The Wine Bible – A Bartenders Guide to Wine

by | Nov 9, 2015 | Book Reviews | 0 comments

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A couple of weeks ago I received an email that – I’ll admit – made me pretty excited. It was an announcement that The Wine Bible 2.0 had been released in October, and that the author, Karen MacNeil would be coming to our area for a talk and book signing. …Who gets excited about a book release? Apparently me!

The publisher kindly sent us a copy (an unexpected bonus) and we joined Karen at her talk in San Francisco in late October. I’ll be honest – I’ve never been to a book signing before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. But this event was really, really great.

  • First, we were handed wine first thing as we walked in the door. (Great start!)
  • Then, Karen took some time to speak about her experience, some of her thoughts on wine, and a bit about the book itself.
  • She took a few questions before closing
  • Finally, we put all of the chairs away and folks had a chance to mingle and chat with Karen and one another.

Speaking in Metaphor

During her talk, Karen said something that really resonated with me. She talked about how she believed Wine can be hard to learn and talk about because we do not have a “language” for wine. (This is my best recollection of how she explained it)

“If you give someone a strawberry and ask them what it tastes like, they will say ‘it tastes like strawberry’” she said, “but if you give
someone a glass of wine, it’s not so simple.”

When we describe the taste and aroma of wine, she explained, we don’t have a language to use. All we have are metaphors. We might say “this wine tastes like oak, with a hint of cooked cherry” or “it has a finish of blueberry cobbler.” It is completely subjective, and what tastes like blueberry cobbler to you might be jammy cherry or marionberry (or something completely different) to someone else.

Tasting is intensely personal, but as Karen described, learning your own palate and metaphor is a vital step in learning about wine. Because once you understand your own language, you can start to understand the similarities and differences between different bottles and connect the dots with how they are made, what grapes are used, and so on.

Getting Personal

I was taken aback because in just a few sentences, Karen described one of the things we had struggled with for the first year with A Bar Above. When you create a cocktail on video and then taste it, how do you describe the results to your viewing audience? They can’t taste it, so you have to find a way to describe what it tastes like.

And so we learned to use metaphor: instead of “This is a great, balanced cocktail” we learned to describe our drinks in terms of other cocktails that our viewers would already know: “this cocktail is like a brighter and earthier version of a traditional whiskey sour, with good oak undertones and a long, acidic finish.”

Once we learned to describe drinks in this way, I saw similar results to what Karen was saying. Learning to talk about cocktails taught us so much more about the cocktails themselves. And we learned to translate the language in both directions. If I asked Chris for a nutty, dark Manhattan with a hint of sweetness – he knows exactly what I’m looking for and can build it quickly.

Learn your Own Language

I would say that Karen shone a light on an important step that we often forget in the process of learning bartending, tasting, and cocktail design. If we don’t take the time to taste enough to start to build our own language of metaphors, it is so much more difficult to learn to build cocktails from scratch.

But if you know what “oak” tastes like, or “elderberry” or “juniper” or “earthiness” – you have a language to start describing – and remembering – the drinks that you make.

I would encourage any bartender or cocktail enthusiast to take a moment when you are tasting any drink and try to describe it to yourself. Use words that an absolute cocktail novice would understand. Imagine your Mom asked you “what does it taste like?” This process leapfrogged our learning about drinks and just takes a few seconds – I’d highly recommend making it a habit!

… And back to the Book

What an awful book review – here we are halfway through and I’ve hardly touched on the book!

There’s a reason for that. The reason this book is so great is because the author is so great. Just like she so simply described the lifetime challenge of “speaking wine”, she so simply describes the entire world of wine in this book.

For example: this book (err, the first version) was single-handedly responsible for me no longer ordering Chardonnays I don’t like. I like buttery Chardonnays, not acidic ones. (Hey, I grew up in Napa, don’t judge me.) I would order Chardonnay and always be completely surprised with what I got. But in just two paragraphs, Karen explained why California Chardonnays are typically buttery, as opposed to their European counterparts. (Hint: Warm weather!) Now not only do I understand a bit more about my hometown, but I know exactly which Chardonnay to order.

This book is Wine in Layman’s terms – but without shorting you on content or detail. Karen manages to explain the intricacies of each region, grape and varietal in a way that is both thorough and completely understandable. (And therefore memorable!) I would content that one read through of this wine book would help any bartender choose wine – for themselves, for their menu, and for their guests.

Priced at only $16, this book should be a no-brainer for any bartender looking to learn and better themselves behind the bar. Not only that, but I contend that you’ll find yourself more likely to order wines you like – meaning this book will pay for itself very, very quickly!