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Gene and Phyllis enjoying a glass of wine in Florence, Italy

The Romans drank it... Mozart enjoyed it... lovers have toasted their devotion with it... songs have been written about it... and most of us love it- a glass of good wine. Despite the stratospheric price tags accepted at Sotheby’s auctions and the $50- $100/bottle range of many upscale wineries and wine boutiques- the best way to describe a good wine is simple. A good wine is one that you like. There are dozens of words and sophisticated phrases to describe the character, intensity, color, bouquet, strength, body and complexity of wine, which should become part of your vocabulary if you truly want to understand the basic characteristics and subtle nuances of quality wines. The true wine enthusiast should, as always, do their homework, read up on the history of wine and winemaking, the regions around the world best known for wine and become familiar with the numerous varieties of grapes which produce quality wines.

Wine can cost as little as $5- $9/bottle- or even approach the dizzying levels of some auction houses, but the most important thing to consider about wine, no matter what the vineyard, no matter what the critics say- is whether, after careful sampling, tasting and introspection- it appeals to you.

Hundreds of books and guides have been written over the last few decades describing the “sophisticate’s” way of knowing and enjoying fine wines. This guide to wine and wineries is not meant to be all inclusive or an in-depth analysis of any particular region, winery or vintage. This summary is meant to: 1) introduce wine to first-time wine drinkers and 2) refresh and reinforce the message to existing wine lovers that there is a huge variety of quality wine to enjoy at reasonable prices ($10- $30/bottle). Here we want to make you familiar with wine, how and where it is produced and the numerous varieties which you can enjoy to complement good food. So sit back and relax- pour yourself a glass of wine- and browse through this introductory guide to wine and wineries.

What is Wine?

Wine Grapes Fermenting Webster’s Dictionary defines wine as “the fermented juice of grapes used especially as a beverage, made in many varieties, as red or white, sweet or dry and still or sparkling and containing no more than 14% alcohol”. Wine can be made from virtually any material which has sugars or starches that can be used in the fermentation process. Strawberry wine, dandelion wine and dozens of other exotic varieties of wine have been produced for centuries when grapes were unavailable or the makers preferred a different type of beverage. The alcohol content is specified in most countries up to a certain limit- above which the beverage is then considered a “fortified” wine or related drink. “Vit”- the Latin root of the word viticulture (meaning the cultivation of grapes for winemaking)- is also the root of the Latin word for “life”.

Wine Regions

Although popularly known from regions in France, Italy, Germany and other European countries, wine is and has been produced in dozens of countries around the world for centuries- from Israel and South Africa to Chile, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Portugal, the United States and Canada. French and Italian wines dominated the restaurant scene for decades, but in the 1950’s and 1960’s, some diligent and creative winemakers in the Napa and Sonoma regions of California began producing exceptional wines which not only gained attention, but also won prestigious awards in competitions against more recognized European wineries. Today Americans can buy excellent and reasonably priced wines from California, Washington State, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York, and many other areas. You can likely find good-excellent quality wines at your local liquor store from Chile, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries.

Wine Grapes

Growing Wine Grapes - Sun, Soil, Rainfall and Temperature

Wine grapes have been grown in an enormous variety of climates (and “microclimates”) for centuries. The winemaking regions of France such as Bordeaux and Pomerol are world-renowned for producing superb wines due to their unique combination of weather and soil. Wines will acquire a distinct flavor if the grapes are grown in soils described as “flinty, chalky or sandy” as compared to ones with higher clay or organic matter content. In addition, the “optimum” amount of sunlight will vary depending on the particular grape being grown and the specific type of wine desired from that grape. Leaving grapes on the vine until late in the season tends to increase the sugar content (the “brix”) and some grapes are left in the orchard until the first frost (so-called “ice wines”). In addition, temperature, rainfall and drainage are critical depending again on the type of grape and wine preferred. Many grape varieties are best suited to only light- moderate rainfall, sunny, but not overly warm days and cool nights, while others grow well in regions with slightly greater precipitation and/or warmer days and more moderate night conditions. All of these add up to a final product- which is the sum total of the growing conditions over a period of five-six months (generally Spring to late Summer), after which the grapes are picked and processed into wine.

