This week, I offer homage to David Letterman's Top Ten List, now in its 15th season. Letterman grays but remains hysterical -- well, at least, his staff writers are.
Top Ten Things You Need to Know about Wine
10) More expensive doesn't mean better. I've tasted mind-blowing $8 wines that smack of $50 and $50 juice that isn't worth bus fare. Buying from lesser-known regions -- thus, less expensive -- will compensate you with better wines.
9) Wine-shop people know their stuff. Trust them and give them your money. These wine geeks, shrewdly disguised as sales people, taste wine all day long, carry more knowledge than the average big-box employee, and in general aren't commissioned to sell you crap. Otherwise, you wouldn't be back, right? They need their job.
8) Once you find a wine you like, learn the winemaker's name. Follow that person from winery to winery. Don't become a stalker, but track his or her career like your favorite rock star. Winemakers can make music in your mouth, so why not treat them as such?
7) Drink imports. Although prices are rising as the dollar tanks, imported wines still emerge better values, especially those from Spain and Italy. Read up on their unusual varietals to see what might tickle your tongue, or, better yet, see No. 9.
6) Beer is sometimes better. Oh shit, was that my out-loud voice? I'm loathe to admit it, but there are times when a cold brew merits your time: watching NASCAR, working on a car, during break at a chewing-tobacco-spitting contest, or driving around the shopping center on Friday night. Otherwise, there's a wine for every occasion.
5) Grocery and warehouse stores sell cheaper wine. No doubt about it. These places buy in bulk at lower prices than smaller shops and (normally) send the savings to the customer. Sam's and Costco prices often fall $3-$4 less than others (but still see No. 9).
4) Not all wines are created equal. A merlot from one region may taste completely different from another (see No. 1). So don't judge all varieties by their brethren. You wouldn't want someone to judge you by your family, would you?
3) Visit wine country. Your vacation morphs into education. I've never heard anyone return from wine country and declare the experience sucked. Just doesn't happen.
2) Studying wine will make you wine-smart, drinking wine will make you wine-savvy. Taste, taste, taste. It's not like homework you once avoided. Drinking is fun. Yes, you can memorize all useless factoids about wine regions, but if you haven't physically tasted the difference between a French pinot noir and an Oregon pinot, the book is bunk.
And the No. 1 thing you need to know about wine ...
1) Weather matters. Not all wine regions are created equal. Due to differences in soil, sun and rain, one vine's Mecca is another vine's Sahara. When choosing a bottle, be aware of the appellation's climate listed on the label (by law, wineries must report the grapes' origin) and consider the source. This knowledge might require some study, but it will reward in the glass. For instance, a pinot noir labeled "California" could mean a mishmash of grapes from anywhere in the state. But if you see Carneros or Santa Maria Valley -- that have cooler, maritime weather -- you'll find happy, tasty pinot.
St. Francis 2004 Red Sonoma Valley This is great "house" wine with a palatable price. Warm, pepper-dusted, ripe cherry with earthy chocolate and a hint of mint and worn leather. Full-bodied and fun, it's a luscious blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and zinfandel. Sw = 1. $13. *** 1/2