A wine awakening – part one
October 13th, 2010
04:30 PM ET
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Donna Huntley works in CNN Viewer Communications Management. This is her first in an ongoing series on her journey to understand wine.

Confession time: Until recently, I had never in my life partaken in wine. My parents did not drink it, we never had it in the house and it was never ordered when we went out to eat.

Wine was boring; I never really had a need or desire to learn about the topic, dreaded the thought of ever consuming it and certainly was not going to “waste” any time on the subject. It was not something I would ever lose sleep over. No, wine did not have a place in my life - until last month.

Not long ago my mother, who found out she was adopted, started researching her biological family. She found out that her grandmother once owned a vineyard. We don’t know much about it other than a sentence alongside some family notes, which included the phrases "she owned a vineyard" and "made wine." According to the notes, she was pretty good at it too.

Now, what was once a subject not in need of a single thought has now awakened the little grandchild deep in the sleepy corner of my mind. In that corner the researcher and investigator in me has just met my grandmother’s "wine child." Good morning wine child.

So now in order to understand the great-grandmother I never had the chance to meet, I have decided to study all things wine. I want to learn about grapes and vineyards and everything that comes with it.

Correction: I want to attempt to do all this. I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew at times and I don’t want this to be one of those times.

I am a wee bit scared and very much embarrassed. I know nothing about wines; heck I can’t tell the difference between purple grapes and green ones except by their colors. What makes me think I can take on the wine industry?

Truth is, I don’t know, but I really must try. Who knows? It might lead to something exciting - or nothing at all. Either way, I won’t know until I try.

A word of warning: As I write about this investigation into wine, everyone please remember I am not writing this as a connoisseur; I am writing as a novice, just starting out. I have NO, NADA, NIL knowledge of the subject matter.

Because of this there are some ground rules:

1. No making fun of me, no laughing behind my back - laugh WITH me so I can enjoy it too.

2. No admonishing me when I make mistakes - although friendly suggestions are more than welcome. This is a learning process for me, and I could use all the help I can get.

So, armed with my Wine for Dummies book, your suggestions, a notebook and my new found bravery, I am embarking on my adventure. Wish me luck.

Tomorrow - our heroine sips her first Pinot Noir and nearly falls off the bar stool. And not in a good way.

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Filed under: Sip • Wine • Wine Awakening

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. JB

    If you are sensitive to the taste of alcohol, you might find this article useful:

    October 18, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  2. Theresa

    As the granddaughter of a distributor of family wines, know how proud & excited your great grandmother would be of you and your journey. Salute :)

    October 15, 2010 at 10:25 am |
  3. Brittany

    The best wine i have ever had is made by Wild Vines. The wine is called Sunshine blend. I have loved wine for many years and this wine is the best i have tasted. If you can find this wine,for it is very hard to find in my state, it is well worth it i hope you have a wonderful time!

    October 14, 2010 at 10:52 pm |
  4. Phillip Ray

    One name – Jancis Robinson. Do yourself a HUGE favor and go out and get her dvd wine course. It's brilliant and I still watch it! Secondly, don't ever let anyone discourage you. All of us were/are rookies at one time and I'm still learning (after 10 years). There isn't enough days in the year to drink great wines... so enjoy!

    October 14, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  5. Eli

    Lots of good suggestions here. I would add a few more. Firstly, don't worry if you're starting to feel overwhelmed. It's an enormous business and it takes time to learn. Secondly,I agree with others about going to some wineries. The good ones are more than willing to answer questions, even those you might think are silly. They want people to be interested. If you happen upon one in which they are acting snobbish...walk away! There product is probably not worth your time. If you're tasting many wines, try drinking a bit of water in between (not ice cold, not sparkling) to clean your palate.

    Don't forget that California isn't the only place in North America where there is great wine. Try other states, try Canada – Okanagan Valley and the Niagra Falls region have amazing wines.

    Lastly, and most importantly, if you get to go to a vineyard or two (or three), don't forget to ask to taste the grape. The wines come from grapes and people tend to forget that. Some of the best wines come from incredibly tasty grapes! You may also find that you don't like certain grapes, it will mean you won't like certain wines. Best to know now.

