As the world opens up once more, we face a return to many things. A return to travel, to social life, to non-stretch fabrics — and to the joyous ceremony of dining out. That clink of stemware, the hum of table chatter, waiters flying past with plates of savory scents. And last but not least: the very long, often complicated, and sometimes intimidating wine list.
With those 2019 wine tastings now a distant memory, here to ease us back in is awarded sommelier Grant Reynolds, co-author of “How to Drink Wine,” founder of wine shop Parcelle, and former partner at three of New York City’s top wine destinations: Charlie Bird, Pasquale Jones, and Legacy Records. Reynolds’ belief? You don’t need complex words to appreciate complex wines. So without further ado, in refreshingly plain, human speak, here are the answers to those common questions “you shouldn’t trust Google to solve for.” Oh, and for those still happy to stay at home and drink in pajamas, he has some thoughts for you as well.
I think I like natural wine, or at least I liked one. How do I find another?
"The worst part about natural wine is trying to define it. Natural wine is more of a philosophy than an objective recipe a winemaker must follow. The wines should always be organic, have no added sulfur to them (let alone other chemical additions), and be fermented with wild yeasts in naturally conditioned temperatures. Unfortunately, there’s no official certification to ensure you’re getting what you want. The reason you enjoyed the taste is likely because they’re usually more savory than sweet, have flavors that are different and therefore memorable, and were probably lower in alcohol so you didn’t feel as useless the next morning.
For natural, savory white wines to pair with savory oysters: Canary Islands; Mount Etna in Sicily; and chenin blanc from the Loire Valley in France.
● Tajinaste, Blanco Seco 2019
● Benanti, Etna Bianco 2019
● Thibaud Boudignon, Anjou Blanc 2019
For natural reds that are ultra refreshing and inexpensive: Beaujolais region in France from NYC sommelier Michele Smith; an obscure Chilean red made by a trailblazing female winemaker; and a grape called mencía from Spain.
● Domaine Chapel, Chiroubles 2019
● Catalina Ugarte, País 2019
● Raúl Pérez, 'Ultreia St-Jacques' Bierzo 2018
For natural wines that are shockingly different: Ask for orange wines from Italy; pét-nat if you want a lightly sparkling one; and anything from the country Georgia.
● Alfredo Maestro, Perdigon Pét Nat Rosé Método Ancestral 2019
● Fongoli, Trebbiano Maceratum Umbria 2019"
Why do some people sniff wine with such passion?
"Everyone has a friend who’s really into wine. They likely collect vinyl and in college they were always the one hosting dinner parties. You know the type. Have you ever wondered why they sniff the glass with such vigor? As if it’s the first breath they’ve taken without wearing a mask? It’s not necessary. You smell for two reasons. First, if you’re a pro, it’s a quick way to identify if the wine is flawed without having to put it in your mouth. However, the smell of a faulty wine is super nuanced, and it takes lots of practice. In a restaurant, the sommelier tastes the wine first to ensure they aren’t serving you a bad bottle. They’ve done the work already, so don’t stress about having to do anything other than say it’s good. The main reason you should smell a wine is because it smells nice. Think of it like flowers; they look nice and smell great. Wine should taste nice and smell great too. So next time your friend closes their eyes and takes a really deep breath, you can tell them to chill. It’s just a drink."
They open a bottle at the table, I do the taste test, and I don’t like it. How do I know if it’s the wine or my tastebuds? What’s the most tactful way to respond if I truly don’t like it?
"Traditionally, by the time you’re poured a taste of wine at the restaurant, you’re trying it to ensure it’s not flawed rather than whether you like it. However, if you truly don’t like it, simply say, 'This isn’t what I was expecting,' and go to a more familiar choice. If you don’t like the more familiar choice, your taste buds are off, and you should defer to your date.
Pro-tip: If the sommelier is trying to sell you on a wine you haven’t heard of, ask to taste something similar by the glass. Say something like, 'Cool! That sounds interesting but I’m not familiar with that grape. Do you have anything by the glass I could try before opening a bottle?' They should never say no, so don’t feel as if you’re asking for a freebie."
