Wine can often be one of those foodie things that people are expected to know about—and asking about it or not knowing what to order can be seen as uncultured in some circles.
It’s a broad, largely contentious and oftentimes confusing subject matter, so I decided to chat with Walter Hartman, sommelier and founder of Walter on Wine, a membership website to help beginners and experts find their next favorite bottle.
A first good starting point is going to a wine shop. While Trader Joe’s and grocery store chains have convenient and sometimes large sections of wine, a local wine shop will have someone who’s knowledgable, in the industry, and can help you figure out your taste profile on a personal level.
Learning your palate
For Hartman, one of the biggest take aways after attending National Wine School, classes at U.C. Davis and getting his level three sommelier certification is that people’s taste profile are often broken down into three categories, and knowing which one you’re in will dramatically increase your likelihood of picking a wine you’ll actually like when you go out.
About 25% of the population tends to be more sensitive to strong flavors, meaning they probably drink their tea sweet and dump lots of cream and sugar in their coffee. If that’s you, white wines might be a safer option than most reds.
That’s because bolder reds tend to be high in tannins, which are natural compounds found in grapes (and other fruit like olives) that can lend a bitter quality to wine. The level of tannin in wine varies depending on climate, the type of grape and when it’s harvested. The earlier the grape is harvested, the more acid content it’ll have. Similar to olive oil, as the grapes mature and ripen, the sugar levels increase and the acid levels decrease.
For anyone—but particularly for this group who might lean more toward whites—Hartman recommends a crisp wine like a sauvignon blanc to savor the last of summer by popping open a bottle poolside as you start your wine discovery journey.
Hartman recommends the New Zealand brand Greywacke‘s sauvignon blanc from 2022 or 2023. If that’s too tricky to find, a Whitehaven sauvignon blanc is also recommended. Bottles can range from $10 to $32.
Folks in that group who still want to try a red, though, might look for a pinot noir, which is less tannic than many other varieties, meaning it can taste less bitter.
Another 25% of the population isn’t as sensitive to bitterness and tend to drink their coffee black or very strongly brewed tea without any sugar. They will probably do just fine with those bolder red wines like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah.
For the 50% in the middle, there’s a wider range of options, and it may take some trial and error to figure out exactly where they land.
“None of this is good or bad, it just is,” Hartman said.
Overall, Hartman said, what you already drink is a good indication of what wine you may like, and going to a wine shop or doing a self check-in on what your taste profile may be can generally be a great first step.
And if you’re not necessarily interested in drinking wines by themselves, but still want to host dinner parties and be able to pair wine with food, here are some tips:
Pizza and beer is a classic combo, but if you want to go the wine route instead for something a little lighter, Hartman recommends a Chianti wine, which has a high acid level that cuts through the high fat content of a pizza.
That also applies for red meat. Rich in flavor dishes, like ones that feature a red meat, need a bold red, like cabernet sauvignon. Sommeliers will often pair a pinot noir with red meat if the dish has earthy flavors like mushroom.
Spice on the palate, though, actually accentuates the sensation of alcohol in the mouth. For spicy dishes, Hartman recommends an aromatic wine, like a riesling.
“If you’re having a spicy food, you don’t want a higher alcohol wine with that,” Hartman said.
Lighter dishes, like ones that feature chicken or seafood, which is quite delicate, are traditionally paired with white wines. A chardonnay or pinot grigio go especially well with seafood and fish.
Ice cream, meanwhile, can be paired with a merlot, and at Michelin-starred Heritage, their fig leaf ice cream was paired with a tempranillo.
This is part of a new “Demystifying” series, where we look at intimidating aspects of the food world and break them down. Up next: hot sauce.
Have you ever seen something on a menu and had no idea what the dish actually was? Did it feel awkward to ask? Send any food-related terms or concepts that you’re curious to learn more about to [email protected] and we’ll get all your questions answered.