If you've caught the wine bug, you've probably begun paying closer attention to the aromas and flavors in the world around you. You've become more aware of fruity, herbal, mineral, earthy, even animal scents and flavors in your surroundings and, yes, your wines.
Once you start paying attention to wine, you can start to discover its exciting variety. A chardonnay is a chardonnay is a chardonnay? Not if you notice that one from Chile's Casablanca Valley tastes like ripe apples and pears, while another from Australia spills tropical flavors from the glass, and a Chablis from northern Burgundy tastes of wet stones and slightly bruised apples.
When you can distinguish fresh apples from bruised apples in different chardonnays, you know you're hooked. So what's next?
Now that you've awakened your palate, it's time to hone it. Lurk at a tasting at your favorite specialty wine store and listen as other people describe what's in their glass. Don't hesitate to ask questions of the retailer, distributor, importer or even the winemaker who is pouring.
Ask what food they would pair with the wine, and why. Establish a rapport with someone who works at the store, and discuss selections you liked or disliked. Your retailer can be your best friend in helping you find new and interesting choices, but you have to work to make that friendship worthwhile.
Take notes; remember the names of wines and why you liked them.
Recruit friends for a tasting party. Have each guest bring a wine to fit the evening's theme - zinfandel, say, or Argentina - then put the bottles in numbered bags and discuss their attributes. Such blind tastings (the wines are masked, not the tasters) can be as fun as they are educational.
Stir things up by having everyone bring a random wine for the others to guess what it is. Or have each person bring a $15 bottle and discuss which ones give more value for the buck.
Myriad books can help you in this quest. Two of my favorites are "How to Taste," by Jancis Robinson (Simon & Schuster, 2008), and "The One Minute Wine Master," by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan (Sterling Epicure, 2012). Both authors have achieved the title of master of wine, the ultimate certification in wine geekdom. It involves a rigorous, multi-year course of study that includes lots of tests and a written thesis, but their books are designed to help us experience the joy of wine without all that effort and expense. (Though any love of wine is bound to be expensive.) Robinson offers a traditional approach that teaches us to recognize the clues wines give us, such as how color indicates age.
Much of her advice (don't wear heavy cologne, perfume or lipstick, and don't confuse your palate with strong flavors such as tea, coffee, gum or toothpaste before tasting) is geared toward serious tasters who might need to identify wines blind for a certification.
Yet the book is also ideal for the casual but attentive drinker who wants to be able to assess a wine's acidity, sweetness or tannin and know how those attributes interact with food. By having us answer a few simple multiplechoice questions about our taste preferences, Simonetti-Bryan narrows the cornucopia of wines to a few choices and styles to match our palates.
If you like your coffee black and your chocolate dark (both bitter flavors), you might favor the astringency of tannic wines. If you crave spicy foods, you might prefer higher-alcohol choices (both are considered "hot"). Our test scores divide us into four groups based on the seasons, with corresponding wine suggestions. Not that we need to be pigeonholed; I am a Fall, for example, indicating medium-bodied wines, but the lighter wines in the Spring chapter had me salivating. Like any good guide, this book will help us find our own way to wine appreciation.
So get out there and explore. Just don't forget to pay attention.