"When we say a wine is flawed, we’re referring to that specific bottle rather than the entire production of that year’s harvest. It’s not about the wine being poor quality, although of course that exists in ample supply. A flawed bottle can taste like vinegar and look like soy sauce if it’s stored at too hot of a temperature. The more common but harder to detect flaw is when it’s “corked.” This is a similar taste to a skunky beer or like cardboard if you’ve ever licked your Amazon box. It’s a bacterium that lives in natural cork tops and occasionally puts off a bad smell and taste in that specific bottle. If you think you smell this, open another one and you should be good. Cook with the corked one, it’s fine."
What are some unexpectedly awesome wine-food combos?
"The classic food and wine combos are Eurocentric. Chianti with pasta; Bordeaux with steak frites; Champagne with caviar. But there’s a wine for every type of food and some of the best pairings are the ones from restaurants that don’t traditionally have wine programs or food from countries that aren’t known for wine-growing.
Miso Anything and White Burgundy – Miso is an alpha flavor — the nutty and salty taste it imparts on fish, ramen, and eggplant is delicious and dominant. It needs a wine that has rich texture and equal power. A really good white Burgundy, like this Thierry Pillot Bourgogne Blanc 2019, and miso black cod will change you.
Dan Dan Noodles and Orange Wine – I had this at one of my favorite restaurants, Pinch Chinese in NYC. It has an amazing wine program and Chinese food. I don’t crave skin contact wines on a regular basis, but a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles and this Greek skin contact wine, Kontozisis, 'A-Grafo' Malagousia 2019, has been on my mind. Green Chile and rosé — I lived in Colorado for a while where I drank too much wine. I also became obsessed with everything smothered in green chile. A good way to cure a hangover is a glass of very cold La Fête du Rosé (from the first Black-owned winery in Provence!) and some green chile. And then a nap.
Grilled Cheese and Champagne – If you’re making your child grilled cheese for lunch, make yourself one and open a bottle of bubbles too — Chartogne-Taillet, 'Cuvée Sainte Anne' is nice. It’s a good speed bump for the day."
And for those still happy to sip at home: What are the five bottles everyone should have in their wine fridge?
"Never second guess opening a house wine, or cooking with a little bit, or feel as if you need to hoard it in your fridge after it’s been open for too many days. In short, they should be in the right price range. Here are my 5 under $30 for around the house.
COS, Frappato 2019: Stanley Tucci broke the wine internet when he visited the winery Occhipinti in Sicily. It sold out in one day. This is the wine from Arianna Occhipinti’s uncle. It tastes like a smokey pinot noir. It’s all organic and if you have a friend who comes over who’s into wine, it shows you know what’s up. Pairs with: all pastas, Thai, and Chinese.
JL Chave Selection, Côtes du Rhône 2018: There are more bad Côtes du Rhône on the shelves than good ones. This is the greatest. It’s made by one of France’s most historic and acclaimed wineries. The Chave family has been making wine since the 1400s. They’ve figured it out. Pairs with: anything off the grill.
Ameztoi, Txakolina Rosé 2020: There’s too much rosé on the market. This is my go-to. It’s refreshing, cheap, and tastes exactly like the way you want it to. Pairs with: your entire summer.
Bernard Moreau, Bourgogne Aligoté 2018: When you see Bourgogne on the label, you’re in Burgundy, France. Aligoté is lighter but still nutty and savory. This producer, Bernard Moreau, is one to look for if you want something fancier too. Pairs with: apps — and it’s rich enough for your friend who says they only drink chardonnay.
Snowden, 'The Ranch' Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2017: Diana Seysses is one of the best winemakers in both France and Italy. She makes this Napa cab in a style that’s juicy and spicy. Sometimes you just have to satisfy the craving for a classic wine."
Wherever or whatever we’ll be drinking, one thing’s for sure: We’ll be toasting to a better year ahead. And to Grant Reynolds for his expert guidance. Cheers.
Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Holly Wales Illustrator
Holly Wales is a UK-based illustrator. Her work explores everything from hand-drawn maps to lettering and food, pushing color marker pens to their limits. Her client list includes Bloomberg, Condé Nast, Deutsche Bank, Esquire, Financial Times, Frieze Art Fair, GQ, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Men's Health, HuffPost, the V and A, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, and Wired.