The Non-froofy Side of Wine: A Drinking Man’s Intro to Wine

Red goes with what? Fish? You can't serve what in what glass? Wine can be damn intimidating. We proudly introduce a new series that will give every beer and whiskey drinker out there an excellent primer to the world of wine.

Sledgehammer wine

Ever since I came of drinking age started drinking, I’ve been a beer drinker. But for the rest of 2011, I’ve decided to be a wine drinker. Why? Because I’m ready for the experience. I’ve been drinking for about a decade now and I think my tastes have grown up. And it’s possible that the premises upon which I became a beer drinker in the first place are a bit shaky. My first beers were cans of Keystone Ice, smuggled into some friend’s mom’s basement and chugged still hot from their hiding place in my car. We chose Ice because of its higher alcohol content, not for its taste, which it gets primarily from the aluminum it’s housed in. Beer, for much of my drinking life, has been a means to an end.

More recently, I’ve been enjoying my beer, and not just the drunkenness it produces. While my default beer is Yuengling (brewed in my home state of Pennsylvania), I make it a point to order whatever craft, seasonal or local brew is on tap. I’ve been to a few beer tastings and festivals, but overall, I’ve only been moderately adventurous. As a result, I’ve come to learn what I like in a beer (freshness tops the list for me), and can usually predict from a bartender’s description of a beer whether I’ll enjoy a new beer or not.

I don’t have this experience with wine. I do drink wine when the occasion calls for it, e.g. for celebrations, weddings, fine dining. For the most part, I enjoy most glasses of wine that I taste, but I feel like I’m missing out on something. Wine, to me, is an under-appreciated lyrical poem. On the surface, I can delight in its meter and rhyme. But I can sense that I’m failing to pick up on the subtext. And that’s a shame, especially since I’ve very likely had some very nice glasses of wine in my life without even knowing it.

So, for the next few months, I’ll be embarking on a personal adventure to expand my horizons and deepen my appreciation for wine. I’m not saying goodbye to beer completely, and I don’t think you should either. Why abandon something you love? But I think I have some serious catching up to do in terms of enjoying wine, versus simply imbibing it for its alcoholic content.

In later articles, I’ll be sharing with you what I’ve learned about the different types of wine, how to taste wines, how to decipher those arcane wine labels and how to select wine at restaurants or at the store.

But to kick of this series, let’s talk about the transition from being primarily a beer drinker to becoming a wine drinker. In my opinion, it’s pretty smooth.

What You Love About Beer

Beer is your old college buddy. You have a storied past, many fond memories and a few experiences that you maybe can’t remember so clearly. You have a special connection with the beer you buy by the case to this day. And when you take a swig, your subconscious reaction is similar to when a blind taste tester said that Coca-Cola “tastes like my childhood.” But on a pragmatic level, beer has some nice advantages:

Consistency. Walk into any bar in the country and order a pint of Sam Adams and you know what you’re going to get. Do the same and order a glass of chardonnay and it’s a total crap shoot. With beer, at least, you never have to ask to see the bottle before having a glass poured.

Affordability. Drinking whatever’s on tap is almost always the most economical way to go, and since you know what you’re getting with beer, it’s a safe one, too. The chance that you’ll enjoy the house wine is somewhat slimmer, meaning you could end up shelling out for a handpicked bottle.

Portability. I can drink a beer while floating down a river in an inner tube. The same can’t be said for a corked bottle of wine or a Boston Sour.

Chilling out. Nothing beats a cold one on a hot summer day. Nothing.

With all the general things being said about beer, there’s also a rich and diverse universe of craft beers to appreciate—and you don’t even have to travel to Europe to explore it. There’s equal potential to be snobby about craft beer as there is for fine wine. My guess is that you’ve enjoyed a craft beer or two in your day without getting all hipster about it. Which means that you can probably enjoy wine without turning into the Monopoly guy.

What You Will Learn to Love About Wine

Many of the qualities that are lovable about beer overlap with what wine has to offer. It’s a fine social lubricant, it has a depth of local flavor and historical significance to plumb, and it can take the flavors of your food to a whole new dimension. As you know, there have been quite a few studies linking a glass or two of wine each day to lower stress and a healthier heart, though the jury is still out on whether or not the health benefits are shared by beer and other alcoholic drinks. Some scientists believe it has to do with the antioxidants in red wine, but personally, I think the x factor is the daily ritual of unwinding at the end of the day, be it with a frosty brew, a dark red, or a spot of green tea.

