Navigating The Wine Aisle: A Beginner’s Guide

The worst thing about the wine aisle is the feeling you get when you walk into it. A voice in the back of your head whispers to you: “You’re an adult, you should know how to choose a wine.” Next thing you know, you grab a bottle whose label you like. Time to head toward the check stand before anyone can question your choice.

Have you had this experience? This post is for you.

Choosing The Right Wine

Sommeliers dedicate their lives to choosing the right wine for people. They have a wealth of knowledge. They’ve mastered the thousands of places around the world that grow grapes. They know the stories behind the bottles that they recommend at their restaurants. They can make wine come alive.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have have a personal somm. As a result, choosing the right wine becomes a complex negotiation between labels that looks fun, or classy, or maybe just French.

Here are a few tips to help you move to the next level in your wine selection.

Understand Wine Labels

Here in Washington State, and the rest of the United States for that matter, our wine labels proclaim the name of the grape inside the bottle. Two of the most predominant grapes tend to be Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Chardonnay (white) If there isn’t a single grape being used,it will be called a blend. You can expect wines from Australia, New Zealand, and South America to also display the name of the grape.

This all seems pretty straightforward, right? But wait, what about European wines?

In the major wine producing nations of Spain, France, and Italy wines are named by the place, not the grape. This can get confusing, and most people are only comfortable with a few of the place names like Rioja and Chianti Classico.

Give A Place-Name Wine A Try

If you like Washington reds you’re likely to like wines from Bordeaux. Here’s why: most Washington red wines are made from the five grapes of Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Look for bottles labeled or Bordeaux Supérieur. You can also try wines from specific Bordeaux appellations. Two of my favorite are St. Émilion and Graves.

Many Bordeaux wines will be blended, but that doesn’t mean they are lower quality wines. Winemakers carefully blend their wines to get the absolute best out of each vintage.

There’s a reason for this naming convention. In some winegrowing regions, especially Europe, laws control what grapes can be grown in what region. As a result, certain towns and villages are known for certain grapes. That means, if you like one Chianti Clasico (which is required to contain at least 85% sangiovese grapes), you’re probably going to like more and can keep going back for them.

Red Isn’t Better

You’ve probably heard someone say one of these two phrases around a dinner table before. 1) Real wine connoisseurs don’t drink white wine. 2) If the red wines you enjoy aren’t deep and complex you aren’t serious about your wine. Neither of these things could be further from the truth.

Here’s the key: any wine can be great on it’s own, but it may just become amazing given the right situation. The color doesn’t matter.

A crisp sauvignon blanc from is going to be an amazing thing to drink chilled with some seafood on a hot summer afternoon. A deep red malbec will likely be good with that fatty roast cooked in a deep gravy. It’s all about when and where you have them.

So how do you get started choosing which wine to drink with your food? Let’s talk basic pairing principles:

  • White wines go well with seafood and some lighter meats like chicken or pork.
  • More delicate reds like pinot noir shine when served with pork or duck.
  • Deeper reds work with richer foods and bigger meats because they help cut through the fattiness of the food.

Now you can dive a lot deeper into this rabbit hole. Wine pairing is a complex art that takes trial and error to do successfully. The bottom line is to trust your tastebuds, and a little science. The folks over at Wine Folly have some great resources if you want to learn more.

Avoid The Temptation To Buy (Too) Cheap

There are some decent bottles of wine under $10 in almost any wine aisle. There are also a great many poor ones. If you’re looking to expand your palette and learn more about wines that you love I find that you can find a much more consistent level of quality in the $15-20 range.

The jump from a $7 bottle to a $15 bottle will be noticeable. And worth it. If you’re not sure, get a bottle of the same varietal in each price point and taste them side by side. Prove me wrong.

Track Your Tastes

I have a bad memory. It’s difficult for me to remember which wine I liked last week, not to mention last month. There are a variety of low-tech and high-tech ways to keep a record of each wine you drink. A simple notebook will do. I use an app called Vivino. The key is to document your tastes. That way, as you try more bottles, you’ll start developing an understanding of the types of wine you enjoy.

Document your tastes. That way, as you try more, you’ll begin to understand which #wine you enjoy. Tweet This

Be Bold

My final bit of advice to you is to be bold. Wine can feel intimidating. It shouldn’t be. Sure, there are a few snobs, but most people simply love it. Let’s not let the snobs ruin it for us. Anyone who really loves wine got to where they are using a simple formula:

  1. Try new wines
  2. Taste a lot of wine
  3. Share the experience with friends

So, why not try something new tonight? Now you’ve got some new tools to make the right choice.

Resources To Learn More

Obviously, we’ve barely scratched the surface in this post. If you catch the wine bug there is a world of things to learn. Even if you don’t want to spend your nights and weekends reading about wine like I do, there are some great resources right at your fingertips that you can dig into right away.

Wine Folly

Wine Folly is a great blog (and they have a book now too!) based right here in Seattle. Founder Madeleine Puckett provides advice on all things wine and introductions to every major wine region in the world. They also send out a nice weekly email.

Your Grocery Store Wine Department Employees

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a local grocery store like Central Market or Ballard Market, you have a great resource at your fingertips. Just ask the people working the wine aisle which wines they’ve been enjoying lately. They usually won’t point you in the wrong direction. Just last week I was talking with one of the guys in the wine aisle at Ballard Market about how well Muscadet (French dry white wine from the Loire Valley) pairs with steamed clams. He said it’s his go to. Now I have to try it out.

Your Neighborhood Wine Shop

Even better than a grocery store is your local wine shop. The service you’ll receive from them will be exceptional. In fact, I think it’s better to talk to shopkeeper about what you’re looking for before you even start looking at the bottles. Maybe this is my nostalgia for French wine shops speaking. Either way, it works. They know way more about their bottles than you do.

Some great options to check out in Seattle are:

Your Friends

Finally, talk to your friends. Wine is something that’s best enjoyed with a number of friends over good food. Talk your friends about what they’ve been drinking lately. You might be surprised by the discoveries you make.