sunset in a glass of wine

Just like I could never understand how equations fit together back in Grade 10, all the facts and figures of wine labeling elude me. What does it all mean? There’s the type of grape, the location and, among all that, the name of the winery (I think) and does any of it really matter?

For me, a trip to the wine store involves narrowing in on the bottles that are giving out extra AirMiles. I never ask the sales staff. I just grab a bottle and slink over to the cash register, eager to escape.

But wine has been appearing a bit more for me lately. First, an assignment to do a profile about a company building wine cellars and now, the arrival of a new release of Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine Soaked Journey From Grape to Glass, a highly readable and compassionate book about the broad world of wine by award-winning Canadian wine writer Natalie MacLean.

Divided into an assortment of adventures from vineyard-hopping in France to a friendly and indulgent wine-soaked dinner with writer Jay McInerney (of Bright Lights, Big City fame and, more recently, Bacchus & Me), the book brought me out onto dusty earth, inside the crowded aisles of a neighbourhood wine store in San Francisco, to the tables of fancy restaurants (from a sommelier’s perspective) and right inside the contentious debate of scoring wines.

Me, a veritable ‘ignoramous’ (as my mother used to say), as far as talk of wine goes.

But this is the great thing about MacLean. She wants to blast the intimidation factor around choosing wine, pairing it and even tasting it right out of the water.

Near the end of the book, during the description of a warm dinner party with friends, she gives elaborate advice on pairing wines with food (without always going for the old school white-with-white-meat and red-with-red-meat) before gently putting it back in the court of the person who will actually be drinking the stuff. “First and foremost,” she writes,”drink what you like. Think of wine like clothing: most of us choose it based on comfort, not fashion. So pick wines you like to drink, not because they get high scores.”

By the time I read this invitation to trust my own tastes, I’m already armed with lots of new knowledge and the finish of a few hearty laughs.

Throughout the book, MacLean puts herself on display to cast a more human light on her profession. She even spins a hilarious story involving choking (and, um, coughing and spraying) during a professional wine tasting. This willingness to share some of her more embarrassing moments – and to work for a day in a wine store and serve snobby diners as an undercover sommelier – nicely flavours a book that dishes out enough information to turn a trip to the wine story into fun exploration rather than agony.

And there’s even lots of advice on deciphering those elusive labels. During her day-long job in New York City’s Discovery Wines, she gives a boat load.

Some words can simply be ignored, she writes. “A novice buyer might be … seduced by fancy label terms such as reserve, proprietor’s reserve, vintner’s blend, and cellar selection. While these may sound good, they don’t necessarily mean anything at all in most New World regions. They’re not regulated…”

And others can actually help: “…the more specific the place name, the better. When a region in narrowly defined, quality guidelines and laws are more stringent, so it’s less likely that grapes from good and bad vineyards will be blended.”

These are just a few samples of a lush crop of practical wisdom and compelling narrative. For the rest, you’ll just have to buy the book. I’m way too busy putting my new knowledge into action. Bottoms up!

For more information – and a nifty wine-pairing tool – check out Natalie MacLean’s website.

Photo by Lauren Carter