5 Tips for Becoming a Wine Expert

A scalable approach to learning more about your favorite wines.


We all would like to believe that there is some magic shortcut to becoming an expert in something. Really applying ourselves should suffice. But it doesn't. There's that 10,000 hour rule which seems to hold true for most things but with wine there are experts and then there are experts.

Being an expert simply means that you have a very good understanding of something. Being a wine expert means that you have a very good understanding of wine. All of them. There are painfully few wine experts out there. I certainly am not one of them. I am well versed in a few wines of the world, while familiar with most. I do know more than most of the folks who ask me questions about wine, and can speak moderately intelligently about them, but that an expert does not make. I am more of an aficionado, and that suits me just fine. Even becoming an aficionado requires time and effort honing one’s skills.  If you want to hone your vinous skills here are five approaches I’ve adopted to help make it happen!

Don't be a snob

If you really want to learn about a region, as opposed to learning about the most expensive wines of a region, you'll have to start from the bottom up. Well, you don't necessarily have to start there, but you'll have to go there and you might as well make it your first stop. 
For example, you can learn about Montalcino and Brunello by drinking Brunello, but a better approach is to begin with Rosso di Montalcino. Why you ask? Three reasons. 
They are less expensive. 
The are generally ready to drink on release and not in need of cellaring. 
They have less of a winemaking influence.
This last point is a doozy. Because of law or effort, more expensive wines often show more of a winemaker's hand. If you really want to learn about a region, start with the simpler wines.

Drink in Squares

If you're at the stage where you want to become an expert in some facet of wine appreciation you're familiar with the two main tasting formats.
Horizontal tastings: Multiple producers across vintages.
Vertical tastings: Multiple vintages from a single producer
Both offer fabulous opportunities to learn about wine, but each is limiting in its own way. The solution, a box tasting. Yeah I just made that up but think about a case of wine. 12 bottles arranged 4x3. Now fill this slots with wines, from four producers and three vintages. That's what I'm talking about.
By attacking wine this way you can begin to separate the influence of producer, terroir, and vintage variation. It's the way I have developed to begin to discover new regions, and I've found that it works well for many people. 

Drink With Your Eyes Open

By this I mean drink with all the info you have available to you readily available. Sounds obvious, but it's something we certainly don't do when we're simply drinking wine. When we really want to learn something from a tasting it's a good idea to understand what style the wines are made in, the techniques producers might be using, the relative qualities of the vintage, and of course the lay of the land.
Once we find producers whose wines resonate with our palates we're going to want to seek out similar wines. It's either going to be production style, modern and fruity or terroir that drives the character of the wines we like. Knowing why that is is one of the fundamental aspects of becoming a wine expert. Frankly the only point of becoming a wine expert is to help yourself and others to find wines that they might like so this is important folks.

Drink With Your Eyes Closed

Blind tasting. The only way this works is by tasting blind. We can't help it. We are influenced by what we see. If you want to study wine and be honest with yourself, hide the damn bottles.
Go through whatever tasting regimen you feel comfortable with. Take copious notes. Wage wild ass guesses as to what the wines might be. Do not fear being wrong. We are all wrong more often than we like to admit. This is not a competition folks. It's fun, and should be fun. Not scary or intimidating.
It can be tough to taste blind when you're in charge of the tastings so here's a tip. Buy the wine a few months in advance. remove the capsules from each bottle, then wrap each bottle in foil, number them in the order they are to be tasted, and put them away in a case. By the time you get around to tasting them you'll have forgotten most of what's in the case, and certainly the order. 
Don't peak at the corks while opening the bottles!

Be Honest

This is the last step to becoming a wine expert of any sort. Be honest with yourself. Many of the people who make wine unpleasant adopt dogmatic approaches to wine. Sometimes you might love a natural wine and sometimes you might love an industrial wine. There is no shame in that. You have not let down 'your side'. You've just chosen not to take sides. For me that is the only path one can honestly take for I have tasted great and terrible wines made both by artisans and faceless corporations. What I choose to buy may be a different story, but what i choose to vilify can be driven only by what is tasted. Blind.
So there you have it. 5 Steps to start you on your path towards becoming a wine expert, of sorts. be careful though. You are only an expert to those who know less than you, so perhaps the last lesson is to remain humble. 
Think you are a Cabernet expert? Tell me about Santa Cruz Cabernet.
Just a Napa Cabernet expert? Tell me about the 1947 vintage.
Just an expert on the wines you drink? Let's share a bottle!
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  • Snooth User: Robertwcl
    98985 38

    page is scrambled

    Feb 03, 2014 at 12:50 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,847

    How so? Can you let us know what you're seeing?

    Feb 03, 2014 at 1:33 PM

  • Snooth User: rhw168
    635553 144

    GDP - There were probably some accidentally deleted words in the 2nd sentence of page 1, when the words "applying" and "ourselves" were concatenated, with possibly some words in between getting dropped:

    "... Really applyingourselves should suffice..."

