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Sunday, December 10, 2017

By Michael Austin, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

I can’t say that just about anybody could keep a New Year’s resolution to drink more, because frankly, I don’t believe it.

We’re not talking about spring break-drinking here or the kind of drinking one might have done while on tour with an arena rock band in the ’70s. We’re talking about thoughtful drinking, more about tasting than getting your buzz on. The softening, euphoric effects of wine will always be there, but that is only part of what draws most of us to the world’s most enchanting beverage.

What also draw us are the aromas and flavors, the way wine makes food taste better, the places it leads us to in our imaginations. Learning more about wine — what you personally really love about wine — will only enhance your enjoyment. But this kind of drinking requires focus and commitment, and not everyone is up for that. Some people just want to relax, say, “Mmmm,” and leave it at that. No one is going to stop you. But for those of you who are on a continual quest to know more, it’s going to take some work.

In 2016, vow to keep a steady supply of wine on hand and stick to a system as you work your way through it. Keeping a log is a good idea. It forces you to critically consider what you’re drinking, so that the next time you choose a wine, you’ll have that much more information in your brain. It provides a record of your thoughts, so you don’t have to memorize every wine you’ve ever tried, and it allows you to look back and reflect on your journey — like stamps in a passport or stickers on a suitcase.

But as a friend of mine asked recently about navigating the dense forest of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, “Where do you begin?” The answer is, you start in the middle and work your way out. Don’t try to learn about cabs from Napa Valley as a whole. First, learn about cabs from Rutherford, Oakville or Howell Mountain (or the Napa Valley region of your choosing), and then move on to other regions.

That same approach could be tweaked and applied to anywhere in the world. Don’t get overwhelmed by France, or even by Bordeaux (or Pauillac). Instead, start with the Loire Valley, but rather than focusing on its legendary whites, dive into the cabernet francs of Chinon. There is no wrong entry point, as long as there is enough wine to taste.

If you are at the beginning of your wine journey, start by familiarizing yourself with some classic grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or riesling (which is not always sweet, as many beginners believe). Pick a grape, and drink it for a month. It doesn’t matter where the bottles are from — just smell and taste as much of that grape as you can. If you’ve got those grapes in your knowledge bank already, venture into syrah/shiraz, sangiovese, tempranillo, malbec, grenache or zinfandel. Drink a grape a month.

If you are more about place and love maps as much as I do, pick a wine spot on the globe and explore one of its classic offerings: Chile (carmenere), Argentina (malbec), Australia (shiraz), South Africa (pinotage). Obviously it’s easier to find cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley than carmenere from Chile, which is why these categories are so broad. If you can zero in even more, go ahead and pick a region, and drink a specific grape only from there — like shiraz from the Barossa Valley of Australia.

Regardless, the approach remains: Start at the bull’s eye of your choice, and proceed to the edges of your wine education dart board. You can’t go wrong. What if you learned everything there is to know about pinot gris from Oregon or became an expert on Chianti but you didn’t know much about the wines of Spain or Germany? How worse off would you be?

What if you knew the wines of one producer in Sonoma County the way you know your own family or if you knew the malbec grape so intimately that you could expound on the differences between styles from France and Argentina? Wouldn’t either or both of those scenarios help you understand all other wines better? Of course they would. The point is, be deliberate.

Get yourself a notebook; commit to keeping a log. Focus on one category of wine a month. Jot down descriptive words. Devise a rating system: numbers one through five, letters A through C, or the words Yes and No. Up to you. Just make wine tasting a part of your life, and start thinking more about what you are tasting. If you are a lifelong learner, someone interested in the evolution of all things alive, you can only go, “Mmmm,” for so long before your inner searcher demands to know more.

Knowing more requires drinking more, but it doesn’t have to be about volume. It can be about frequency. Have you ever seen a drunk Italian? It’s rare because they drink a glass or two with dinner and then cut themselves off. If they have 14 glasses of wine in a week, it probably breaks down to two a night — not seven each on Friday and Saturday.

At lunch years ago, an Italian winemaker poured a bottle of his wine into a thin-necked decanter. Someone asked how anyone would clean it. He looked puzzled. “There is no need to clean it,” he said. “Just keep putting wine in it.”

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS