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The Secret to Understanding Wine

Sipping with Tasting Room Associate, Sam Towns

Wine can be a daunting subject. Overpriced bottles, pretentious, know-it-all snobs, good and bad vintages – it’s all enough to make your head spin.

As a wine educator that works in RD Winery’s tasting room, I’m acutely aware of the trepidation that comes along with just starting to learn about and enjoy wine. My goal when I’m pouring for customers is to demystify wine, while still encouraging thinking critically about it.

The plain truth is that wine’s appeal lies in its simplicity. We’re talking about grapes here, folks – not brain science, rocket surgery. Yes, the winemaker decides when to pick the grapes, how long to macerate (skins in with juice during fermentation), whether French oak or American should be used, etc., etc., but, fundamentally, it’s just berries that grew on a vine somewhere. And I’m in no way disparaging wine in saying that – in fact I would argue it’s precisely what makes wine so special.

Sam Towns behind the bar

A go-to factoid that, when I first learned it, was a profound revelation is the fact that red wines get their color from the grapes’ skins.

Visitors to the tasting room, on average, have an interest in wine, but not an encyclopedic understanding of it. I try to meet their level of wine knowledge without overwhelming them. A go-to factoid that, when I first learned it, was a profound revelation is the fact that red wines get their color from the grapes’ skins. It’s always satisfying to see someone’s reaction to fascinating wine facts when they first learn them.

Invariably, great things have simplicity in common. “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes? A simple guitar riff and beat; one of the seminal rock tracks of the 21st century. What else is simple, but great? Peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, a nice summer breeze, the plot to your favorite romantic comedy (I especially like that Music and Lyrics movie with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore (examples come in threes and the law of diminishing returns hits hard sometimes)). To synopsize, wine is and should be a simple subject– in its consumption and its discourse.

Two white wine glasses close up

Once in a blue moon I’ll come across a visitor that occupies himself with exact specifications concerning the wines. The precise rainfall of a particular vintage year, inquiries about what specific strain of yeast was used to ferment one wine or another, or in-depth profiles of a vineyard’s soil composition. While to varying degrees these factors all contribute to a wine’s flavors and other characteristics, they’re not nearly as important as things like vineyard location, oak regimes or varietal composition. I always try to ground wine in its inherent simplicity and celebrate it for its singular purpose– to be yummy.

Group clinking wine glasses

The idea that winemaking begins in the vineyard, or that the objective of winemaking should be to emphasize the varietal characteristics of whatever grape you’re using, is ubiquitous. And it’s a good attitude. You can’t make a good wine without good grapes. It’s as simple as that. Just like you can’t make a good film without a good script, the first step in winemaking has to be to procure great grapes. Everything else serves to support and enhance that first and most important step.

Grapes are delicious. A simple truth that connects directly to wine. That delectable, potent, lavish drink wine? It’s really just yummy, strong, and very good.