    Feb 03, 2014 at 3:50 PM

  • Snooth User: jonb
    96558 1

    Nice article. Another approach for a blind tasting: In private, Person 1 uncorks bottles, wraps to hide labels, and assigns and records ID numbers (1 = Solis 2010 Zinfandel, 2 = Sarah's Vineyard 2009 Zinfandel, 3 = Kirigin 2011 Zinfandel, etc.) Person 2 (also in private) reassigns IDs by letter and records new IDs (1 = D, 2 = C; 3 = A, etc.) Person 1 will know which wines are being tasted, but not which is which; all other participants are 'blind'. This may sound complicated but in practice it's quite simple. Give it a try.
    (Extra credit: Guess where we went tasting on Superb Owl Sunday!)

    Feb 03, 2014 at 3:59 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,847

    Thanks RHW! I've broken the runon at least.

    JonB, that sounds like one of my monthly tasting group does. Sounds like you went garlic shopping!

    Feb 03, 2014 at 4:15 PM

  • Snooth User: rhw168
    635553 144

    JonB - surely you tried Jason-Stephens yesterday?

    Feb 03, 2014 at 4:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,003

    Great stuff. I'd add, drink things you are unfamiliar with in the company of both novices and experts. First time drinking Fer, I got a preview from, well, let's say an afficionado. Definitely guided me towards what I tasted. First time I drank Ribera del Duero, just popped a bottle in the kitchen. In one case, I knew something about what to expect based on my guide and in the other, I was tasting because I was curious about the region after dipping my toes into Tempranillo and other regions of Spain. Each had value--making up my own mind or seeking out certain markers.

    I'm no expert, but this advice sounds like, Drink widely and pay attention. And the best advice is the comment at the end: We all know (or should) why we like what we like. But no one really knows everything.

    Feb 03, 2014 at 4:39 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 10,504

    Very good article. I really am intrigued with the "Drink in a Box" idea. In addition to being instructive, it sounds like a lot of fun.

    Another great take-away:

    -- "This is not a competition." Amen to that. Keep repeating to yourself, Mark.

    Feb 03, 2014 at 6:18 PM

  • Snooth User: dvogler
    Hand of Snooth
    1413489 1,054

    I will never be a wine expert, for I don't drink white wine. So, I shall continue unabated to have fun with killer reds and laugh at my wrong guesses until it's all gone.

    Feb 03, 2014 at 8:55 PM

  • I would like to be able to print the article . I s there a way to do that ?

    Feb 04, 2014 at 9:05 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 236,847

    Hi Cathleen,

    There is no easy way to print the article, though clicking on the view as one page link makes it a lot easier.


    Feb 04, 2014 at 9:12 AM

  • Your approach is too costly. Its all about a developed taste. My approach has been to take what wine/grapes I like most and study those first. One of my first favorites was french cabs and merlot. I went to wine tastings, spent money on those wine from $15, $25, $45, even a $200 to taste the difference and I took jobs at fine restaurants to be able to learn/taste those french wines and I took every offers from gracious host(s) to try their expensive well made wines that darkened their cellars. i also read a lot on my grape of choice and listened to those who had the same lust for the wine that I had. I even studied the history of the regions to expand my conversations and knowledge.

    Come to think of it, it's a lot like getting to know great poetry, playwrights, music and people. And you will never know what bad is unless you had the best. Lastly once your a bit burnt on "your" juice of choice try something new. The change will check what you know. My motto is: I'll try anything eight or nine times...LOL. I am told that I am an expert but I am not. I am much more a lover of fine grapes and a good listener that has great taste and a good memory. Also, I can smell really well, I don't smoke and I eat mainly a vegetarian/fish diet. It all matters.

    Feb 04, 2014 at 11:54 AM

  • Snooth User: cwsomm
    1270094 26

    Your approach may be costly, but it's the best approach, especially if you aren't in the "business". Have passion, have humility and get yourself out there, before you know it you will have developed a circle of like minded friends with whom you can travel the wine road in a more costly fashion! And always keep these 5 tips in mind!!!

    Feb 04, 2014 at 12:42 PM

  • Snooth User: mrwino
    1279683 64

    Great article and system Greg, especially for those seriously getting into wine. This would also be fantastic for those putting on a wine tasting party, or just for fun with friends. But it’s definitely a system that one could use all the time, by even more experienced wine aficionados, who could use it to remain consistent in their tasting process. Good job!

    Feb 08, 2014 at 12:51 PM

  • Snooth User: judgelog
    Hand of Snooth
    34584 868

    Great article Gregory (as usual). One thing that I would add to this is that if you really want to improve your wine skills is to keep track of what you are drinking and what you like and what you don't like. Even if you seldom look at your notes, just the simple act of recording your impressions of a wine, or style, or grape or whatever, helps you remember. And Snooth is a great place to do that!

    Feb 08, 2014 at 4:37 PM

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