If you ask Gregory Innocent for a wine recommendation, he might reply with a few questions of his own.
“What time of day are you expecting to be drinking? Where are you going? Who are you going to be with?” Innocent, the corporate beverage director of Chicago’s Parker Restaurant Group, wants to know.
He’s not being nosy. The question, “So, what should I drink?” seems straightforward but, like everything in wine, it contains endless variables. There aren’t categorically perfect bottles guaranteed to suit everyone all the time. Your personal tastes, budget and intentions for how, where and when you plan to drink determine what wines are best for you.
However, if you provide your sommelier or retailer with some choice intel, they’ll be more apt to recommend a bottle you’ll love.
Start by sharing what you normally drink, suggests Regina Jones Jackson CSW, FWS, the owner and principal wine consultant of Corks and Cuvee in Atlanta.
Do you usually buy Pinot Noir? If so, do you know if the bottles you buy tend to come from Northern California, France or someplace else? There’s no right or wrong answer here; the grape and its origin simply help wine professionals zero in on your preferences.
If someone tells Jackson that they usually drink Moscato, for example, she might encourage them to consider varieties with related appeal, like “off-dry whites like Gewürztraminer, Riesling or sometimes a Viognier, because it’s very floral,” she says.
“Try something you don’t know, and then you can make an educated decision to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that for XYZ reasons,’ versus ‘I’m scared to try this.’ ” — Regina Jones Jackson, owner and principal wine consultant, Corks and Cuvee
Sarah Goler, wine director at Tannat in New York City, also finds it useful to know what guests typically drink before suggesting something new.
“If someone says, ‘I like Sauvignon Blanc,’ I will suggest a wine with pronounced herbal and citrus notes, like Hárslevelű from Hungary,” says Goler. “I will pick about three wines in a range of prices to eliminate any financial pressure.”
It’s useful and not at all tacky to share how much you want to spend. There are great wines for $13 and $300, and all have their time and place.
Your culinary preferences can be a window into the sorts of wine you’ll like, too.
“There are people who gravitate toward sweet, and there are people who would rather a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips to dessert,” says Innocent. “I like to break it down in those terms because it’s very approachable, and it allows you to say, ‘O.K., I know I don’t really care for sweet. I would much rather something savory.’ ”
From there, Innocent might be able to identify whether you’d prefer a fruity red wine or “something with more tannin structure and baking-spice notes,” he says.
If you rarely buy wine and have no idea what varieties you like, tell the wine professional when and where you’re going to drink it.
“If you’re in Florida, and you want to sit outside and drink wine in the middle of the day, I would think twice about saying, ‘O.K., let’s do this big, heavy Cabernet,’ ” says Innocent. Instead, he’d recommend a light, refreshing wine to complement whatever you might be snacking on during the day.
Or, “maybe you’re just looking for something to watch a movie with at night,” he says. “Then I would definitely recommend something that is more complex and has more depth, and that opens up as you drink it.”
Willingness to experiment is key.
“Try something you don’t know, and then you can make an educated decision to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that for XYZ reasons,’ versus ‘I’m scared to try this, and I don’t really know what I like, I’ve never had it, so I’m just saying no because I’ve always said no,’” says Jackson.
You have a lot to gain by stepping outside your comfort zone.
“I use myself as an example,” says Jackson. “I would only drink, big, buttery Chardonnay for years. That was my drink… I literally would not venture out, and so my appreciation of wine was very limited because I only knew about one kind.”
You don’t have to speak French or memorize appellations to find something new. You’ll get the most out of wine simply by asking and answering questions.
“Wine varies so much, and there’s so much out there,” says Jackson. “I just want people to be open to new things.”