Pop a Bottle: How to Unleash Your Inner Sommelier

Photo courtesy of Bigstock.com/karandaev
Photo courtesy of Bigstock.com/karandaev
Photo courtesy of Bigstock.com/karandaev

Photo courtesy of Bigstock.com/karandaev

Wine. We drink it, we bond over it, we bring it to parties, we sip it alone after a long day. We don’t need science to tell us a well-chilled glass of good Champagne is a singular delight, but beyond that, the expansive wine aisle can be a bit of a conundrum. The rows of labels, growing regions, grape varietals, red versus white; it can all be a bit daunting. But it doesn’t have to be.

Bryan Keeler, the general manager of Lowry Hill Liquors and Lakeside Wine & Spirits, suggests starting your journey by trying a variety of wines. “If you’re getting into wine, there are plenty of wines that are inexpensive that are very good introductions,” he says, before adding: “Don’t let the labels or foreign countries scare you. It may look like a lot of writing on a label, but it’s just how that country categorizes things. Ask somebody at the store if they have any suggestions and be open to trying something new.”

When suggesting wines to people who haven’t explored their tastes of pinot noir versus Bordeaux, Keeler usually suggests beginning with white zinfandel or riesling and then expand to other varietals depending on their tastes. “It’s better to start light and work your way up to heavy and work your way up on the dryness scale so it’s not too alarming at first,” Keeler says. “And then in reds, a really good place to start is a Beaujolais, just a middle-of-the-road Beaujolais around 10 to 15 bucks and see if you like that and then move your way from there.”

Jack Farrell, the owner and CEO of Haskell’s, says the best thing to do is find a wine merchant who you trust, someone whose opinions you value, and make sure the merchant offers a large selection of wines from which to choose. “You don’t want a store that has a wine selection that’s 10 feet long,” he laughs. “You want a good selection and you want someone who, after a few times, begins to know what you like and will look for things for you that he thinks you might enjoy. Everyone’s tastebuds are different. If you like to drink sherry with spaghetti, go ahead. I think it’s a terrible combination, but bear in mind, you don’t please anybody but yourself with your taste.”

According to Farrell, the best thing anyone interested in wine can do is to start keeping a notebook to keep track of your thoughts: when you taste a wine, write down what you did or did not enjoy about it. He says, “I guarantee by the time you’ve written down things after a few bottles you’re going to be incredibly knowledgable about wine. A lot of wine buffs have their own vocabulary, but that isn’t necessary either. You want to drink what you like, the criteria there is your own tastebuds. Price has nothing to do with it.”

In fact, Farrell disputes the notion that good wine has to be expensive, arguing that some costly bottles wouldn’t appeal to the average person’s tastebuds. Instead of judging a bottle on its pricetag, Farrell explains the five things to look for in a wine: clarity (can you see through it, or is it cloudy?), aroma, bouquet (does it smell like its particular varietal?), taste, and aftertaste. He draws special attention to the olfactory senses required in determining a nice wine.

“The tongue and the mouth can only determine sweet, sour, bitter, and salty,” he says. “The nose can distinguish about 60,000 different things. The nose is very important in wine, and that’s why people never fill a wine glass all the way up. You want to leave a little air space at the top of the glass so that you can get the aroma and bouquet of the wine; that’s very, very important when you’re talking about wine. When all five of those things are in balance, the wine is just fine.”

Following your own tastebuds applies to food pairings as well. Determining which wine to serve with a romantic meal is no cause for stress, but Keeler encourages thinking outside of the red meat-red wine, white meat-white wine box. “It’s hard to say that it’s common sense, because it’s kind of like the American and English language: it kind of follows the pattern, but there’s weird rules here and there,” he jokes. “Any food, for the most part, you can find a red and you can find a white (and probably a rosé if not a sparkling) for it. Not all red wine is aged in barrels, so if they used cement or stainless steel, it brings out more fruit and it’s more of a fresh wine and that could go really well with lighter foods.”

The best guidance in terms of food is to go by the spices and method of preparation. A beef dinner with a heavy sauce might find its ideal partner in a red wine, yet Farrell would just as likely pair a Burgundy or pinot noir with a roasted chicken. This is in comparison to his recommendation for a white wine like chardonnay with a chicken dish that utilizes a white cream sauce.

“Primarily the spices and how it’s prepared call for the wine type, not necessarily what the meat is,” Farrell says. “But then there are some things that are just a perfect marriage. Anything with barbecue sauce, try with an Argentinian malbec. Malbec just seems to go with that hot-sweet sauce, the marriage is there. Another simple marriage, and easy to try, is take a sip of Champagne and a bite of a potato chip. The Lord made them to go together, it’s a match made in heaven (no pun intended), because Champagne complements any kind of salty food.”

Not usually paired with meals during the colder months, rosés are finding their stride in many circles. For winos that follow trends, the selection is ripe right now for rosés. For Farrell, rosé wines have never fallen out of favor, but it seems many drinkers are rediscovering the old favorite. “Rosé is hot,” he says. “Tavel is a marvelous rosé, and in my opinion, Tavel is the rosé for red wine drinkers; it is really one of the best there are. Rosés are just on fire. It wasn’t too long ago that if we had 10 rosés, we had a lot, but today we must have 60 of them.”

Keeler agrees, saying customers at Lowry Hill bought more rosé than he ever expected in the last year. But he is also noticing some interesting buying trends. “People are trying to find some new things, and we don’t necessarily know what category it’s going to be but it’s all over the place,” he says. “Some of the off-varietals like syrah or petite syrah or these random varietals that people have never tried. They’re a lot more open to some of the foreign wines. People usually, especially during tough economic times, want to stick to what they know, and now they’re willing to explore and see what else is out there.”


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