you like, try exploring rosé from different regions of the world.  

What exactly is Grüner Veltliner and how can I find a good one?

Great question! We love a refreshing Grüner Veltliner on a hot summer day. This grape is believed to be native to Austria, and it makes up about 30% of Austria’s wine production. Depending on the region where the Grüner Veltliner grows and the style of winemaking, it can have a variety of flavors. Wines from Grüner Wachau, Kremstal, Kampala, and Traisental are commonly imported to the US. They can be quite complex, as the grapes get really ripe and thus typically have more fruit flavor than the same grape grown in more northerly regions. Winemakers age these wines in large oak casks. As they age, they develop their sought-after toasty, honey flavors. The Grüner Veltliner from these regions can also be quite pricey. For a fresher, acidic style of Grüner not aged in oak, look for Weinviertel on the label, as it is typically a little less expensive than the other regions.

What’s the best red for people who prefer white wine?

A preference for white wines could indicate a dislike for several things associated with red wines: tannins (which some people perceive as too bitter or astringent), the mouthfeel of red wines, the darker fruit flavors of red wine, or the warmer temperature at which red wine is typically served.

Want to go easy on the tannins? Try a red wine variety that originates from grapes with thinner skins, like Gamay, Pinot Noir, or Barbara.

Don’t like a heavy mouthfeel? A higher alcohol level typically correlates to a heavier mouthfeel. Try looking for wines with a lower alcohol percentage (something under 12.5%).

Don’t like dark fruit flavors (like blackberry, plum, and currant)?  Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Gamay typically have more red fruit flavor (like cherry, raspberry, jam).

Perhaps you simply like wines served at cooler temperatures? Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc can be wonderful when slightly chilled.

Which wines pair best with chevre?

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It depends on the kind of goat cheese, but let’s start with a basic, plain chevre (not that there’s anything basic about a delicious chevre!). A wonderful pairing for this is a Chenin Blanc. If that’s not available, try Sauvignon Blanc or Vermentino. These grape varieties yield wines with acidity that helps cut through the creaminess of the cheese and have an herbaceous quality that many people feel pairs well with “goaty” cheeses. A goat cheddar, which is harder than the softer chevre, can pair well with Pinot Noir. One of our favorite goat cheeses is Humbolt Fog, which pairs nicely with an inexpensive Prosecco when it is young or Zinfandel when the cheese becomes more mature and “oozy.”

What are pros and cons to synthetic corks and screw caps versus traditional cork?  Are they as good or better?

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The main purpose of the cork is to protect a wine until it is consumed. Wines will evolve in bottles regardless of the type of closure. However, how they evolve differently between these natural (cork) and synthetic closures is still up for debate. Cork is still the most common closure and is used frequently by premium and luxury wine producers. Many wine consumers enjoy the celebratory experience of opening a bottle with a cork, but there are some advantages to screw caps for wines intended for quick consumption (in less than one year). Wine producers making this style of wine will opt for a closure like screw cap because they keep the fresh, fruity characteristics of the wine longer than natural cork. It’s also important to note that natural corks are 100% recyclable and renewable, as they come from trees that are not damaged during the cork harvest.

I purchased a New World Merlot wine for a client. He wanted a dry wine. However, the client gave me feedback that the Merlot was too sweet. How do I do a better job next time?

Yes, there is a little trial and error when buying wines, unfortunately. In the case of this wine, there were likely several factors that contributed to a sweet tasting wine. Even really dry red wines have some low level of residual sugar (1.5% to 2%). It’s common for red wine producers at some price points (like $10/bottle) to leave more residual sugar because “consumers talk dry but drink sweet.” A wine high in alcohol can also taste sweet. The wine might be from a very warm vintage, and have strong jammy or fruity flavors which can commonly be mistaken for or described as “sweet.” Last, some of the aromas/flavors of barrel aging or the use of wood chips might taste “sweet” to some people, due to aromas like vanilla and coconut.If your client truly likes dry Merlot and wants a lower price point, stay away from New World wines touting lots of “fruity” and “jammy” references on the label and seek out “Old World” merlot-dominant blend from Bordeaux or Southern France.

Also, the next time you buy, ask the bottle shop staff if they have tried that particular bottle. If not, you might want to pass on it.

What wines are best to be drank immediately and which wines are better after aging for years?

