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  • Writer's pictureKathie Scalf

Wine 101

I frequently discuss wine within this column, simply because it is truly one of my few passions. I spent approximately six years of my sales career devoted strictly to vino, and outside of that time I’ve worked within the restaurant industry serving wine to customers as well as continuing my education on the subject by obtaining my WSET Level 2 and hopefully this January my WSET Level 3. That being said, for me wine is endlessly fascinating and ever-changing but for the same reason, other folks can find it kind of intimidating.

I’ve not always been this enthusiastic about the subject though. The first week I moved to Nashville, my new company had a dinner with one of our Italian importers at a beautiful reservation only French restaurant. Not only was I already wildly uncomfortable being the new hire in a brand new city, but I also had never dined at a restaurant this nice and couldn’t pronounce anything on the menu. For 2 hours I stared at my plate and tried to disappear while the 20 people around me discussed fine wine and global cuisine, flipping between various languages as effortlessly as they passed around the bread baskets and bottles of wine. By the time I excused myself to head home two hours later, I couldn’t even get the car key in the ignition before I burst into tears. In that moment I swore to myself I would learn everything I could so I never felt like the Podunk nobody from nowhere who knows nothing at the table ever again.

I would be lying if I said I’ve never again felt like the dumbest person in the room with regards to wine; that still happens to me weekly! The difference is that now I welcome that feeling of cluelessness because it means I’m about to learn something new, and that’s exciting! The more I learned about wine, the more I realized it’s impossible to know it all, and the people who know the most don’t mind taking time to inform the novices because they love sharing their passion with others. I never want you all to feel self-conscious or stupid for not knowing, so I wanted to share some of the basics I wish I’d known sooner that made a world of difference on my wine knowledge and greatly improved my joy in consumption. This is definitely not a comprehensive list, but it’s a great place to start!

First, no one knows everything about wine, not even Jancis Robinson and she literally wrote the book. So never be intimidated by someone else’s’ perceived knowledge. It is in my experience, the people who know the least are the ones who act the snottiest. True wine lovers and educators are more than happy to discuss with people no matter what their experience level.

Train yourself to stop being scared of stuff you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce and instead start reaching for it. The biggest detriment to your wine tasting experience will be your tendency to stay in your California comfort zone. Whether it’s an unfamiliar producer or a foreign grape, if it’s offered by the glass, ask your server for a taste. Don’t bypass something beautiful because you keep returning to your old faithful cabernet or chardonnay.

This is a biggie: proper glassware is more important than you can imagine. I used to taste dozens of beautiful wines during weekly sales meetings while working in distribution, but when I got those exact bottles home – sometimes less than an hour later – they always tasted flabby and lifeless. It turns out the thick, art deco designed wine glasses I was using looked beautiful in my China cabinet, but completely impeded the subtle nuance of aroma and flavor in wine. There are multiple styles of wine glasses for various varietals, but investing in one good set of universal crystal will be just fine. You want a bulb large enough to give a good swirl and a rim that is smaller than the base to push the aromas up toward your nose. For the love of god, I beg of you, never use a stemless glass. There are few things in this world as offensive to me as being served wine in a stemless glass. A nice, long, thin stem is my favorite, so you keep the heat of your hands away from warming the liquid itself.

While we’re speaking about heating the wine, serving temperature is another very underrated subject I learned about far too late. Everyone knows red wine is to be served at “room temperature” but what you’re not told is that human room temperature is too hot for wine. Conversely, most know to chill white wine, however, the average refrigerator is far too cold and deadens the flavor profile. An easy rule of thumb to keep in mind is the 30 rule – put red wine IN the fridge and REMOVE white wine from the fridge 30 minutes prior to serving. This will give the liquid enough time to adjust closer to where It should be. To get down to brass tacks, if you want to be precise, red wine is to be served between 55-65 degrees, with thinner skinned grapes like Pinot Noir being served closer to 55 and thick skinned, more tannic grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon showing best closer to 62 or 65 degrees. White wine and Rose is to be served between 45-55 degrees, again, based on body. Something like Pinot Grigio or Vinho Verde would be best served colder, while a big buttery Napa Chardonnay would be perfect at 55. And finally, sparkling wines are coldest of all, best at 42 or so. Do not make the mistake of getting your bubbles too cold, or you risk exploding and foaming upon open.

This is a great place to start, and I hope it helps to ease your mind if you’ve been hesitant to try explore the wine world out of intimidation. Everyone has to start somewhere and there’s always something new to learn! So let your taste buds guide you and don’t be afraid to ask the “stupid” questions; true wine lovers will leap at the opportunity to answer them for you!


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