Wine: Boost your knowledge with these five tips

(Bill O'Leary For The Washington Post)
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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Whether you are an experienced wine lover or a relative newcomer to the joys of the grape, there are many fun ways to improve your knowledge of wine. The best part? They all involve tasting.

Start a wine club. This is my first suggestion because it has two benefits that can carry through a number of others: It's a social activity, and it can help cut costs by spreading the financial investment among several people.

Gather a group of friends regularly and set a theme: red wines under $15, for example, or zinfandel or some other grape variety. Everyone brings one bottle (or more, depending on the group). Conceal the labels with paper bags to eliminate the possibility of bias, and rate the wines on your own personal scale. You might find a $10 bargain that you prefer to the $30 version, or you might develop a better understanding of why some wines cost more. Either way, you come out a winner.

Explore your favorite wine variety. Do you love chardonnay? Most wine drinkers do. But have you experienced chardonnay's varied expressions, from the Russian River to Santa Barbara, from Chablis to Macon? Barrel fermented versus "naked" of all oak treatment? Make an effort to sample chardonnays from around California, or around the world, either together or over time. Compare their different flavors and nuances to glean your own concept of terroir, that sense of place conjured up by wines that speak of their land of origin. One way to do that -- one of many -- would be to compare chardonnays by the same producer (such as Au Bon Climat, pitting its Santa Barbara County and Santa Maria Valley bottlings against a single-vineyard wine from Bien Nacido Vineyard). Another tactic would be to compare a Russian River chardonnay with another from Carneros and a third from Washington state's Columbia Valley.

The possibilities here are endless: Bordeaux fanciers can explore the cabernet sauvignon-dominated wines of various communes of the Medoc, or the merlot-heavy wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Burgundy lovers can explore the appellations of the Cote de Beaune and the Cote de Nuit. (Again, doing that with a group can spread the cost around and be more fun.)

Get to know a new retailer. A great way to learn about wine is to cultivate a retailer you trust who knows what you like. Even better: Cultivate two or more. That way, you will be introduced to new and interesting wines whenever you walk into a store.

Don't abandon your favorite, but branch out to another. Several new stores in the area -- Ansonia in Adams Morgan, Au Domaine in Alexandria, Out of Site Wines in Vienna -- focus on artisanal, high-quality, small-production wines. Look for these specialty stores and be willing to take a chance on their recommendations.

Attend a wine dinner. Many stores and restaurants host dinners with visiting winemakers or importers, pairing their portfolios with a multi-course meal. These can be expensive, but they often represent great value and a chance to experience their range in a single sitting. There is no better connection to a wine than to shake the hand that made it, and your link to the winemaker or the importer could pay off on your next visit to wine country.

Wherever you travel, drink local. When business, family or pleasure takes you across the country, look for local wines. Celebrating a deal in St. Louis? The first official American Viticultural Area was not Napa, Calif., but Augusta, Mo., along the Missouri Weinstrasse west of St. Louis. Travel taking you to Michigan? Look for the Rieslings or pinot blancs from the Traverse City region. Skiing in Colorado? Grand Junction, on the western slope of the Rockies, produces delicious wines.

Every U.S. state has a commercial winery: Ask for their products on restaurant lists (if there are none available, the sommeliers will take note), and look for them in stores for your nightcap back at the hotel. Better yet, visit a winery wherever you happen to be.

McIntyre can be reached through his Web site,, or at

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