“A great wine education class. I was amazed by the instructor's wealth of knowledge, the
great wines to taste and talk about, and the small, intimate class size. A fun way to learn a lot
—Will, Ritchie Creek Vineyards
White Zin may be something of a curiosity item, but it accounts for nearly 18% of the wine sold in America, so I try not to be too quick to sneer at it. I suspect the characteristics your mother-in-law enjoys are light body, fruity aroma, and delicate balance between lusciousness from a little residual sugar and refreshment from good acid. Among classic wines that formula spells Riesling. Wine snoids who know just enough to be dangerous tend to look down their nose at Riesling, but many of the most prestigious wine writers in the world are closet Riesling fanatics. The grape variety is underappreciated in the U.S. so you can often find really good ones at bargain prices. Germany produces the worldwide benchmark, but Oregon, Canada, upstate NY, MI, and the high elevation vineyards of CO and NM do wonderful examples closer to home. Australia and New Zealand have some winners as well. Although harder to find, Austrian Rieslings can be magnificent.
I'm inclined to say: Yes. My Scottish grandmother would roll over in her grave to hear me say that. And I'm sure there are $35 bottles on the list you would enjoy tasting every bit as much or more. And a good sommelier would happily direct you to those $35 bottles. BUT... the situation you describe is not really about tasting wine; it's about creating a good time, a special time, interpersonally. You may discuss the quality of the wine briefly, but primarily you are going to be talking about non-vinous matters. You and the client are not going to be having the $35 bottle and the $80 bottle side-by-side in a comparative evaluation. If you or the sommelier made a very adroit choice from the $35 section, would anybody at your table actually recognize what a marvelous trick had been accomplished? On the other hand, everbody at the table knows what $80 means. They can all run their finger down the right hand column on the wine list and conclude, "Damn, now we're doing something I don't do every day." Is that worth an extra 10-25% on the check? Yeah, if you're talking about a significant business or personal relationship, it probably is. In an era of $250 hotel rooms and routine $20 valet parking nicks, impressing people at dinner with an $80 bottle of wine can actually be seen as a rather cost-efficient investment.
Would I pop for the $80 bottle when dining alone? No.
Wine is an art form. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but much of the pleasure actually comes from the conversation and the personal interactions that surround wine. Newsletters and magazines are more or less articulate examples of what somebody else thinks about a bunch of wines. They can be entertaining; they can alert you to a lot of different wines you might like to try yourself; they can enrich your wine experience by providing background information you would have trouble unearthing on your own. What they can NOT do is taste the wine for you. Every individual's smell and taste equipment is different.
Wine recommendations tailored to your personal taste preferences require an expert who has come to know you over some period of time - much as one might develop a relationship with a particularly good hair stylist or golf pro. Personal wine merchants are a dying breed in America because it has to be a two-way street, and thus can never grow into Big Business. A great wine merchant needs to be much more than knowledgeable. They should select all their own inventory (that means they have tasted everything in the store), and then they must spend time on the retail sales floor to become acquainted with their best customers' taste preferences. They recommend a wine to you; you report back what you liked or disliked about it. Gradually they develop an ability to translate their own tasting impressions in order to determine what you will enjoy. You must repay such effort with a degree of financial loyalty or else they can not stay in business.
In general the biggest ones are for red wines and the smaller versions are for whites. The idea is that whites are served at a cooler temperature to maintain that fresh, grapey aroma. So you pour smaller amounts more frequently in order to keep the wine in the glass from warming up too much. Reds require more swirling to expose more surface area and bring out their complex bouquet. Hence bigger glasses. The tall, thin ones are for sparkling wines. The cute, thimble-sized ones are junk. Send those as the obligatory present next time an obscure cousin invites you to their wedding on the other side of the continent.
Yes. Throw a picnic party where there will be 20 corked bottles of cheap wine. Open all of them yourself over the space of half an hour. That ought to get you past this completely mental hang up. Pulling a cork out of a bottle is a very simple mechanical operation: a hundred times less intellectually complicated than changing the oil in a car; requiring fifty times less manual dexterity than unhooking a bra; and ten times less painful than having your eyebrows plucked.
Should the problem persist, get yourself a Screwpull. Every fine wine shop in America sells them. They go into the cork easily and at the right place because they have a guide tube, sharp points, and a Teflon coating. They pull the cork out (without requiring a mechanical engineering degree) both intact and reliably because their bore is both longer and wider than normal. For opening one or two bottles at a time, two or three times per week, they are definitely the superior answer. Should cost around $15.
The short answer to the first part is: Yes. But that assumes the "room" is about 68°F. If you were drinking the red wine outside in Summer at a place where it was 105°F, you'd definitely want to keep the bottles from heating up.
Breathing is a trickier matter. It involves aerating the wine to bring out more smells. Merely pulling the cork and letting the bottle sit open for 20 minutes will expose less than one square inch of surface to the air. That's paltry compared to swirling the wine vigorously in a big glass, or to tumbling the wine into a decanter before serving it. Young, tannic red wines definitely do benefit from oxygen, but it is easier to accomplish that goal in a glass or in a decanter than by opening a bottle and setting it on the sideboard for 20 minutes. Older red wines are more likely to lose what great smells they may have if exposed to too much air. So, it is better to just open the wine when you want to serve it. Then taste it and decide whether or not to introduce more air using the decanter technique.
James Halliday is Australia's most prominent wine writer. He has some software available through the Internet wine portal (www.winepros.com.au) which accomplishes what you want. Robert Parker has some similar software out on a CD which I expect could be acquired through a surviving wine e-tailer such as the Wine.com site.
