The first rule of Wine Club is there are no rules. That’s the soft pitch sommeliers, wine directors, purchasers, and other oenophiles will often deliver once you admit to them you like wine, but feel you have so much more to learn. These experts stress there are no rules when ordering and drinking wine. Just do what you like, drink what you love, and forget the pretentious drivel of those wine snobs, they say. That’s nice and all, but come on. There have to be some guidelines at least. In the delightful spirit of negativity (ours, not his) we wrangled some “don’ts” out of William Leon, owner and chef of the Gnarly Vine in New Rochelle, one Westchester’s first wine bars. Leon is very pleasant and open about the ways of wine, so he won’t judge if you ignore his rules. But let’s hear these rules anyway.
1. DON’T get overwhelmed by the wine selection or wine list. There’s always someone to help you out, whether it’s the waiter, bartender, or sommelier. Ask. Don’t pretend. Start small and familiarize yourself with the grapes you already know you like. That way you can try the same grape growing in different regions and countries, compare, and become more knowledgeable within that range to start.
2. DON’T put the cork back in the bottle when it’s opened at your table. “No, no!” Leon says. “It loses its beautiful bouquet. It doesn’t breathe. You must decant it. You want the wine to oxidize to help it develop the flavors.” Remember, the wine has been bottled up for months. Don’t suffocate the poor thing when it’s finally time for it to accomplish its life purpose.
3. DON’T drink white wine too cold or red wine too warm. “You can over-chill a bottle of white and lose the flavors of the wine, and it tastes flat. It can lose freshness,” he says. And with red wine too warm, it gets too acidic and also reduces freshness. Room temperature is perfect to taste the red wine’s rich nuances of flavor.
4. DON’T drink 100 percent Chardonnay or 100 percent Syrah with spicy food. Go with blends. “When I eat spicy food, I like Grenache or Malbec, or a blend of Paso Robles from California. Those are actually really good wines to pair with spicy food. You want refreshing or fruity or a little spice to cut through the spiciness. I like to have blends,” Leon says. He also enjoys pairing his spicy cuisine, such as some Mexican dishes, with wine from Washington State blended with Riesling.
5. DON’T be constrained by the outdated idea that white wine must go with fish and poultry, and red wine is for red meat dishes only. “Sometimes when you pair it with a heavy sauce, red wine does work with fish,” Leon says. “It’s not a big deal.” And with tastings, Leon doesn’t always start with low concentration wines, moving up to high concentration (like white to red). “I always just go with the one that I enjoy,” he says. We realize this rule is more like a non-rule rule. And that rules.
To practice your newly found wine drinking knowledge, go to Wine & Food Fest and learn about this magazine’s June 8-11 festival.