How to get started in wines…

If you’re interested, read on.  I’ve gotten many of these inquiries and here is what I tell them and so far so good…

There are a million ways to do it.  Everyone has a story.  Mine begins with tales of teenage drinking and a couple of old gentlemen named “Bartles & James”.  Oh please, you all know what I’m talking about.  OK, maybe you’re a little younger and “ZIMA” is more of an relative beginning – in which case its debateable who had the “wussy”-er introduction to alchoholic beverages…but I digress.

My wine drinking in earnest began (get ready for another groan moment) with White Zinfandel over 15 years ago.  I progressed to more “premium” wines a little later when my father came to San Francisco to visit (at the time he had been here more often then I had) and took Kelly and I to Scoma’s at the Wharf.  There he ordered a bottle of 1994 Geyser Peak Merlot (I haven’t checked but it must have been one of their best vintages) and it went so well with the seafood in red sauce dish I had that I was just stunned (as was Kelly).  Then I spent time in Napa and got to know more and more.  But there was a problem – how do I explore wines without breaking the bank?

Since then I’ve had multiple people ask that same question.  Where do I start?  The most

recent was from my older brother who checks this blog periodically and was wondering the same thing.  He normally just bought stuff on a guess and it was hit and miss.  So I’m going to tell you, would-be, starting out collector/enthusiast, what I told him and several others.

Alot of people don’t want to hear it but start with Wine Spectator.  Yeah, yeah, advertising dollars and missing small wineries, blah blah blah.  But hear me out.  Explore some wines this way:

  • Go to and sign up.  It costs $50 for a year but it’ll be worth it.
  • In the paid area they have something called “Advance” – its a newsletter that will give you the ratings of wines before they hit the newsstands.
  • Find a wine in there that retails for around $20 and is rated really high (90+)
  • Now go to either or (you can pay for to get better results).  Search for the wine you just got from “Advance”.
  • Get the wine shipped to you and enjoy!

Why does this work?  Simple, if you don’t know anything about wines (or not much) what Wine Spectator is good for is the way the rate wines.  Their editorial staff have “beats” which means they taste only certain regions or wines.  So when a Merlot gets a 92, that is compared to the many many Merlots that they’ve tried.  This should give you an idea of what a pretty decent Merlot should taste like.  Same is true for other varietals and regions they taste.  Because of this vertical focus you can use their ratings to begin to understand what a good “XYZ” wine should taste like.  What you’ll also learn is that a 92 rated Merlot may please you tremendously while a 92 rate Pinot tastes bad.  Well, you’re learning that you haven’t developed a taste for Pinots quite yet.  Thats good!  Avoid plunking down $100 on a Pinot in a restaraunt for now (I say for now because you’ll find you tastes changing over time).

Yes, there are those who will BALK at the talk of using Wine Spectator as a guide for wines and maybe someday social computing can help but really if you’re saying to yourself “I keep hearing about Australian wines.  Wonder which one to try?” – if you use this method and get an idea of what one tastes like you’ll expand your horizons. 

Is it perfect?  No, but its a start.  Your friend can give you a recommendation but if they like Pinots and you don’t then their recommendation is worth what?

Good luck and Enjoy the Wine Life!

Author: Joel Vincent

Growth Hacker and wine lover

One thought on “How to get started in wines…”

  1. Hi Joel,

    May I disagree? I find Wine Spectator to be strong as a wine lifestyle/travel magazine, but weak as a wine learning magazine. I also think you have to learn trust your own taste, rather than trust those ratings.

    Here’s what I recommend: Find a knowledgable wine merchant near you, tell this person what you like and get his/her recommendations. You’ll score more hits this way than choosing from High Scoring wines from a consumer wine magazine.

    You open a bottle you don’t like? Cap it, put it in the fridge. Try some the next night (after it’s been out of the fridge for enough time to be at the right temperature). Still no good? Try again next night (or whatever). I’ve found that wines I don’t like the day I open them eventually come around become quite enjoyable. Especially, young Burgundies.

    – Jack


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