Wine is nothing new in Clark County, where English Estate, Windy Hills, Heisen House and others have made red, white and rosé for many years. The recent addition of a cluster of tasting rooms at Vancouver’s waterfront, however, makes it easier than ever to try a variety of wines in one swoop.
“For local wine lovers, this has been a great time. Vancouver has really come into its own,” said Steve Shelton of the Columbia-Willamette Enological Society. “There’s so many places that you could have a wine crawl the way you do a beer crawl.”
Yet many of us are more likely to sip an IPA than a rosé. This may be due to the erroneous notion that to enjoy wine you must know something about it, local wine experts said. They offer these pointers to help novices find a glass of wine that pleases both the palate and the pocketbook.
Learn by exploring
“For some reason, beer isn’t particularly intimidating. The wine industry is partly to blame. Wine professionals like to perpetuate the idea that you need to know a lot about wine to appreciate it, but you don’t,” said Brian Carter, award-winning winemaker and owner of Brian Carter Cellars, which has a tasting room at 660 Waterfront Way.
Carter cautioned that your first glass of wine is like your first cup of coffee; it may not be that enjoyable. Wine kind of grows on you. Carter learned about wine by sharing it with other people. He encourages newbies to gather with friends to drink wine, eat and play games like guessing a mystery wine.
He acknowledged that everyone learns differently.
“It depends on your personality. Some people like to learn by talking to other people. They can talk to servers, sommeliers, friends. But you might be the type that learns by reading a book, magazine or paper,” Carter said.
If that’s your approach, check out “The World Atlas of Wine” by Hugh Johnson or magazines like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Food & Wine.
Or you can learn by doing. The 40-year-old nonprofit Columbia-Willamette Enological Society hosts monthly gatherings. Members sip tastes of wine paired with food from the Northwest Culinary Institute.
During the pandemic, meetings have been virtual, but the group hopes to be back to meeting at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site soon. The yearly membership fee is $35 per person; members pay an additional $30 fee for each monthly food and wine tasting.
“It’s just everyday people, no wine snobs,” Shelton said. “The mission is wine education. The program always includes a winemaker or someone who knows about the wine. They explain where it’s grown, why they decided to grow it, and what they taste and what you taste.”
A matter of taste
At Niche Wine Bar (1013 Main St.), Leah Jackson asks customers a lot of questions to help them find the right glass of wine.
“There’s usually something for everyone,” she said. “If you tell me what you enjoy drinking and what makes you happy, I can give you something I think you’ll like.”
She asks customers about their favorite foods. Typically, she said, wine drinkers start with a riesling and after some exploration they end with a riesling.
“A beautifully made riesling can be mind blowing,” Jackson said.
One guest came to Niche with a wine-loving friend. He said that he didn’t like wine or beer, just hard alcohol. Jackson took this information and chose a wine with tea notes because she felt that this was the wine she would drink if she wanted scotch.
The guest was pleasantly surprised to find a wine that he liked.
“If you don’t think that you like wine, what do you have to lose by trying?” she said.
Ignore wine ratings
Wine ratings are often posted near bottles of wine on the shelf at stores. The 100-point system was created in the 1980s by Robert Parker. The ratings are based on the production value of the wine and whether it exhibits traits typical of the place where it’s made.
Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly compares it to the way judges score at a dog show: They look for specific traits to see if the dog fits with the breed. Wine scores similarly rate wines based on whether they fit the type and region. Critics don’t always agree with these ratings because they may prefer wines that aren’t typical but interesting in their divergence from expectations for the particular wine.
“I don’t recommend that people pay attention to wine scores. It’s much better to develop a relationship with a wine seller,” Carter said.
Shelton also recommends developing a relationship with someone knowledgeable. He suggested Niche Wine Bar, La Bottega, Evergreen Wine Cellar, Total Wine & More and Fred Meyer as good places to buy wine in Vancouver.
“A lot of grocery stores now have a knowledgeable wine clerk,” Shelton said.
Bar vs. tasting room
A tasting room is like an ice cream store; it offers samples in order to sell a product. The server at a tasting room may give you extra pours if you like a particular wine. Often tasting fees are waived if you buy a certain number of bottles.
“A tasting room typically sells wines they make so you can say, ‘I want to revisit wine No. 1,’ in a tasting,” Jackson said. “In a wine bar, we don’t make any of the wines we sell. There are no additional tastings and no freebies. It’s not the same business model as a tasting room.”
A wine bar makes money by selling wine by the glass, the bottle, or the case. You need to pay for whatever you eat or drink.
Experts agree that it’s best to drink wine with food. Good pairings create a synergy by elevating both the wine and the food, but there are no rules. A good pairing is whatever tastes good. Start with a few small snacks like pieces of cheese or cured meat. Try each snack with different types of wine and see which pairings you like.
“If you want cabernet with your crab, you’re not the same as me, but it’s not wrong,” Carter said.
Menus often include recommended wine pairings. These are just suggestions, but they’re guided by science.
“There are reasons tannic red wine and meat goes well. The protein is refreshed by the tannins, same as fish needs acidity. Salmon with a cabernet doesn’t work well,” Carter said.
(For those looking for pairing suggestions, check out the Food & Wine tab at winefolly.com.)
Price vs. quality
Good wine can be cheap and come in a box.
“People think if it’s expensive it must be better, but I’ve found red wines in the $10 to $12 range that have been good,” Shelton said.
He once discovered a 2017 Mercer Brothers cabernet sauvignon — a wine listed as No. 72 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2020 — at Fred Meyer for $16 a bottle.
In addition to being found in unlikely places, good wine can come in nontraditional packaging.
“There’s fantastic boxed wine and we need to get past the idea that good wine doesn’t come in a box,” Jackson said.
Similarly, good wine doesn’t have to have a cork. Many prestigious wineries, like Plumpjack, are using composite or plastic corks, Jackson said. This is no indication of whether a wine is high or low quality. Canned wine can also be good, but it’s best if poured into a glass — even if it’s a stemless plastic one, easily thrown in a bag or cooler with cans of wine.
So ignore what you perceive as the rules of wine, and drink what you enjoy.