At the end of the day though, I think you'd be happiest merely setting up your own inventory tracking system on any database program, or even on a recent spreadsheet program (such as Excel) which allows you to sort columns alphabetically and by ascending numbers (i.e. vintages). You will want a column for the BRAND name; a column for the VINTAGE; a column for the NAME of the wine (either the grape variety on New World wines, or the place name of European wines); a column for special DESIGNATIONS such as 'Reserve,' or individual vineyard names, or ripeness levels (i.e. 'Spatlese' would be a German example). Then you probably want a column for WHERE you've put it, a column for how MANY bottles you have, and a column for WHEN you propose to drink it. That's enough, although you may want columns for what you paid, for what it's worth now, and perhaps for notes which may pertain to anything.
Although it is not difficult to distinguish good wine from bad wine, answering your question is a considerable task because there are several different forms of "gone bad," and they all manifest themselves differently. If you open a bottle, consume half of it, put the cork back in, and leave it on the counter for two weeks before coming back for the rest, the problem will be oxidation spoilage. At first that will smell like vinegar (acetic acid). Then it will smell like finger nail polish remover (ethyl acetate). Neither will please you very much.
Another form of "going bad" has to do with bottles getting too hot. That can result in 'maderized,' nutty or stewed flavors. But it will also show frequently in the physical appearance of the bottle: corks may start to protrude an 1/8th of an inch or so, distending the capsule; a viscous liquid may start to weep out from under the capsule; there may be wine missing from the bottle (increased ullage); and often pigment will have annealed to the side of red wine bottles which have gotten too hot. These physical characteristics are merely warning signs; they don't automatically mean the wine has spoiled. Stewed, maderized, or oxidized flavors are the final determination.
Some wines simply get too old. They don't spoil; they merely decline. They lose the intensity of their smells and flavors until there is nothing left but dull acid water with perhaps a little woodiness. Other wines may be technically flawed when they come from the winery. Hydrogen sulphide (the 'baby diaper' or rotten egg smell) is an example of that type of problem.
Another issue is the random, relatively rare occurrence of 'corkiness' in certain bottles. That is a musty smell, like wet cardboard, caused by a compound which develops when a certain cork has a specific fungus in it and then goes through a bleaching process. Less than 1% of American wine bottles are 'corked,' but it definitely diminishes a wine and justifies returning same to the seller.
Pinot Noir is a grape; Burgundy is a place - a place in northeastern France. Red wines made in the best (appellation controlled) districts of Burgundy are made with Pinot Noir grapes. In general, European wine labels bear place names, and one is expected to know what grapes grow there. While New World labels (e.g. California, Australia, etc.) bear varietal (i.e. grape) names. Determining where the grapes for these New World wines were grown is often difficult.
Some New World labels use European place names such as Burgundy and Chablis on what are called 'generic' wines. Those are usually very inexpensive blends of several different grape varieties. They bear no relationship to the famous place names they have co-opted. Understandably they are considered to be quite insulting by Europeans from those places.
California produces over 90% of the wine in North America, and over 95% of the wine from vinifera, the European species of grapevine. But there are more than 2,000 wineries in North America, and more than half of those are from places outside CA. Every state in the U.S. except North Dakota has at least one winery, although most are quite small, and many utilize native American species of grapes such as Concord (in the north) and the Muscadine varieties (in the south). Or sometimes fruit other than grapes, as at Denali Winery in Anchorage, Alaska.
Washington State has a big industry which is growing rapidly. Three years from now, when the grapes WA growers have planted in the last couple years start producing wine, they will constitute nearly 10% of America's vinifera production. OR, NY, OH, TX, and VA all have good sized wine industries producing some excellent wines. Canada makes some really good wine in the Niagara Peninsula across Lake Ontario from Toronto and in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Mexico has the oldest winery in North America, and produces very respectable quality wines today in Baja California near Ensenada. Missouri's industry is not as big today as it was at the turn of the last century, but there are some fine producers on the northern bank of the Missouri River west of St Louis. One of their specialties is an American hybrid grape called Norton. It wins prizes in national competitions.
Depends where you live and what your attitude is about risk. Direct shipment of wine from wineries to consumers is a major political debate at the moment, with all the heat and absence of light we've come to expect from political discourse in America today.
After Prohibition ended in 1933 each state (and in many cases much smaller jurisdictions such as separate counties, and sometimes even separate precincts) was allowed to create their own laws governing the sale and distribution of beverage alcohol. As a generalization there are three categories of answer to your question:
Many people like to go during harvest. That is an interesting time because of the subtle ambiance of tension in the air and the smell of fermentations. However, it is also crowded and impossible to get anyone's attention at a winery because they are all so busy. In Napa Valley it can also be an uncomfortably hot time of year. My personal favorite time is February and March in California: the hills are green, the winery staffs are accommodating, the traffic patterns are their most bucolic, the temperature is 55-65°F, it may rain one or two days, but that merely serves to make the air crystalline clear. Of course, in the southern hemisphere those conditions pertain in August and September.
Not nearly as much as you might assume. In most instances you will be reading sales materials such as retailers' ads or shelf talkers. They are quoting some competition or wine writer. Much like movie advertisements, these sales pieces discard any evaluations which are less than wildly enthusiastic, and print the one which uses the highest number. The numbers themselves imply an objective, grade-school 100-pt scale, but in actual practice they fall almost exclusively between 75 and 95 points, and they are VERY subjective opinions. It would be a big mistake to believe the writers or panels generating these numbers can reliably distinguish between a wine they rate 89 on any given day and another wine they rate 90 on a different day.