How to Become a Wine Sleuth: Cracking the Sommelier’s Code

There is a place embedded within any liquor store so mysterious and intimidating that few dare enter: the wine aisle. While snagging a $3 bottle from the shopping cart parked at its edge is easy enough, shifting away from a Cabernet catch-all can seem impossible. It doesn’t help that the language used to discuss wine’s characteristics seems to require its own Rosetta Stone.

But sommelier Courtney Schiessl says you can be your own translator, not by memorizing key vocabulary terms, but understanding wine’s “structure.” She argues that the elements that make up this structure — including acidity and tannins — are actually the key to understanding the flavors your local wine snob describes as “a young rose blossoming as Edith Piaf sings in a nearby cafe.”

In the simplest terms, acidity translates to the dryness or sourness of a wine; sugar translates to sweetness; “body” translates to booziness; and tannins translate to texture, as created by the type of grape. Schiessel says that understanding these characteristics gives consumers the power to find their perfect wine without the pros. For instance, “If you think you like sweet reds, you probably actually like reds that are fruity, low in tannin, and low in acidity,” Schiessel said.

While this process could still seem laborious for casual drinkers, the fact is wine is increasingly popular among younger generations. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Wine Market Council, millennials drank 42 percent of the United States’ wine — the highest number of any generation — and many didn’t mind occasionally shelling out over $20 for a bottle. Notably, ⅔ of wine drinkers under the age of 30 were women.

Just as Double IPA has entered the craft beer consciousness, it seems wine could be enticing new connoisseurs to try and crack its code. Perhaps instead of tap rooms, wine bars will emerge as the hip spot for everyone to expand their tannin horizons. After all, “kegged” wines — or wines on tap — have become an increasingly popular way to serve up that house red in several restaurants or bars.

But there is definitely something preventing wine from becoming as ubiquitously admired and embraced as its craft beer equivalents. Despite Schiessel’s useful method for finding the perfect bottle and younger generations’ increasing interest, it still has a prickly, elitist air. Perhaps it was its association with the pompous nobility centuries ago, but beer still reigns as the “everyman’s” beverage. I wonder what has to change in the industry to reverse this perception, and perhaps make wine seem more accessible.



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