    October 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  6. Domenica

    I learned about wine from waiting tables. An employee of a wine distributor would come to the restaurants where I worked periodically and educate us about a few bottles of wine, their history, pairings, etc. You may have luck calling your local distributor, telling them about your project, and asking to set up a tasting with one of their employees. Books can sometimes inundate you with too much information; it's helpful to learn from a person to get to the most important or relevant facts. Also, if you walk into a wine store and advise them you are looking for a wine with a specific quality (example: a sweet wine and a semi-sweet wine, to compare and contrast) any employee should be knowledgeable enough to assist you. You could also buy wine glasses from your local dollar store and have a tasting party, ask friends to bring bottles costing $15 or less, and invite at least one person who knows about wine who can teach everyone. Most importantly, have fun with it! Good luck, can't wait to read more about your adventure!

    October 14, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  7. sara

    have fun!

    October 14, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  8. Tony

    You could always venture into making your own wine as well! Its a very rewarding experience.

    October 14, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  9. Stacey S

    I started out with my Wine For Dummies and a little wine shop in Monterey, CA. I started sweet (Moscatos and Gewurztraminers) and gradually made my way to the drier whites and light reds.

    If you have access to local wineries or tasting rooms they are great places to start and usually have staff that can help you through the tasting process. Don't overdo it and take it slow. It took me about 6-9 months before I really could enjoy a dry red, such as Cabernet or Red Zinfandel.

    Try to steer clear of blush wine, they have their place, but usually are sweet and over processed.

    Pair your wine with food it is always more enjoyable.

    If you happen to visit a restaurant with a Sommelier, explain to him/her your level of wine experience and he will be able to find a wine that you will enjoy and not overpower your meal.

    Have fun with it... Wine is an adventure!

    October 14, 2010 at 10:19 am |
  10. Josh

    This is a wonderful topic and a great way to get in touch with your family history. A book you should either check out or purchase is called the "Wine Bible written by Karen MacNeil" It is a great introduction into the wine world. Have lots of fun on this journey.

    October 14, 2010 at 9:47 am |
  11. fay

    i love your idea! i really wish i knew more about my family history. one of those things where, if it's not writen down, it's forgoten. wine is such a lovely thing. i, like you, know very little about it, but i enjoy it at meals or for relaxation never the less. there are so many different kinds out there, so don't get too overwhelmed! one glass or sip at a time. you're bound to find something you enjoy. maybe you could tour a vineyard or two? i would enjoy hearing about those experiences too!

    October 14, 2010 at 2:03 am |
  12. Kip

    I agree with everything that's been said, and I do hope you have a deliciously fun time. I would just add one thing: there are no rules. You don't have to have white wine with fish and red wine with meat. All you have to do is enjoy what you eat and drink. As you spend more time in the company of wine, you'll find that your tastes tend to firm up. (Of course, the other trend is that as you gain more experience, you may find that the wine you drink gets more expensive......)
    Have fun!!

    October 13, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
  13. RolK

    Have Fun! As you learn about wine you will probably also learn about those who make it and hence understand your heritage better. In this regard you may wish to visit: http://sites.google.com/site/homevintners/Home/the-vintner-s-journey I also recommend: http://www.amazon.com/Spirituality-Wine-Tom-Harpur/dp/1896836631/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1287007503&sr=1-1-spell This is a unique and wonderful book. Cheers!

    October 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  14. alex saliby

    I too wish you good luck in your discovery, but I have a question: From which part of the world the the ggm originate?

    You may reduce the scope of your learning experience by narrowing down the subject matter...e.g. were she from Italy, you might get even narrower and learn where exactly in Italy. That then will help you focus your attentions on the specific kinds of grapes your gg might have grown and used in her winemaking.

    Again, good luck and I too look forward to reading more of the adventures.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  15. WM

    First, invite friends or family to join you in this discovery. A bottle of wine is five glasses, and the whole bottle will be cheaper than one glass at a restaurant (and restaurants tend to look for great profits not great wines). Half or even a fifth of a glass (one ounce, 30 cc) is enough to taste a wine. If it's not convenient to have mass wine tastings, get a Vacu-Vin, an inexpensive bottle sealer that pumps out the air that will spoil the wine. (On expense account, get a nitrogen injection system.) Other equipment needed: A Pulltap's wine opener, almost universally used in good restaurants–avoid similar looking openers. Clear glasses so you can see the wine; cheap is fine; getting a dozen will be good for comparison tastings with friends.

