A starter kit for aspiring wine lovers
By Eric Asimov
The terrible human and economic cost of the pandemic cannot be ignored. It has forced many people to test the limits of their creativity and endurance. And maybe, for a lucky unburdened few, all that time at home has provided an opportunity to explore new interests.
It may have been cooking or knitting. Sales of guitars shot upward in 2020 as people found relief in playing music. Or maybe you discovered that you love wine, and you have become curious enough to want to learn more about it.
Many great books can help to broaden your knowledge, yet with wine, the best way to begin the journey is by drinking. Whether you prefer to do that systematically or randomly is up to you. But whichever you decide, you’ll want just a few tools to enhance the experience.
Let me explain that. You really don’t need anything to enjoy wine short of a corkscrew (you don’t even need that if the bottle has a screw cap) and a glass (no, do not drink wine out of the bottle unless you’ve just won the World Series). But while those are the bare essentials, a few practical items will heighten your enjoyment.
Here is what you need to get started.
The single best corkscrew is what you’ve seen in countless restaurants, sometimes called the waiter’s friend. It’s essentially a knifelike handle with a spiral worm for inserting into the cork, a double-hinged fulcrum for resistance, and a small, folding blade for cutting the foil that protects the cork.
This sort of corkscrew, which was deemed the top choice a few years ago by Wirecutter, a product review site owned by The New York Times, is compact and inexpensive, $10 or $12 or so. Wine shops often carry them, as do many online markets. It pays to buy a few if, like me, you habitually misplace them. With a bit of practice, it is easy to use.
You can relish a wine served in a squat juice glass, but you will enjoy it even more drinking it out of a proper stemmed glass.
Good wine is sensitive to temperature. Both white wine and red need to be served cool, certainly cooler than the temperature of your body. A stemless glass requires you to hold it by the bowl, thus transmitting the heat of your hands to the glass, warming it and the wine.
That is the reason good wine glasses have a stem. The proper way to hold a wine glass is by the stem so that you don’t heat up the bowl.
It’s worth taking the trouble to do this for another reason, too. The color of good wine is both beautiful and revealing. Over time, you will learn to discern some important characteristics of the wine. A white wine may get darker over time, or if it has oxidized. A red wine, by contrast, may lighten around the edges as it ages. Holding the bowl with your fingers smudges the glass, obscuring the clarity of the wine.
To assess the wine, the glass needs to be clear, not colored, beveled or otherwise decorated in such a way that blocks your view.
Choosing a glass is a lot simpler than you might think. For one thing, you need only one set. While the wine industry, and especially glass manufacturers, have promoted the notion that each sort of wine requires its own specially designed glass — not just red, white and sparkling, but pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and so on — the truth is that one set of all-purpose glasses will serve you well.
Good all-purpose glasses ought to be vertically shaped with a tall bowl that is wide at the stem and tapers gently inward toward the lip. This shape channels aromas upward, amplifying them as you swirl and sniff.
A few years ago I joined some colleagues at Wirecutter to review wine glasses. We concluded the best all-around value in wine glasses was the Libbey Kentfield Estate Signature All-Purpose, which sells for $35 to $40 for a set of four.
Last December, Wirecutter revisited wine glasses and reaffirmed the selection of the Libbey. That’s a pretty good endorsement. They are not the only possibility, but they offer a good example of a well-shaped, all-purpose glass.
A decanter is not essential. But it’s useful and simple and can enhance youthful wines by opening up their aromas and flavors by exposing the wine to air.
What is decanting? It simply means to pour the wine from the bottle into another container before serving. Many people assume decanting is only useful for older red wines, which might accumulate sediment over the course of long aging. But I like to decant young wines, too, both white and red, particularly those that might be high in acidity or tannins. I definitely do not always decant. But I like to do it occasionally.
You can spend a lot of money on fancy decanters. That’s unnecessary. An iced-tea pitcher works great, so long as it is big enough to comfortably hold the contents of a 750-milliliter bottle. At home I use 1-liter Erlenmeyer flasks, which have a certain mad-scientist charm to them.
Things to Avoid
Wine abounds in useless gadgets: Advertisements tout the virtues of aerators, which purport to age your wine in a matter of seconds, and similarly magical wands, said to eliminate the possibility of headaches. Save your money.
You will also encounter pumps, closures and other tools said to protect a partly consumed bottle of wine from spoiling. Avoid them, too.
Good wine — by which I mean carefully made, not expensive — is much hardier than people think. You can safely leave unfinished wine in the bottle for two or three days. Just put the bottle someplace cool and out of the sunlight.
All of this paraphernalia would be useless without wine. If you are investing in the proper equipment, you also need to commit to serving good wine, made from conscientiously farmed grapes and painstaking winemaking.
The single best way to achieve this goal is to develop a relationship with the best wine shop in your vicinity. Unlike supermarkets and the equivalent, which generally sell popular brands regardless of quality, good wine shops carefully select their inventory, picking wines that they can stand behind.
How can you tell if a shop is good? It will be hospitable, its inventory will reflect a point of view, and the wine will be well stored and displayed. Generally, it will be a place that makes you comfortable, that you want to visit.
In selecting wine, the best values are most often in the $15 to $25 range. Some wines, particularly the most famous names, will be more expensive. You will have to pay more for a good Champagne, Barolo or Napa Valley cabernet. But plenty of great, less expensive bottles exist.
The best way to start out, once you identify a good shop, is to ask for a mixed case of wine.
Tell the merchant your budget and parameters, say, half white, half red, with two sparkling wines, or a few rosés. Or, if a case is too much of an investment, just get a bottle or two at a time. As you drink the wines, note which ones you like and which ones you do not. Keep in mind that you can learn something from every bottle as you begin to identify your personal taste.
When you finish, go back to the merchant with your notes, and ask for another mixed case with selections based on your reactions to the first set. Your learning journey has begun. As long as you continue to love wine, it will never end.