Whether you’re dishing gossip, eating a five-star dinner, or binge-watching Netflix, there’s one alcoholic beverage that seems to always reign supreme: Wine. Red, white, rosé, or sparkling—there’s a region and varietal of wine for everyone. But just because the perfect wine for every occasion is out there, doesn’t mean it’s always easy to find.
Thankfully, Wine Director Kathryn Coker of Los Angeles’ Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants is here to help. And not just at Esters Wine Shop & Bar, where I met her for a tasting amongst vintage-inspired chaises and a three-sided bar top—keep reading for Coker’s tips on how to order, drink, and buy wine wherever you might be.
Choosing wine for a group can be a daunting task, no matter if you’re out with friends and somehow put in charge of ordering wine or, if you’re like me, volunteered for something you’re not actually sure how to do..
First step, take a deep breath (and a sip of whatever first-choice wine you picked out).
Second step, ask the sommelier. Seriously—ask, and tell them your budget, preferences, and likes and dislikes. You don’t need to know about tannins, oak, and tasting notes—just be upfront, honest, and ask for some help. As Kathryn told me, restaurants should be proud of their wine list “down to every bottle,”so—whether you’re hoping to spend $20 or $200—the sommelier should have a recommendation they can stand behind (and, at least if you’re at one of Kathryn’s restaurants, happy to pour).
If you’re trying to handle the selection on your own, a good place to start is by matching or contrasting with the food, either by flavor or region. While most people have heard of pairing food with wine (i.e. steak with a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon),perhaps the easiest way to pair is actually by matching up cuisines with respective growing regions. So, if you’re eating pasta or risotto, order an Italian wine; if you’re pairing a Humboldt Fog goat cheese, grab a wine from Sonoma or Napa; if you’re eating paella, go Spanish.
Want to get more specific (and show off for your friends)? Kathryn has it covered:
White wine: The basic principles of pairing dictate that white wines should be served with lighter fare—i.e. seafood or salad. Whether you’re opting for a buttery Chardonnay to pair with lobster or a fruity Riesling to contrast with an earthy soup or root vegetable, an underrated white can brighten up the table and—if you order something with high acidity—keep you coming back to your plate for bite after bite.
Red wine: As far as larger groups go, red wine is usually the way to go—reds pair easily with a range of fare, including heavier dishes like meats, cream-based soups, and rich sauces. While some of the name-brand grapes and regions (like Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley) carry higher price tags, the sommelier should be able to direct you towards less-expensive varietals with similar tasting notes and pairing options.
Rosé wine: Rosé wine is made from black (no, not red) grapes, and can be produced one of two ways: the saignée (“to bleed”) method, which uses the first press for rosé and latter presses for red wines, or the true method, which limits the amount of contact between the juice and skins for the entire batch. Thus, the color of rosé isn’t a reflection of sweetness—instead, it changes with the amount of time in contact with skins, the type of black grape used to make the wine, and how much pigment is in the peel.
A crowd-pleaser especially ideal for day drinking, rosé is a go-to for lunch, brunch, or appetizers, as well as a great option for those looking for an impressive wine at an affordable price.
Sparkling wine: Ah, the type of wine that many (i.e., me) forget is wine at all or, better yet, don’t realize isn’t just called “Champagne.” In fact, the term Champagne is reserved for bottles that come from the eponymous region in France: if it’s not from Champagne, then it’s actually sparkling wine. Champagne—as with other types of sparkling wine like Cava (from Spain) or Cremant (from other parts of France)—is made in a traditional method that ferments the wine for a second time after bottling.
Alternatively, Prosecco (made in Italy) is fermented for the second time in a tank, according to the Charmat Method; thus, Prosecco tends to be lighter and less rich and complex, and is one of the most versatile sparkling wines. Equally universal—and even more trendy—are sparkling wines made according the method ancestral—an inexpensive single-fermentation process that produces fizzy wines ideal for a casual brunch or afternoon.
Okay, so you’ve made it past ordering the wine and you’re ready. To. Drink. According to Kathryn, there are three parts to wine tasting—or four, if you count remembering verdicts to tell the sommelier the next time you’re looking for a recommendation:
Sight: What does the wine look like? The color reflects how much pigment is in the grape skins, how long the wine was in contact with the skins, and how long it’s been aged; white wines get darker as they age, while red wines get lighter. If sparkling, observe the bubbles—how long do they last? How many?
You’ve probably seen fancy wine tasting people (read: real adults) swirl the wine around in the glass; this shows the taster the viscosity of the wine, also known as the “legs,” or the residual wine left on the sides of the glass. The thickness of the legs, the time to fall, and the top ring are all indicators for body.
Nose: The way a wine smells is almost as important as the way it tastes (if not more so), which is why you’ll often see sommeliers (or amateurs trying to exaggerate skill) nose-deep in a glass. Here, you’re looking for an aroma—you don’t have to get tasting notes of rubber garden hose or ripe apricot, but there’s a good (or at least, better) chance you’ll be able to identify whether the wine signals fruit, floral, mineral, or earth.
Taste: Finally, time to taste. The main things you’re looking for here are acidity, tannins, and body. High-acid wines have an effect on the mouth reminiscent of a lemon: after a sip, your mouth will dry out and, eventually, start to water—making you eager to go back for more.
While most people have probably heard of acidity before (let’s hope), the next thing you should be looking for while tasting wine, tannins, may be a bit more foreign. Kathryn explained tannins like this: tannins are what you feel in your mouth after you drink over-steeped tea. If you haven’t ever tasted over-steeped tea, go out and order a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, take a big sip, and observe what happens to your mouth. That’s the tannins. Kathryn also gave me insight into judging body, beyond legs and viscosity: think of it like milk. Skim milk has a different body than 1%, 2%, or whole milk, just as Pinot Noir has a different body than Merlot, or Riesling a different body than Chardonnay.
Taste also allows you to look for sugar—is it sweet or dry?—and, perhaps the ultimate reason restaurants let you try a wine before pouring full glasses, if it’s gone bad. Yes, not every wine bottle is guaranteed to deliver on sight, nose, and taste as promised—you’ll want to keep an eye out for corked wines, which have been contaminated by the cork with a chemical called TCA.
Corked wines have a musty, basement smell and dulled flavor—I can confirm this myself, as one of the bottles Kathryn opened happened to be corked. If you think you may have stumbled upon a corked bottle but aren’t sure, feel free to ask the sommelier if they could taste the wine, or if it’s supposed to have a musty taste—any bottled can become corked, and Kathryn assures me that any sommelier would want a guest to speak up if they think they’ve been poured a glass from a bad bottle.
If Kathryn had to advise wine purchasing in one phrase it’d be, “Buy a grape you’ve never heard of in an ugly bottle.” As someone who habitually orders the Pinot Noir with the cutest label, this tip rocked my world a bit—but her reasoning made sense: for a producer to pursue a wine without a recognizable grape, region, and/or label, the quality and flavor must speak for itself.
For a bit more autonomy, consider saving money by staying away from notoriously expensive grapes (like Pinot Noir) and regions (like Napa Valley), and instead taking a chance on a blended varietal or obscure region. For those looking for something in between, Kathryn suggests Merlot—an overlooked classic often produced by vineyards or regions at a surprisingly affordable price point.
Ready to start stepping up your wine game? Kathryn suggests starting with a bottle for $25 or less. Some of her favorites right now include La Cappuccina Soave, an unoaked crowd pleaser with low-to-medium acidity and sweetness; red Côtes du Rhône, a trendy French blend; and magnums of Red Car Rosé of Pinot Noir.