    Second, don't equate price with quality. Sure, some expensive wines offer tastes not to be had by lesser wines, but until you know what you like, you won't know which to get and probably won't fully appreciate them. When you first had it, did you fully appreciate the subtleties of any food you now savor? The key beginning is to taste a lot of different wines and establish what you like. Drinking wine you enjoy is correct; drinking the fashionable wine you dislike is a mistake. So, find somewhere to get wine at a decent price so you can experiment freely, so you don't think, "I spent $XX for this! It must be great wine!" If a Trader Joe's is within fifty miles, go to it. Tell them you're new at wine, that your budget is $XX, and you'd like a mixed case of all kinds of wine to taste. Even if you can't find a good wine shop, keep early bottles under $10–even at the highest taxes, many good wines will be found for less, it keeps you from being intimidated by the price, and, honestly, how will you know good wine unless you taste a little poor wine also?

    Third, you can't really remember taste. Compare different wines. Compare a Chardonnay, a Pinot Grigio, and a Savignon Blanc from the same vintner to see what the differences are in the varietals. For reds, a Shiraz/Sirah, a Merlot, a Cabernet Savignon. Once you have a clue which varietals you like, then taste different wineries against each other; or different priced wines from the same vintner against each other. Wine will taste different with food, especially spicy food: try each wine; have some mild food (cheese is traditional); taste each again; have something spicy; taste again. The tastes will change!

    As much as possible, taste "blind". Open each bottle and strip off the top wrapper. Put them in identical bags (or whatever) to hid the labels. Mix them up so you don't know which is which. Now label them 1-2-3 and label your glasses 1-2-3 (this is why you bought many inexpensive glasses!) Now do the tasting without knowing which wine is which. Take notes if you want. Remember smell is extremely important to taste: imitate the cliche wine taster–not to look effete, but to smell the wine more so you taste it more. After you think you understand the wines and how they interact with the food, reveal which is what.

    Have fun!

    (Don't drink and drive! If you're only 100 lbs., it takes nearly two hours to burn a glass of wine–another reason to taste in small amounts.)

    (And, I have no economic interest in any company I've mentioned. I wish I could buy Trader Joes' stock, but it's privately held!)

    Cheers from California!

    October 13, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  16. Drgon2o

    What a coincidence. Just this weekend I had the opportunity to visit my first winery. What a great experience. I can't wait to read about your experiences.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  17. holden

    Plunging into the wine world without any history is an exciting thing these days. Now is the time to get involved in tasting quality wines from around the world at decent prices. When I first started, I took a wine class at the local adult education center. This taught me about the wine basics, allowed me to taste numerous wines, to take notes and to ask questions. Wine shops also have tastings most Fridays, which is a good place to start as well (most of the wines are low cost, but it could give you a good starting point). Depending on where you live, going to a winery (especially in the Fall, during harvest), can be fun and educational, but they are only poring their wine, so be leery of their best "great cab or pinot". Good luck and have fun!

    October 13, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  18. Luke Speer

    Donna- I am so very proud of you! I myself undertook the exact same challenge to add more wine knowledge and information to my life. I took the leap and moved to the Napa Valley to learn, experience and simply enjoy wine. It seems time for me to pass on a little advice that my amazing adventure has been able to extol. With wine there is simply no right or wrong, there is just you and your palate. If you don’t like a wine, good! It means that you are learning different flavors, and if you do like it, well right on! The last thing I can pass on is to ask questions and be forward! Don’t let wine intimidate you, ask the questions that you want to have answered! Until we may meet, may all your wines be great!

    October 13, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  19. LaSheka Hollingsworth

    Awesome! It's really great that she has decided to follow through where her great grandmother left off. Learning new things is great. Enjoy your adventure with wine tasting, it can be fun.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  20. Ian

    Good luck! What a fun adventure you're beginning.
    Also-let me suggest another book, The Wine Bible. It'll help you out quite a bit as well.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
  21. Jason

    Good luck! The best suggestion I can make is to remember that there are a LOT of different makers and varieties of wine, and your palate can be affected by a myriad of things like what you ate earlier, whether you have a cold, or maybe even just your mood. Just because you don't like a cabernet from one maker, doesn't mean that you won't like one from a different maker, or even a different year from the same maker.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  22. Milikania

    Oh this is wonderful! I am excited to read your story; this seems like an interesting adventure.

    October 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
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