Since we talked about some of the pros of beer, I figured it’s worthwhile to talk about some of the pluses of wine:

Rewarding complexity. In a way, each glass of wine you drink is better than the last. That’s because as you learn more about wine and develop a taste for the different types of wine, you’ll learn how to appreciate the complexity that’s been there all along.

It’s a bit like following sports. In your lifetime, you will probably watch hundreds or thousands of football, baseball or basketball games. All the while, the game stays the same, for the most part. But I’d wager that the way you watch a football game is much, much different from the way a non-sports fan does. They only watch the scoreboard, but you pay attention to the nuances of the game: the head games that coaches play with each other, the athleticism of the players, the history of the franchises, etc.

It’s similar with wine, and like I said, if you’ve already been enjoying craft beers or fine whiskeys, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Everyone starts off being able to tell the difference between a red and white. And then, you’ll start to discern between a Syrah and a Merlot. Meanwhile, you’ll start to learn a bit about which foods pair well with your wine. You’ll begin narrowing down which types of wines you enjoy and why until you discover your favorites.

Better for your waistline. A 4 oz. glass of red or white wine will almost always be under 100 calories, depending on the grape variety. Port, for example, can push 195 per glass while white zinfandel can be as little as 80 calories per glass. On the other hand, a 12 oz. bottle of Yuengling Lager is 128 calories. A bottle of Golden Monkey is 274 calories. True, you can go for an ultralight beer like the much ballyhooed MGD 64, but let’s be serious—if we’re talking flavor-to-calories ratio, it’s an absolute landslide in favor of wine.

It’s also important to consider that wine is made out of grapes, while beer is made out of hops and grain. Why does that matter? Carbs. A regular bottle of beer averages about 13 grams of carbs. Ale has less (about 7 grams) and stout has more (20 grams). Dry white and red white wine have about 3 to 5 grams of carbs per glass. Generally, the sweeter the wine, the more carbs. Dessert wines, like sherry and port, will have 12 to 14 grams of carbs.

Also, while we’re comparing, distilled liquors, like whiskey, vodka and gin, have about 100 calories per shot and zero carbs. But the mixers will get you. A can of tonic water can have upwards of 32 grams of carbs in it. And if you’re slamming rum and Cokes all night, then fuggedaboutit.

A different experience. You may or may not be bored with beer, but exploring new territory is always worthwhile. Drinking wine will be an undoubtedly different experience. It may or may not be lifechangingly profound for you, but it certainly will mix things up a bit.

There are some that argue that certain kinds of libations give them a different kind of buzz. There’s light debate over the difference between beer buzz vs. wine buzz vs. liquor buzz, but on a chemical level, it’s all the same active ingredient: ethanol. Drunk is drunk, as far as your neurochemistry is concerned.

However, there is some merit to the wine drunk vs. beer drunk discussion. Some people, for instance, tolerate the impurities and other components of wine/beer differently, which matters when it comes to hangovers and other factors of feeling physically good or not. But I think the real differentiators between the experiences of those who are drinking wine and those who are drinking beer has to do with the mindset.

Wine drinking, generally, carries an air of sophistication. Even if you’re not trying to be snooty about it, if you’re drinking wine in order to enjoy its complexity, you’re going to prime yourself for a bit more concentration, a bit more analysis and a bit more awareness of what you’re experiencing. This is probably different from how you drink your favorite beer, e.g. (a) as a way to chill out in front of the TV and (b) as a way to get crazy at a club or tailgate party. I think this is why some people tend to feel that a wine drunk is more mellow, lowering inhibitions in a way that opens and focuses the mind.

Aside from that theory, wine bars, and places where we consume wine, tend to be more sophisticated and mellow compared to dance clubs, stadium parking lots and frat houses. It’s not necessarily better than those settings, it’s just a change of pace. Wine tastings are great for meeting new people or taking a date.

Discovering the Non-froofy Side of Wine

Okay, even if you agree that some or all of the points are good, there’s probably one major barrier standing in your way. Wine is damn intimidating. Or, to be more direct, wine snobs are damn annoying. We see them slurping and swishing, shoving their noses into their glass, adopting fake French accents and using infuriatingly bullshit wine terms like “notes of spicy earth” or “unctuous layers of fruit.” (Can someone please tell me how a wine can taste “confident” or “serious?”)

Even though the cultures and peoples of the world can’t agree on tax policy, religion, gay marriage or whether or not 2Pac is alive, I think we’ve all reached the consensus that wine snobs are the worst. They loom as the gatekeepers to the world of wine, harsh critics of everything, especially you and your plebeian ignorance. Even if you disdain them twice as much as they disdain you, for some reason, they still manage to make you feel like a doofus.

