10 Sommelier Tips to Sound Smarter About Wine

Use this pro-backed cheat sheet to pick, gift, drink or talk about wine.

By Kelly Phillips Badal

Tis the season to raise a glass—or three. And while perhaps our gatherings are smaller and toasts have gone virtual, a good glass of wine is something that can and should be enjoyed regardless. Even if you’re no oenophile, knowing even a bit beyond the basics about wine can increase your confidence and ultimately, increase the enjoyment of your chosen vintage even more. 

So we reached out to sommelier Amanda Greenbaum, the proprietor of AJA Vineyards, to get her take on everything from gifting a foolproof bottle to what people are talking about when they call their wine “buttery.” Amanda, one of the namesake “A’s” referred to in AJA’s title (the others are her siblings, Alec and Jack), got interested in wine as a teenager when her parents purchased a hillside half-acre vineyard in 2011. Those vines grew into what’s now AJA Vineyards on the Malibu Coast, a family-run boutique winery with wines served at spots like The Four Seasons Westlake Village restaurants, the Neiman Marcus Café in Topanga and many others.

Right now, AJA Vineyards offers virtual, sommelier-led wine tastings, which make a great holiday gift. PS, for more gift ideas, including a high-tech dispenser perfect for wine lovers, check Snyder Diamond’s 2020 holiday gift guide.

Get ready to sip smarter and wiser as you imbibe in Amanda’s tips below. Cheers to that!

Snyder Diamond: If you're a beginner, how do you choose a wine from a wine shop or grocery store?

Amanda Greenbaum: My philosophy is to choose what you like. Do you prefer sweeter wines? Do you already know you don’t like sweet wine? If you don't know what you like, choose five different wines from a local grocery store in the $10 to 20 range: Two random whites, two random reds and a rosé or sparkling. Then, taste them to get a sense of what you like or dislike. That should help you determine which types of wines you might want to drink.

SD: How do you recommend choosing a bottle of wine as a gift?

AG: When in doubt, bubbles! Sparkling wine pairs relatively well with pretty much everything. It's a ‘safety net wine’ and it's the rare occasion when someone doesn't like bubbly. 

SD: How should wine be stored, in general? 

AG: This really depends upon the enclosure, but in general, all wines last longer stored in a cool area. If you're aging a wine, it’s best to keep it in a cool dark area away from the sun, ideally below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and ideally, stored on its side to keep the cork moist—unless it's a screw cap bottle. Generally, wines under a screw cap are meant to be drunk sooner rather than later.

SD: How long will wine last after the bottle has been opened?

AG: Here are the rough estimates for how good wine will stay after it has been opened:

  • White wine screw cap: Up to 3 weeks in a fridge when screwed tightly
  • White wine with cork: 5-7 days in a fridge resealed tightly with the cork
  • Red wine with screw cap: 2 weeks in fridge when screwed tightly
  • Red wine with cork: 4-6 days in a fridge when sealed tightly.

SD: What do I need to know about pairing wine with food?

AG: There are three main types of pairings: Cultural, complimentary and contrasting. There are many things you may need to know when pairing food. The flavor profile of the wine and the food, the origins of the dish (i.e. pasta from Italy). From a beginner perspective, the easiest pairing is cultural. If you're having pasta, pair it with an Italian wine. If you're having branzino, pair it with a Greek wine. 

When doing a complimentary tasting, you want something that will enhance the food by being similar. This, for example, is why when you have green vegetables, they pair well with Sauvignon Blanc or Gruner Veltniner, wines with green flavors and a slight bitterness. 

SD: Does choosing a pricy bottle mean you're drinking a higher-quality wine?

AG: Marketing is everything in the wine world. Sometimes it absolutely means something. Sometimes, it means nothing. It all depends upon the producer and how much their production costs. Generally, however, a wine that is relatively expensive and hasn't shuffled around in price means enough people believe it's worth the price. Frankly, I don't think you need to spend more than $60 for a good bottle of wine. I've tasted some amazing wines at $5 and amazing wines at $500.

SD: Any tips to stop splitting the cork when opening a bottle? 

AG: If your cork is splitting, that's because the wine hasn't been aged properly—perhaps it's been sitting up rather than on its side, or perhaps it has a brittle cork (this happens with natural corks often). 

There is a special device called an Ah-So [often used to open older bottles with delicate corks] which allows you to take the cork out without a corkscrew. But if you don't have an Ah-So or it's too hard to use (they're not easy), my biggest suggestion is patience. So many people jam their corkscrew into the bottle and force it down. You need to be gentle. Hold the corkscrew at a 60º angle over the bottle. Gently puncture the top of the cork and screw it in, about six and a half twists. Be gentle as you pull it out and use the hinges to help stabilize the bottle. 

SD: There’s tons of descriptive terms for wine, but what exactly is it that people are talking about when they call wine “buttery”?

AG: A wine that is “buttery” has a chemical compound in it called diacetyl. Diacetyl is naturally occurring in white wines that go through Malolactic fermentation. It's a natural process. There are other ways to make a velvety texture as well. This would be something called lees stirring. Lees stirring is when the dead yeast, or lees, that fall to the bottom of a fermentation vessel are then stirred back into the wine. This increases the velvety texture and enhances the “buttery” flavor with a texture component. This can be really delicious when done right, but generally is either loved or hated.

SD: What is rosé, really? 

AG: There are a few ways to make rosé, but most of the time rosé is a red grape that is pressed off its skins so that it gets a slightly pink hue. Sometimes the skins are left on top of the wines to extract more color and flavor from the skins. This all depends on an individual winemaker’s preference. Very rarely is rosé a blend of red and white grapes in the United States. In Champagne, that's very common.

SD: What's the best way to learn more about wine online? 

AG: I write a wine blog called SOMMthingrad.com where you can learn more about wine. I also recommend sites like winefolly.comvinepair.com or daily.sevenfifty.com for anyone just getting started.

Follow AJA Vineyard on Instagram at @ajavineyards

 

 

 

 

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