If you are a consumer in North America, over 90% of wines are made to drink now or in the next one or two years. Odds are that the wines you purchase are ready to enjoy right away. Also, before collecting wines for aging, find out if you like the taste of older wines. It’s as easy as calling your local bottle shop and saying “Hey, I don’t know if I like the taste of older red wines, can you get one for me to try?” No need to age wine if you don’t like the taste of older wine! If you do enjoy older wines, you’ll also want to consider methods for storing them.

Types of wines that should be consumed early are:

  • Wines with screw caps — meant to drink young.

  • Most rosé.

  • Most whites, with some notable exceptions (Chablis, white Burgundy, late harvest Riesling)

  • Most sparkling wines with some notable exceptions (vintage Champagne)

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Types of wines that age well:

  • Red wines intended for aging, like many Old World wines that balance sweetness, acidity, and tannins.

  • White wines made for aging, like late harvest or botrytized wines like Spatlese Riesling or Sauternes.

Women Are on Their Way to Owning the Wine World. Here's How We Know.

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Here’s a statistic that might surprise you: women buy 80% of wine in the United States that is consumed at home. That’s a whole lot of buying power. It’s not a secret that American women love wine. There are all kinds of memes about “Happy Hour for Mommy,” and many women aren’t shy about sharing that they look forward to a women’s wine night or unwinding with a glass of wine at the end of the day. Women are drinking plenty of wine and they’re buying most of it. But the people we turn to for advice about wine - the experts, the sommeliers - are still mostly men.

Little is known about how women actually shop for wine, but it is known that they rely pretty heavily on the label and point-of-sale materials (the shelf signage frequently found near the price). We also know that wine marketers take advantage of the fact that many women work 60 - 70 hours or more each week between a career and home responsibilities. That means they are seriously strapped for time and need to multitask. In other words, they aren’t going to spend time in a specialty wine shop when they can just get their wine at the grocery store. Sure, it’d be lovely to visit a local bottle shop and learn the characteristics of dozens of wines, but more often than not, a busy mom will just choose from what’s easily available.  Unfortunately for her, a diversity of great wines is really not available in grocery stores the way it is in bottle shops. Compare this experience of wine shopping to the experience of men, who typically consult up to 5 sources of information and read books and magazines about wine before purchasing. Women consult about 3 sources, and typically on the spot in the store. As a result, men have a strong preference for small wineries, and women typically have a preference for national and international wineries (big brands). Men display a stronger preference for $25 and up wine while women have a strong preference for two price points, $10 to $15, and $2 to $10.

The good news is that women’s lives in America are changing in some very specific ways that lend themselves to a deeper, richer experience with wine:

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First, more and more women are opting out of heteronormative lifestyle. Many women choose not to get married until much later in life, if they get married at all. And many married women are choosing not to have children, a huge shift from previous generations. These women have the extra time and money to seek out a wine experience that is deliberate and unrushed, in opposition to the overwhelmed mom that so many “grocery store wineries” are targeting.

Second, the online shopping economy enables generations of women to purchase groceries and all manner of consumer goods like wine from the dashboard of a laptop. “Shelf talkers” are now online and the attractive photo is now a teeny-tiny thumbnail. This makes it easier for women to link to the valuable information about wine that has traditionally been sought out by men. While these online wine purchasing details are still targeted to male consumers, more and more female consumers are discovering them - and that’s progress.

Third, nearly half of married American women are divorced by midlife. Once the heartache is over, these divorced women are often on a mission to completely reinvent themselves, from their appearance to their job to their lifestyle, all with the goal of making a fresh start. It can be a joyful exercise for these women to go out and discover their own tastes -  in clothes, furniture, food, cars, décor, and wine. They want to travel, they want to experience things, and they want to taste what they’ve been missing. So, it’s not just more time that is opening doors for women in the wine world - it’s also a genuine desire to learn more.

Finally, an AARP study shows that women 45 to 90 are much happier now than they’ve ever been. How’s that for great news? Women are starting to feel a sense of freedom from all sorts of heteronormative assumptions. They don’t so often seek approval from others, and they feel more free to be themselves. They still feel young and are excited for the new adventures that life has to offer - maybe they’ll learn a new language, travel abroad, or become serious connoisseurs of wine, something they always enjoyed but never had the time to fully explore.

