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In this week’s New York Times food section, Eric Asimov hands out a syllabus for his DIY at-home wine course. His first assignment, simply put, is to stop reading and start drinking: Buy a mixed case of whites and reds—whatever you fancy—then open one bottle every night with dinner and take copious notes. (As Ray Isle pointed out yesterday, a local, dependable wine shop is the perfect tutor.)
This curriculum will work wonders for anybody with an amazing sense-memory, a reputable wine shop down the street and the cash to buy $500 worth of wine each month. When I started learning about wine, I had none of these (and, sadly, I still don't). A sommelier I worked with at the time suggested this approach, which helped expose me to a lot of wine in a few short months. Think of it as more survey course than masters program:
1. Pick a region and grape you want to explore (Washington state Merlot, for example).
2. Invite a bunch of friends over and tell them to bring a bottle of Washington Merlot of their choosing. Some friends will bring cheap plonk, others will splurge-to-impress. Let them.
3. When your friends arrive, conceal the identity of their wines with paper bags or (clean) socks with the toes cut out. (I actually know somebody who does this.) Then number each of the wines at random. This is called a “single-blind” tasting. (“Double-blind” tastings involve sugar pills and electric shocks and aren’t very fun.)
4. Drink, pass, talk. Foster a shame-free, open-discussion environment, and compare your perceptions and opinions with the group’s. Take plenty of notes—or at least pretend to. As soon as everyone’s comfortable using their wine words, make up a few outrageous aromas and flavors and see which suckers agree with you (“high mesa dew” and “burnt gummy bears” have worked for me).
5. Unveil the bottles and drink again. Notice how quickly opinions change when you realize you liked the $6 bottle bearing a cute aardvark better before it was unmasked. Admit this to no one.
This is how many pros taste and evaluate wine (minus the socks), because it works: Sampling many wines of the same place and grape in one sitting helps you notice similarities and differences that would be harder to notice over months of drinking one bottle at a time. And you only have to buy one bottle a week.