Answers to the Most Common Questions Asked in a Wine Shop
I work in a wine shop. And I do it because I love the idea that I can make a living working with something as silly as wine. And make no mistake, wine is silly. It's something that's so simple that for some reason it has become overly complicated, sometimes bafflingly so. Think about it: It's just fermented juice.
When you take away the label, and the bottle, and the sometimes hefty price tag, strip it of its fancy glass and snooty bouquet and pour it into an old jelly jar, what you're left with is fermented juice. If you bought a bag of grapes at Trader Joe's and threw it in the back of your fridge for a few weeks, that bag of smashed grapes and rotten juice is not only something that you would probably use rubber gloves to pick up, but believe it or not, it's wine. Or, as it's referred to in this stage of the game, "must."
Sure, it's not that easy. If it was, everyone would make it. And it should go without saying that the grapes you'd buy at Trader Joe's are very different from the ones used to make wine, but it illustrates the basic principle of how natural wine is. You don't have to make it, it just sort of happens.
Wine is made from grapes that have been crushed, and in the case of red wine, the skins and the juice soak (or macerate) together in a temperature-controlled environment for an extended period of time while yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. Then the skins and juice are separated, the juice is thrown into a barrel and aged for sometimes years, then put into a bottle, labeled and given to a guy like me to sell to you. Sure, there's a little more to the process - a lot more, actually - but do you care? Mostly, no. You just want something that tastes good and ideally isn't too expensive.
As someone who spends all day talking about wine, I'd like to give some answers to commonly asked questions and maybe clear up some confusion about commonly used wine terminology, so you can ask for what you want, and get what you're asking for. Let's face it: talking about wine is the silliest part of all. Sweet. Dry. Tannic. Acidic. Fruity. Floral. What does it all mean?
These are some of the answers to the most common questions I'm asked about wine.
Question: How long will a bottle of wine last after it's open?
Answer: 1 - 3 days, depending on the wine.
For the sake of discussion, let's say you open a bottle of wine on Friday evening and for whatever reason you don't finish it that night.
White wines will usually last two days. If you open a bottle of white wine or rosé on Friday night, it'll usually last until Sunday. By Sunday you'll start tasting the effects of oxygen. Like a soft drink, the wine will start tasting flat, so while it still tastes roughly the same, it will have lost some of its shine.
Red wines will differ depending on the structure of the wine. A pinot noir opened on Friday evening will likely last until about Sunday at the latest. Other varietals however, like cabernet sauvignon, sometimes will taste better the second day. If you open one on a Friday night, by Saturday it might be better than you remembered, and then will begin noticeably fading by Monday.
Question: Should I refrigerate my wine after I've opened it?
Answer: Yes, if it's a white. No, if it's a red.
Some delicate reds, however, do taste better with a little chill. And if a red wine tastes too much like alcohol, try dropping the temperature a little. Dropping the temperature of a big red just a bit will often put the alcohol in check while at the same time popping up the fruit notes. But don't confuse dropping the temperature with actually chilling it. Chilling a red wine will mute the flavors and aromas. It's the difference between sitting in an air-conditioned room and simply turning on a fan. Sometimes all you need is a little air circulation.
Question: I think my wine is bad. Does that mean it's corked?
Answer: Corked wine is bad, but not all bad wine is corked.
People return bottles for a variety of reasons, claiming they're bad. If a person feels she is particularly astute with wine, then the reason given that the wine was "corked." This is often not the case.
Want to know if your bottle is corked? Stick your head inside a cardboard box and sniff. Seriously. A wine is said to be "corked" when the wine's cork is infected with T.C.A. (chemical compound 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole) and T.C.A. usually smells like old newspapers or the inside of a cardboard box.
If you think your wine tastes off, take it back to wherever you bought it. If you don't like the wine you bought, it doesn't mean it's bad, it just means you don't like it - so it's only bad to you.
Question: How do I ask for the wine I want to drink if I can't describe it?
Answer: Go to the same place every time to buy your wine and let the person there get to know your taste.
Tell the salesperson how much you want to spend, if you're going to be opening the wine with a meal, and what you might be eating. The salesperson should be able to take it from there.
I find that there are some wines that go with heavy food, some wines that go with light food and some wines that go with reality TV. But to help you get the ball rolling here are some things to know:
Tannic: Often mistakenly referred to as "dry." A tannic wine leaves a dry tactile feeling in your mouth. High tannin wines will make your cheeks feel tacky and your tongue feel like sandpaper. It's more of a feeling than a flavor.
Dry: Unless a wine specifically says that it's sweet, assume all wines are dry. Dry means that the wine has no residual sugar. Pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are all dry. When a person says "dry," often what she means is tannic (dry feeling).
Oak: In terms of flavors, oak tends to have notes of vanilla, toast, coconut, chocolate, wood, carmel and a slew of others. Most wines have some oak flavoring in them because of oak aging. California-style chardonnay, for example, is full of nutty oak flavors that include vanilla, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, toast, and sometimes even almond. If you think you like oaky wines but you're not sure then a good way to find out is to try a bottle of oaky California chardonnay, and then a bottle of un-oaked chardonnay. Taste the difference and see if oak is really something you like. Many people think they like oak, when really they like acid.
Fruity: Fruity and sweet are not the same thing. A sweet wine can also be fruity, but a fruity wine is usually not sweet. Fruit refers to the flavors of the wine. Some wines are earthy and some are fruity depending largely on the winemaking style and the country of origin.
Jammy: Rich and fruity. A strawberry is fruity. Smucker's strawberry jam is jammy. A pinot noir from Burgundy may smell like strawberries. A pinot noir from California may smell like Smucker's strawberry jam. That's the difference.
The thing to remember is that it's all just fermented juice. It's unnecessarily confusing; and at the root of it, all wine is only as intimidating as you want it to be.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.