The Non-Wine Lover's guide
Indeed, there are wines that are definite crowd pleasers, but knowing how to probe the typical wine-lover about his or her likes/dislikes helps the friendly wine merchant find a better wine match. Won't it be thrilling to see your wine-lover light up and say "Oh, I didn't know you knew anything about wine!" You will have them fooled by finding just a few things.
Here's what you need to ask.
Question #1: red or white. Believe me, this makes the wine merchant's job a heck of a lot easier. Although "red" or "white" is very basic, it slashes the list by half. It also helps--but is not necessary--to know the name of the grape variety ("varietal") they like. Perhaps you have heard the wine-lover say "Cabernet" or "Chardonnay;" this is the varietal.
Question #2: dry or sweet (rather, dry to sweet-it's a continuum). Without room for a treatise on "dry" versus "sweet," suffice it to say that "dry" wines tend to dry the mouth, whereas a "sweet" wine will have a detectable sweetness on the palate. Your wine-lover will probably have a preference. In general, red wines tend to be dry, but white wines run the gamut from downright sugary to mouth-puckering dry.
Question #3: light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied. "Body" is the "weight" of the wine in the mouth-think of it this way-drink a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade, then drink some whole milk. Each will feel different in your mouth. The same goes for wine--some wines are light, others medium, still others heavier ("full"). Again, this helps the wine merchant narrow down a better choice.
Discovering just these three things will prevent a wine gift disaster, probably cause squeals of delight, and reduce stress on the wine merchant. If you are really set on perfection, however, there are just a few more things that will clench it for you.
Advanced question #1: tannin level. Try to find out if your wine lover likes strong or soft tannin--this can make the difference between something your wine-lover will love and something that they will give away. "Tannin" causes the above-mentioned pucker and is usually only a concern when buying reds. Tannin can be very pronounced, some people just love it; others prefer "easy-drinking," soft tannin. If you aren't confident enough to find this out, you'll be safer to ask for soft tannin.
Advanced question #2: oak level. If you've ever sniffed a freshly cut oak tree, then sniffed an older one, you can decipher a difference in strength. A wine's "oakiness" depends on the type and age of the oak, plus the length of time it sits in the barrel (some wines don't spend any time at all). Some wine-lovers like strong oak aromas and flavors, some like soft, or more "vanilla" aromas and flavors. If you don't know your wine-lover's preference, it's best not to go too strong on the oak. But if you have an oak-lover, this can really make the difference.
Once you have these few basic details down, tell the wine merchant how much you want to spend. This seems obvious, but many people won't come out and say it. Lastly, plan to spend at least twelve dollars-this is the standard starting point for beyond jug-quality wine.
All right, now you can march right up to the wine merchant and say "I need a red, dry, medium-bodied, moderately-tannic wine with soft oak." Yes, it sounds silly to you, but your wine-lover probably already has a case of fine marinade material!
June 26, 2000