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How to pick a great wine from the seller

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Kai Ryssdal: For those planning a big feast Christmas Day, the menu is probably already set. The roast and the potatoes and carrots are already in the fridge.

What about drinks, though? You might want some nice wine to go with that holiday dinner. Wine that can, unfortunately, get expensive — even though it doesn’t have to. Author Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl has some suggestions for the casual wine consumer in her new book “Drink This.”

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: The reason that I wanted to write this book, because you look at this sort of relationship, where it’s asymmetric and they know so much and you don’t know anything. And how can you even that out? Well the one thing that you can know that they don’t know is, your own taste.

Ryssdal: Which sounds pretty simple, but every time I go into a wine shop, it gets really complicated, really quickly. So the question really is, do wine sellers make it confusing for shoppers on purpose?

Grumdahl: Yeah they do. They took a big survey, this big company called Constellation Wine Brands and the largest category of people who consumed wine, one a week or more, so their regular consumers, the biggest category was “overwhelmed.” Overwhelmed!

Ryssdal: Never a good thing and obviously being overwhelmed leads to poor decision making. And if you don’t know what you’re paying for, you’re going to pay more than you need to.

Grumdahl: Yeah. And you know, one of the things you have to realize is there’s essentially no correlation between price and value in that way. In the book, I go into a big “What’s the difference between an $8, $15 and an $80 bottle of wine?” And the short answer is: The $8 bottle of wine, that’s a commodity. That’s like corn in Iowa, there’s a tractor, there’s fruit coming in in bulk, there’s giant tanks. The $15 wine, then you’re talking about hand labor process. OK, but then you get into the $80 wines, it’s not about the costs of production. At that point, maybe there’s some marketing in it, but then it’s all just about collectability.

Ryssdal: Does it make economic sense for me to try to make myself smart without going in and talking to a wine store person? I mean, can I go out and buy, I don’t know, $100 worth of wine and reasonably educate myself that way? Does that make sense?

Grumdahl: You know, it depends on how focused you are. I mean, I think that probably the fastest thing you can do is, you go in, you figure out “OK, these are the five major styles of sauvignon blanc,” you try them, then you basically decide like, “You know what, I like clean and crisp, young, inexpensive sauvignon blanc. That was my favorite.” Then you’ve actually learned something. But if you’re just getting things haphazardly, you’re just bringing chaos into your mind, which I don’t recommend.

Ryssdal: Which nobody needs. You know, you have a passage actually early on in the book, where you talk about the methodology of figuring out these scents and aromas and flavors and tastes. Basically what you say is, if you want to know what a coffee in a wine smells like, well, stick some coffee beans in a wine class and give it a smell and that’s how you figure it out.

Grumdahl: Oh yeah, it makes all the difference in the world. And you can put nectarine slices in there. And the first time you do it, you might feel a little bit like, “Oh, what am I doing with a glass full of peppercorns?” But it makes all the difference in the world. And then you swirl it around and then you kind smell it and you’re like, “This is what pepper smells like coming out of a wine glass.”

You know, I have little kids and it’s been really apparent to me how much for babies one runs is kinda boot camp on shape and color. It’s like, “It’s a green tree! It’s a red circle! Do you see the red circle? Do you see it?” But you never ask them, “Do you smell the banana? Do you know what a strawberry smells like? Do you know what peppercorn smells like?” We just don’t have a vocabulary for it. And so, when someone goes and says, “I smell tar coming out of this glass,” you think like, “Oh, you’re pretentious and icky. Like, what are you doing?” But it doesn’t have to be that way. And if you do that kind of little trick, that’ll get you far.

Ryssdal: The book by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is called “Drink This: Wine Made Simple.” Dara, thanks a lot.

Grumdahl: Thank you.

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