It's important for me to be able to respond to people's inquiries about what wines to pair with the food I make.
I got an "A" in my wine class in culinary school, but I never felt like I got a lot out of it. The instructor was kind of a schmuck (Hi, Sean!) because he was so obsessed with having us know what grape came from what region of France that I never got a true feel for what wines go with what food.
Wine is such a wide and vast subject that I don't ever feel like I could come close to being good with it. I'm still anxious about the different brands, I don't pay much mind to terroir, and I don't know a thing about vintages. Sometimes the descriptions I read in Food & Wine sound more like porn than beverages. Which is fun, but not very instructive.
By now, though, I know the traditional pairings, and I feel good about what I order when I'm not getting the suggested pairings at a restaurant.
Here's what I have done to help me get to know wines:
Print out a list of terms and descriptions
a good one is here.
(I have no affiliation with KJ, but the site IS extensive!)
Become familiar with the vocabulary & pronunciation (pet peeve:
Meritage = "MEHR-it-idge" like heritage, not "mehr-ih-TAHDGE")
Buy two bottles of the same varietal of wine by different brands
Like two merlots, or two chardonnay, or two rieslings...
They don't have to be too expensive;
Maybe $7-$12 each to start, until you feel comfortable spending more?
Pour a glass of each, side by side, and compare them.
one will be more acidic
one will be perfumed more strongly
one will be clearer in color
one will have more tannin & astringency
one will be more.... You get the picture?
And yes, you'll probably like one more than another, but now you'll have a quantifiable reason why you like it.
Also think about what kinds of food you crave when you taste the wine. Does it make you want a flame-grilled steak, or a rich tomato sauce? Does the flavor make you think of buttery herb sauces or vinegary gastriques?
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You don't have to finish both bottles (!) but you do have to try at least two at a time to get a good feel for what you're comparing. Eat bread and a plain-flavored cheese to keep from getting too buzzed!
And my own tip: get a few plain black napkins to catch drips when you pour, you can use one the whole night and it won't look like a crime scene.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION:
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Last thing I ate or drank: chugging icewater like I just ate an entire pizza...but didn't.