As it turns out, the wine industry is also at a crossroads. Just  making good products isn’t enough anymore to grow the market. Since the 1960s, there have been significant scientific, agronomic, and engineering advances that enable better quality of wine throughout the growing, winemaking, and sales channels. It truly is a great time in the history of the world for good wines. And women are showing up just in time.

Interested in checking out some great wine books written by women? Check out our review of the Top Nine Wine Books by Women!

The Wine Tasting Grid: A Roadmap to Understanding Wine

You can download a wine grid from global organizations like WSET or buy one like this from www.winefolly.com

You can download a wine grid from global organizations like WSET or buy one like this from www.winefolly.com

If you’re ready to get intimate with wine, to really experience its complexity and find the vocabulary with which to express that complexity, a wine grid is essential. A grid like the one we use at KnowWines is a visual guide for understanding the wine in your glass. This is a professional wine taster’s tool, but it’s also a tool that can make understanding great wine a more accessible task for any wine consumer.

Why a wine grid?

In today’s society, taste and smell - perhaps because they require more time and attention - are underutilized. Instead, we tend to focus on the senses that offer more immediate gratification, like the visuals of a popular new film or YouTube video, the touch of our slick smartphones, or the sound of new music and ringtones. In contrast, aroma and taste are slightly more complex senses, and thus, it may be harder for some people to articulate their experiences with them. Professional wine tasters, however, are well-versed in these senses, and that’s because they’ve taught themselves to experience wine differently than most wine consumers and can anticipate what a wine tastes like.  They utilize a tasting grid as a road map, which is a classification system to identify and make associations between wines and their characteristics. By tasting different types of wine, paying close attention to their qualities, and comparing those qualities on the grid, they build a framework and knowledge for understanding the nuances of great wine. It’s also a great idea to enter your tasting notes in a personalized journal while you’re tasting wines, as a reference for future wine purchases.

Would you like some mushroom with that Malbec?

Here’s a sampling of the vocabulary you’ll find a wine tasting grid:

A wine with a “microbial” aroma might have notes of mushroom, sourdough, or butter.

Qualities of aged wine might include hints of leather, tobacco, dried fruit, or coffee.

Wine with a strong floral nose may have hints of elderflower, honeysuckle, rose, or lavender.

A wine with vegetal qualities may encompass sun-dried tomato, grass, or bell pepper.

How exactly does the wine grid work?

The grid breaks the wine down into parts: the wine’s visual qualities, it’s aroma (or “nose”), and it’s structure. For those of us who fall short of words when trying to describe wines (and let’s face it, most of us do), a grid provides the necessary vocabulary. For example, when describing a wine’s visual qualities, you may consider its clarity (is it clear, hazy, murky, or bubbly?) and its color (is a red wine more ruby or more purple?).  Next, you’ll consider the wine’s aroma. Here, the grid offers a poetic array of taste and aroma descriptors, from spice (thyme? mint? eucalyptus?) to oak (vanilla? cigar box?) to citrus (marmalade or grapefruit?). Then, you’ll consider the wine’s structure. This is a bit more advanced, but it’s a category of wine knowledge made more accessible by the grid. In this category, you’ll consider the wine’s level of sweetness (is it bone dry or very sweet?) and it’s level of tannin (does it contain more wood or more grape?). Over time, your combined understanding of these elements in wine will help you to more easily identify the region a wine comes from and how it was made. And, most importantly, the grid helps you understand which wines you love and where to find them.

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Will the grid work for me?

Once you learn how to use it, absolutely! This grid incorporates the key concepts of tasting grids and is an approachable tool for novices and enthusiasts alike.  Tasting grids take the mystery out of wine lingo by offering step-by-step documentation of your sensory experience to share with others in lively discussion. So, not only do you get to share your experiences with others, you’ll also end up with a record of what you tasted that can guide your future wine-buying efforts.

Cheers!

Getting to Know Wines

Have you always wanted an empowered wine-purchasing experience? Have you ever found yourself wishing you could tell a wine seller, with confidence, exactly what you want? As in, “I like dry, full-bodied wines with black fruit, medium acidity, and fine tannin”? For many people, that kind of language is intimidating and unfamiliar. And yet, understanding the nuances of fine wine doesn’t have to be as complicated as it may first appear. So, how does one find such confidence and, in turn, such vocabulary?

Read more