The Author Gene Pisasale in 1974, pre-wine connisseur days

First Appreciating Wine

Jug of Wine This writer began his wine odyssey in the early 1970’s- when numerous low cost (and generally lower quality) wines were making their way onto the market in the United States. The popular “jug wines” which became prized offerings at many college parties were for many young people the only thing to enjoy when someone mentioned wine.  Many of my friends began to get more interested in wines to enjoy with specific types of food- hearty, robust red wines to drink with Italian food... light, subtle white wines to enjoy with chicken or fish…fruity wines to sample with nuts, fruits and snacks. Over the last 15 years there has been an explosion of quality wines from around the world to enjoy with virtually any type of meal including multi-course, five-star extravaganzas to inexpensive picnics with friends.

The Tastes of Wine

We begin with tasting- in trying a wide variety of red, white and blush wines, you will learn what is most pleasing to your personal palate. Some people enjoy sweeter or fruity wines…others prefer very dry, low sugar content wines…still others like wines somewhere in between. In the late 1970’s, while in graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin, I tried a variety of wines, many from California, enjoying them on their own or while serving guests at parties and gatherings.  Little did I know that the year 1978 would go down as one of the finest vintages for cabernet sauvignon (a red variety) of the last 30 years. We'll also discuss a "cousin" of wine- champagne- which many have used to celebrate special occasions that has its own character and complexity.

I sampled a wide variety of wines starting over thirty years ago and now wish I had stockpiled several cases of 1978 cabernet sauvignon from California wineries such as Louis Martini, Sebastiani, Jordan, Sterling and others which are now highly prized by collectors (and generally priced in the $100- $200 range). We recommend that every novice wine enthusiast simply make it a point to try a glass of wine which was previously unknown to you and decide after careful sampling whether it appeals to your preference for sweetness, bitterness, intensity and character (we’ll describe these in more detail later). The four basic tastes- sweet, sour, salty and bitter- apply only marginally to wine as compared to spices for food. More often, you will be drawn to the bouquet (aroma) of a fine wine, perhaps the “oaky” taste (it may have been aged in oak barrels), the rich, “buttery” flavor (typical in some California chardonnays), the fruity flavor (Beaujolais) or slightly tart flavor (typical in some sauvignon blancs from New Zealand).

How to taste and enjoy wine

Wine - Visual Quality The exploration process involves four basic steps: 1) the "look" (color, tint), 2) the aroma (bouquet), 3) taste (sweetness, tart-ness, intensity, character) and 4) aftertaste (lingering flavor). In these four steps, you need to take note of the "essentials" of fine wine- if you do, you'll come to know and more fully appreciate great wines which you can enjoy for years to come.

Explore Wineries

Make your own wine odyssey exciting- try reds, whites and “blush” wines (formerly called rose)- and everything in between until you find some which you like immediately. Ask the waiter or bartender to identify the wine you were given, ask them about the winery and their knowledge of the wine and you can learn quite a lot. Ask to see the bottle so you can read the label, see the type of grape it was produced from, the region where it was produced and what the winemaker says about the wine characteristics and what foods they recommend you enjoy it with. Write down those qualities which you find most distinctive about the wine- and how best to remember it when considering it in the future. Remember- you're making notes about what appeals to YOU.

After you’ve tried 30-50 different types of wines, you’ll probably find at least 3-5 wines which you truly love. Many people find lighter, less robust wines easier to enjoy first- like enjoying a cup of light tea before trying a robust cup of dark coffee. Ask yourself what characteristics you’ve noted about each wine that appeal to you most. You may find that you strongly prefer slightly sweeter wines….or perhaps you’ll find that you like very dry wines.  After making notes about which wines you like the most, go to your local liquor store or wine distributor and ask if they stock those varieties and vintages from specific wineries.

Wine Tasting Room - Va La VineyardsCheck the winery's website for in-depth descriptions of the winemaking process, the specific types of grapes used and the focus of their operations. Many states now have wine-making operations- from the “mom and pop” level vineyards to the multi-billion dollar worldwide producers. Go to a local winery!! Chances are there is a winery within at most a 1-2 hour drive. If there are no wineries in your area to visit, ask your favorite restaurant where they buy their wines and whether they have contact with regional or national wineries which can supply you with information. Add a trip to a local winery to your vacation list of things to do- you may find that there are wineries near where you’re staying and find some new wines to enjoy and bring back home. In this way, you’ll not only have a list of specific wines you already enjoy- you’ll have something to remember in future years. We’ll next describe the various wine regions around the world best known for quality wines and highlight ones which we feel you can purchase on a reasonable budget and enjoy for years to come. Don't forget to not drink too much if you have to drive home. Drunk driving is the cause to too many serious accidents. Your insurance company may try to fight any claims from such an accident. You may need to hire an experienced Los Angeles car accident lawyer for such a case.