Recently, I had a chance to meet some great people across varied industries and chat a bit about what they do and what I do. It was a great chance to see what other jobs entail, and understand a little about the individual challenges and approaches to solving problems. When I explained I work in the wine business, following the inevitable set of question regarding the consumer's view of the industry and how the distributor sees it, one question prevailed: "I know nothing about wine, where do I start?"
This is a question I have been asked a lot, and many in the wine world were asked it, by many consumers. I came to the conclusion that offering someone one wine to try because I think its great means nothing to that person. I tried the story approach, telling some interesting fact about a winery. But really, that also meant not too much. People smiled, nodded, and promptly forgot anything I ever told them.
Instead, I now suggest a newcomer gets into wine by going to a store and picking up any bottle that interests them. "Don't judge a book by the cover" is very not applicable here. I tell people not to go over $15-18 for their first bottle, and perhaps give a few starting pointers which they again may forget (don't start with Burgundy or Alsace, maybe start with a well-known area like Bordeaux, Australian Shiraz or Californian wines). I also suggest they skip the LCBO shelves and go straight to Vintages for their first "educated" experience.
You can try to smell, swirl, swish, swash. But really, just taste. Don't try to think of what the wine tastes like, it doesn't matter. Just make a very simple choice: do you like the wine? Yes/no. Maybe on the first one it's harder to say yes/no, we choose by comparison, not by some absolute value. So try something else. After 3-4 bottles, you will start to understand what you like. Once you've got this, think of why you like it. Maybe it's easy to drink, maybe it's not sharp, maybe it just tastes good. Establishing this, and tasting more, you will start to build your own pallet where you'll start to taste berries, cherries, fruits, earths. After some dozen wines, you'll have a pretty good one, and you'll already start to know what regions you like and why. When something interests you, keep a note and look it up online and read up on it. Here's where the story comes in. 20-odd bottles later. Not because some guy recommended it. Keep a note and try the same wine a year later, you'll be surprised what you find.
Another suggestion is to pick a grape, doesn't matter which one, and buy 3-4 wines from different regions. If going for Pinot Noir, try a Burgundy, a New Zealand and a California. If going for Cabernet Sauvignon, then it's gotta be Bordeaux, Australia and California. Chardonnay? Loire, New Zealand or Australia and California. Notice the California all over here? It is for a reason.
One final note. Red or white? It doesn't matter. A lot of people say they find reds easier to drink, others say whites are more approachable. Maybe stick with reds in the winter, whites in the summer. Personally, I no longer care for the season. After 8 years drinking and discussing wine at every dinner, today I enjoy whites more. I think whites are actually more difficult to understand, and it takes a while to fully appreciate them. But I digress, and others will surely disagree.