The best bottle isn't always going to be the most expensive one.
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
  • There's a phenomenal variety of wine in the world, and a lot of it comes with technical, intimidating vocabulary.
  • But it doesn't have to be that way.
  • Here are five tricks everyone should know when they're ordering wine.
  • For more, go to Business Insider South Africa.

As a lifelong wine fanatic, I hate hearing people tell me, "I really like wine but I don't know enough." Even worse, "wine makes me feel stupid." I will say two things about this:

  1. People love chocolate and do just fine experimenting with chocolate. Why is wine only for experts while chocolate is for everyone?
  2. The people who make and sell wine don't want wine to make anyone feel this way.

The complexity and seemingly endless amount of detail and variation that scares some people off attracted me to the world of wine. Time, curiosity, and obsession are great teachers and over the years, I have tasted thousands of wines from around the world.

Over that time, I developed some tricks that will help guide people as they continue to explore wines - or just navigate the wine list for a business dinner or their next trip to the store to buy a bottle for their in-laws.

What makes wine exciting and sometimes intimidating is the phenomenal variety of it that exists. Because of this variety, we need language to categorize and describe differences. This wine-centric vocabulary frequently turns off or intimidates the uninitiated.

Phrases like, "It has a delightfully floral nose with slight hints of gun powder and leather on the finish," or "this wine was aged on the lees," mystify many and, worse yet, create a sense that people just aren't educated enough to enjoy the glass in their hand. Don't worry: That isn't the case.

No amount of terminology will trump your experience tasting the wine. This vocabulary can be useful and if you really get into wine, you may find yourself eventually talking about the hints of leather and flinty minerality - or not. No big deal either way!

For those without the encyclopedic knowledge and vocabulary of a Master Sommelier or even an obsessed wine nerd like me, I offer shortcuts. Here are five tricks designed to help you navigate potentially awkward situations while comfortably getting assistance from someone who can help you navigate wine choices with no embarrassment.

Trick No. 1: Show a wine pro a picture of a wine you previously enjoyed.

If you're not sure how to talk about your taste in wine, just let your smartphone point the way. Showing a wine expert a picture of the label will provide a lot of clues that they can use to find something else you will enjoy.

Why this works: Every wine label contains all sorts of clues about the wine you drank - where it's from, the grape(s) used, age, winemaking style, etc. This allows the experts to find similar wines from their list/store.

Trick No. 2: Use four simple descriptors to convey information about what you like.

Using some or all of the descriptors below will communicate volumes to a wine pro. 

If your mind goes blank when handed the wine list or upon entering a store, write these in your notes app on your phone:

  1. Sweet vs. dry (not sweet)
  2. Heavy (or big) vs. light
  3. Red vs. white vs. rosé
  4. Fruity vs. earthy (less fruity flavors)

Why this works: These descriptors narrow down the field to a point where wine pro gets a sense of your taste preferences.

Trick No. 3: Pay attention to where your favourite wine is made.

The more specific you can be with your favourite locations, the better - but even broad, country-level descriptors can help focus an expert's recommendation.

Why this works: The differences in wine are largely due to the differences in climate where the grapes were grown. Sharing the region you prefer sends valuable clues.

Trick No. 4: Use a wine app on your phone.

I wrote about a number of wine apps for your smartphone a few years ago, and there are many more that have surfaced since that time. My app of choice at the moment is Vivino, which I use exclusively for my tasting notes of new wines (the app does a lot more than that if you want it to).

Why this works: Just like trick No. 1, this creates a reference point for the wine pro to do their thing.

Trick No. 5: Specify your price.

Expensive wine is better right? Sometimes.

There are excellent wines at virtually every price point and wine pros generally love discovering a mid- or low-priced wine that rocks.

So what if you're in a situation where the wines get super expensive and you don't want to look cheap? You are not the first to find yourself in this situation, and wine pros are very attuned to price anxiety. Here are two ways to help yourself out of the situation:

  1. Point to two wines of similar price and say, "I'm considering [wine 1] and [wine 2]. Would you recommend one or the other? Or perhaps something similar?" If both wines are equivalently priced, that should get your point across.
  2. Write a note on your phone saying something like, "My company requires that I keep the price of wine below R200, and I'm hoping you can help me with a good option."

Why this works: Your state of mind impacts your enjoyment. If you're comfortable, the wine will be better! Also, everyone in the wine business loves making customers happy and price is often a crucial barrier to happiness.

Most good wine stores and restaurants carry hidden gems at many price points. A good wine pro will help you expand your wine experience at every price point and style. The more clues you provide about your preferences, the more helpful they can be at helping you find what you want.

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