“What’s the best way to learn about wine?”
That is the most common question a wine shop hears. Drawing from my own years in the industry, there are three methods best suited for developing and deepening an appreciation for wine: joining a tasting group, traveling, and reading maps.
Join a Tasting Group
More than 20 years ago, when a friend encouraged me to join him in the International Wine & Food Society (IWFS), I was reminded of Jack Dawson's observations in the movie "Titanic”:
“Just the other night, I was sleeping under a bridge, and now here I'm on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people. I figure life's a gift and I don't intend on wasting it,” he exclaimed. “You don't know what hand you're gonna get dealt next. You learn to take life as it comes at you… to make each day count!”
At the time, there I was a young grill cook at Arman’s restaurant, while everybody else in the group seemed to be my parents’ age.
IWFS bills itself as “the world's oldest and most renowned gastronomic society,” with the mission to "promote a broad knowledge and understanding of both wine and food." Birmingham has a fantastic chapter and I’m sure I would not otherwise have gotten to taste Château Calon Ségur 1945 or a sherry from 1812. The group meets monthly at different restaurants, with members bringing wines from their own collections to taste and share. Plus, they offer special tasting events throughout the year.
When I joined IWFS, I was introduced to a lot of fantastic people and I got the opportunity to try many of the world’s best wines, including some of the best, old vintages. I would argue (and still do!) that an old bottle of Ridge Geyserville is every bit as interesting as an old bottle of Château La Tour.
You can easily start your own tasting group with friends. One near-legendary tasting group from Birmingham began with just a handful of people more than 40 years ago, and is going stronger than ever!
Travel to Where Wines Are Made
Tasting a wine where it is actually made gives you a connection unlike any other. Being there makes a critical difference. Whether it’s Napa Valley, California, or Montepulciano, Italy, you will fall in love with some of the wines produced by the places you visit.
In 1994, at the suggestion of folks from IWFS, I attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, where Birmingham's contingent was second only to the group from Alaska (who knew how to party)! The Oregon winemakers wouldn’t produce their break through vintage for a few more years, so my visit served as a sneak peek of what was to come. I knew about Pinot Noir, but being there with the winemakers gave me a connection that lasts to this day. I still enjoy Ponzi Pinot Noir, which I first tasted there; it taught me how a wine can be elegant.
Gain Inspiration from Maps
From the comfort of your own computer, you can learn about the wines of the world, especially those of Europe. Tasting the wines of the Burgundy region, for example, is greatly aided by perusing a map of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, because the wines from there are labeled not by the grapes from which they are made, but rather by where in the region they are grown.
Gain inspiration from the maps that decorate our walls at Finch Fine Wines. Make it your objective to find your favorite region. You’ll also find a number of books containing informative maps of all the wine regions of the world. Two that we recommend are:
Wine Folly, The Master Guide (Magnum Edition) by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack (Avery Publishing Group, Revised September 2018), and
Journey Through Wine: An Atlas (56 Countries, 100 Maps, 8,000 Years of History) by Adrien Grant Smith-Bianchi and Jules Gaubert-Turpin (Hardie Grant Books, 2018)
You should find any of these three methods of learning about wine to be helpful. But, put them all together – by joining or starting a tasting group, traveling to places where wine is made, and discovering how much you can learn from reading wine maps – and soon you’ll find yourself on an immensely rewarding journey through a world of great tastes.
Cheers and good journey!