There’s a really easy way to get over your fear of being condescended by wine snobbery. Tell them to [email protected]#$ off. Seriously. Here’s the definition of a good wine: whatever you like to drink. If you want to put ice cubes in your Peter Vella sangria, do it. If you thoroughly and genuinely enjoy a $50 bottle of Bordeaux over a $12 bottle of California Cabernet, then good for you.

That’s not to say that it’s not worthwhile to learn more about wine. As I mentioned above, the more you learn about what you like, the more you will enjoy drinking wine. But lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of each vintage, grape variety, region and winemaker won’t hinder your ability to enjoy being a wine drinker.

As we move forward in our drinking man’s introduction to wine, we’re going to learn what we need to about wine in order to find the wines that we like drinking the most. Along the way, we’ll learn a little history, some tips, guidelines and factoids and even some terminology. But acting like a d-bag is absolutely not a requirement for this endeavor.

So, settle in, buy a corkscrew and let’s discover your favorite wine.

Stay tuned, in two weeks we'll be presenting an easy guide to wine types.

Jack Busch lives in the Pittsburgh area where he writes and edits for fun and money.

  • Grace Blando

    I really appreciate this article you have shared with us , the comparison of different liquor, for me Doctors advice me to drink to bottle of beer everyday, because it is better for our health. wine are always present in any occasions.

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  • Sloan

    Such a well timed article. This is an intimidating world and I don’t even know how to jump in!

  • Giezel Ann

    That’s true Grace. Beer is really good for the health and it is proven through extensive scientific researches. However, it will no longer be good for the health if we drink beer in excessive amounts regularly, so we should only drink beer once in while. That is an appropriate consumption of beer. Thanks a lot for sharing a highly informative and interesting post.

  • Amanda Rose

    I also prefer wine rather than beer but I also drink beer occasionally. Wine is better because of its taste and its more healthy.

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  • samareipc

    Ever hear a craft brewer talk about their product? Just as bad.

    • Chris H.

      I work at a liqueur store and we do a tasting every saturday and I agree, beer snobs/nerds are the worst. Generally you taste and maybe chat a little about something you like. Not try to influence everybody in line why one is better than the others with your overzealous knowledge. The worst part is these types of people are regulars.

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  • josh

    Haha, I love these articles, wine has built up this weird mythology around etiquette and flavour which I totally don’t get. My wife and will open a bottle and guaranteed we have chugged half of it before we even get the glasses out (honestly who can wait half an hour for it to “breath”). I firmly agree with Dylan Moran’s theory that there are only 2 types of wine; The “what the fuck did I just put in my mouth” kind and the “this is delicious we’ll have eight more bottles” kind.

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  • Tom Kraus

    Hi Jack,

    this is great to start getting into wines but I do have some issues how you proclaim your beers.

    There are so many differences out there and I don’t think you need to be a hipster to have tried around a bit. But most importantly I think it’s important to put a stop to the myth that beer should be served ice cold.

    The colder the beer (or any other drink) is, the less you will be able to taste it. So this is a great for big breweries who actually make crappy brews. They tell you to get it ice cold, so you won’t be able to tell what you are actually chucking down.

    I think this is very nicely written and sums up what temperature beers should be enjoyed.

    And while beer can be such a great casual drink, with so many different kinds, regions, tastes out there, the whole topic can become as complex as wines. Especially nowadays with all the craft beers and stuff out there the possibilities have even widened.

    Maybe diving a bit deeper into beers would be a good, similar series to look into. 😉

  • Jopesak

    I’ll be sure to follow along the journey, Jack. As a fellow Pittsburgher, I felt a whole different level of pressure drinking wine in this city since NO ONE DOES that isn’t a snob. You’re not classy enough for the snobs and you’re “tryin’ to be some kinda fancy jaggoff” to your friends when you have a glass of wine instead of an Ahrn City in your hand.

    I started a similar experiment about a year ago, managed to work off 15 lbs and have kept it off for the most part drinking wine on weekdays instead of beer. I keep my Saturdays open for experimenting with new brew at the bar, but having a Bota Box of Chardonnay at the ready in my apartment has definitely been a great way for me and the girlfriend to unwind and keep the knotches stagnant on my belt.

    I’ve always had trouble adventuring into the bottled section of the local Wine and Spirits store. I tend to keep with premium boxed for the balance of price, quality and quantity. Any advice on how to step up experimentation in the Burgh?