People sometimes ask me how I became a "wine expert." My answer, in part: I pay attention.
The simplest way to get more enjoyment out of wine is to read the label, then smell and taste the wine and remember what both tell you. If you walk into a wine store or dine in a restaurant, the retailer or sommelier won't be able to help you much if all you can recall about the wine you enjoyed last week is that it was red.
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But if you know you like your whites dry and citrusy with a touch of minerality, your retailer or somm might direct you to a gruner veltliner or albarino as an alternative to the familiar pinot grigio. Favor full-bodied, rich and oaky whites? Then try a white Burgundy instead of a California chardonnay. If you like the perfumed floral aromas of viognier, you might enjoy a torrontes from Argentina as a change of pace.
Do you like your reds fruity or savory? Unless, like me, you would answer that question with "yes," your response could lead you to either the New World or Europe: to zinfandel or to a Rhone Valley syrah.
If it sounds like you need a road map to find your way, Madeline Puckette thought so, too. A graphics designer turned sommelier, Puckette, 29, heads the wine program at Poppy restaurant in Seattle and has reached the certified-sommelier level in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Puckette found herself asking customers a series of questions to lead them to a wine choice that would fit the restaurant's eclectic list and spicy cuisine. She decided to use her design skills to develop an infographic she calls "The Different Types of Wine," which she published on her blog, Wine Folly.
"People tend to order familiar wines, like merlot," Puckette said in a phone interview. "I try to refer them to wines similar to what they know, while giving them new experiences. Shiraz and syrah are different even though they are the same grape variety. So this chart looks at wines by their different flavor profiles.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about how wines differ: light or full-bodied, lush or smooth. What do you feel like drinking tonight?"
Puckette calls her diagram "a geek thing. Not for wine geeks, but for people who like flow charts."
Psychologists might prefer the similar flavor-profile-driven approach of Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan in her new book, "The One Minute Wine Master: Discover 10 Wines You'll Like in 60 Seconds or Less" (Sterling Epicure, 2012). Think of it as a Meyers-Briggs character assessment for wine nerds.
Simonetti-Bryan, a master of wine, poses 11 simple questions about our eating and drinking preferences, including which flavor of gum we prefer. Depending on our answers, she assigns us to one of four groups, named for the seasons that reflect our flavor preferences in wine. I'm a Fall guy, apparently, which means I like "wines that are not too delicate, not too fruity or jammy, yet not too strong either." (It might also mean I can't make up my mind, but I'm not sure.) Apparently, I like wines with "medium to medium high" concentration, tannins and alcohol (accurate, as far as it goes), whereas if I were, say, Spring-loaded I'd prefer light wines with low tannins and lower alcohol levels.
Puckette's flow chart and Simonetti-Bryan's personality quiz can help us understand our wine preferences and overcome reluctance to try something new. But the key is still simple: Swirl, sniff, sip -- and pay attention.