For better or worse, I’ve always been a white wine drinker. It’s what my mom keeps in the house — Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, to be specific — and taste, like behavior, is often learned. I’m a firm believer that wine drunk is the best drunk and that even a single glass of wine has the ability to ease the tension after a particularly long day (or week or month). I have happy memories built on pinot grigio and chardonnay and riesling.
But whenever I’ve tried to enjoy a glass of red wine, I can’t get past the thick warmth of its room temperature or the fact that it tastes the way nail polish remover smells. My association with red wine is a particularly rough experience with Franzia in college. And yet, there’s something about red wine that’s more romantic. It reminds me of curling up with a good book in the winter. It seems like the wine to prefer if you’re a brunette. So what gives?
I set off to see if there was any hope for me. To acquire a taste for reds, I consulted some experts. First up was Collin Moody, the general manager at Income Tax, a wine bar in Edgewater. Moody provided some general education over tastings; for an hour, we talked through everything that can make a bottle of wine what it is. There’s Old World and New World. Wines from Europe and California. Heavy vs. light. Dryness. Sweetness. Bitterness. Acidity. Alcohol. There’s vocabulary like “vintage” and “tannin” and “legs.” And just when my head started to spin, Moody said something that made it all make sense.
“So often people think of white or red, but usage is so much more helpful for me to think about. How do you want to feel, emotionally?” he said. “What you’re going to pair with pajamas and a couch and Netflix versus sitting down at the dinner table with my wife and a few friends (is going to be different).”
Because my entire experience with red wine has been trying to drink it on its own like a cocktail, I had been leaving food out of the equation.
“A lot of us call those crushers or cocktail wines — just wines that you can drink,” said Zach Jones, sommelier and general manager at El Che Bar in the West Loop. “That tends to be more uncomplicated wine. There are others that I love, but they really require food because there is such a level of acidity in the wine, there’s this earthiness or this funkiness. With food, it’s extraordinary. By itself, you might not want to just casually drink it.”
Moody recommended finding a good wine retailer and explaining what you’re hoping to do with your bottle. Asking for suggestions is a simple solution if you’re not sure how to get into wine. (“If you’re uncertain, don’t try to be a hero,” Jones said. “It’s never bad to ask questions. The staff should be there to guide you to what you want.”)
For instance, If you’re looking for a “Netflix wine,” a retailer should be able to make a suggestion. Craig Perman, who owns Perman Wine Selections, recommended the 2015 Tiago Teles “Maria da Graca” for that purpose.
“I want my red to be fresh, lightweight and refreshing,” Perman said. “It has bright red fruit, mineral and herbs. The texture is so vibrant and fresh — this is a dangerous couch wine because it goes down way too easy.”
But if you’re looking for a touchstone on a red wine list, Jones advised steering in the direction of the New World, or wines from North and South America.
“In general, red wines are not sweet, but in the western hemisphere, they tend to express their fruit flavor up front,” he said. “So I think that’s a good place to start. The difference being that wines from France, Italy, Spain, they tend to express the secondary characteristics like earthiness. You really get a sense of the soil coming through.”
Soil is one of the places wine picks up its earthiness or funkiness, creating those complicated wines that Jones mentioned. “Challenging” is another word that Moody used to describe them, and both experts stressed the need for food to turn them into something spectacular.
That got the attention of the cynic in me. I’ve always considered the idea of food and wine pairings to be pretentious at best and made up at worst. Who says I can’t drink white wine with a steak? Moody said he doesn’t adhere to a lot of the hard and fast rules of wine pairing, but it’s more about connecting things within a family of influences. He vowed to make me a believer, so I returned to Income Tax for a second wine tasting with the aid of some small bites.
Almost as if to ease me in, Moody started with a few white wines. I can already appreciate the taste of a white, but Moody helped me to see how the introduction of food complicated its taste. We drank sherry, for example, with pan con tomate, a Spanish saffron toast with fresh tomatoes. The wine, Moody explained, balanced out the saltiness of the food.
“Sherry is a very particular emotional experience for me,” he said. “When I have a bottle of sherry in my house, it’s always me cooking, usually for a dinner party. So it’s me, in the kitchen, maybe I have a couple snacks out and a bottle of sherry open, which is an awesome, tasty way to start the meal. So often that’s my secret snack for myself as the host and the cook.”
We moved on to Germany by drinking riesling with German meatballs, and the food made the wine dramatically less tart. I was starting to understand the value of pairing when we came back to red wines, and the same logic followed. Though I didn’t love the bitter aftertaste of the first wine (Bodegas Los Bermejos Maceración Carbónica Listán Negro 2016) on its own, when I drank it with the slightly spicy grilled scallops, the bitterness was gone and instead, the wine helped balance out the spice.
I didn’t truly become a believer, though, until Moody brought out a bottle of Martin Texier Brézème Syrah 2016, a wine I had tried and completely detested at our first tasting. “I’m going to make you drink wine you hate,” Moody said with a smile.
It was just as bad the second time around with a funky smell and difficult taste that made me pull a face. But Moody served the quail cassoulet — quail stuffed with garlic sausage and served in a white bean stew, and bizarrely, the wine tasted fine with it. Not just “I could choke this down” fine, but completely drinkable. It felt like a miracle.
The final pairing (Santini Frères Coteaux Bourguignons Ton Rouge 2015 with carrot agnolotti — essentially a rich carrot ravioli) went just as well. The acidity of the wine lifted the weight of the creamy dish.
“This is crazy,” I said.
“It’s like you might actually start drinking red wine,” Moody joked.
I might. I was ready to be turned to the wild. At a family dinner, when the temperatures had dipped low and everyone was ordering steak, it felt like my time to shine. I bore Jones’s advice and stuck to a New World pinot noir.
Basic, I know. But I’m a beginner, and you’ve got to start somewhere. And I’m happy to report that the pinot was so lovely that we ordered a second bottle.