Deciphering the Label

Different countries and regions have distinct laws or traditions governing what the label says; if you're buying wines from a specialty shop, ask for an explanation.

With American wines, for instance, you may encounter the phrase "cellared and bottled by" maker X. That means that the winery bought the wine from somewhere else, bottled it and put their label on it. The same winery may produce a wine bearing in fine print the phrase "produced by;" that means the winery actually made the wine. "Estate-bottled" wine refers to a vintage that the winery made from grapes that come from its own vineyards.

Domestic wines often have explanations of the wine's production on the back label; these will often tell you more than you want to know.

Buying Wine

There's a certain appeal to buying wine at the winery during a visit, or directly by mail order. But the prices are often more expensive than what you may find at supermarkets or discount wine brokers. And cheap wines aren't necessarily bad ones. Good wines can be sold far below original prices to make room for new vintages or new inventories.

Buying by the case often results in a discount, so if you're a regular wine drinker or want to start a collection, consider this option. But check with the vendor or winemaker as to the optimal amount time a wine should be kept. Some wines are suitable for several years more aging in the bottle, while others are ready to be consumed fairly soon. Ask for advice or you'll risk major disappointment a few years down the line.

Wine by Mail

Many small wine producers can't break into large wholesaling networks, so a large portion of their sales may come from sales order phoned or faxed in and mailed out. In recent years, however, some state legislatures have been lobbied by wholesalers, and they've passed laws making it against the law to conduct this kind of trade. They're enforced with varying degrees of rigor, and it's up to wineries and wine merchants to determine whether they want to deal with you and your state; they're the ones threatened with fines or worse.

Opening a Bottle of Sparkling Wine

Popping the cork is fun but messy, and you not only waste good wine, you also release more bubbles, leading to a flatter wine faster.

When you open a bottle of sparkling wine, start by making sure it's cold. Then, don't point it at anybody; sometimes, just removing the wire cage results in the cork shooting out. After the cage is off, put a dish towel or large, cloth napkin over the top of the bottle, and then slowly rock and twist the cork out; one way to do this is by holding the cork tightly while you turn the bottle instead. In either case, control is paramount.

As the cork approaches removal, rock it to the side, releasing gas slowly; most of the time, it'll come out with a slight hiss. And even if the gas is released too fast and the cork wants to fly out and the champagne tries to gush, the dish towel will prevent the cork from going anywhere and will capture the overflow. Remove the cloth and pour slowly, and you'll release as few bubbles as possible.

History of Wine

*The first evidence of cultivated vineyards has been found in the Caucuses Mountains in areas in and adjacent to Turkey; they were planted about 7,000 years ago.

*The Sumerians left the first indications of a wine god--Gestian--around 2700 BC; 2000 years later, the Greeks begin the cult of their wine deity, Dionysus, followed a few hundred years afterwards by the Romans' Bacchus.

*By the height of the Roman Empire, during the time of Christ, most lands adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea have substantial areas planted in grape vineyards for the production of wine. Meanwhile, wine becomes a crucial element of Christianity as a sacramental symbol of Christ's blood.

*By the Middle Ages, after the collapse of much of the civilized world, most vineyards have fallen into neglect. The Catholic Church becomes the major producer of wine in order to fulfill the sacramental demands. Members of religious orders begin to study soils and climates and to match different vines with their ideal regions. They also refine the art of pruning.

*The surplus created by the Church wineries leads to a flourishing trade in wine. By the 1300s, coast-hugging little ships are carrying fruits of the vine from southern France and Germany's Rhine region to England and elsewhere around the Continent and the Mediterranean Basin. The growth of cities and the increasing lack of wholesome drinking water adds to the demand, and wine is almost universally desired as the beverage of choice.

*During the 1600s, sparkling wine--Champagne--is first made on a regular basis, after makers learn how to trap the gas created during fermentation. Key to this evolution is the development of stronger glass, thick bottles and compressed corks to contain the pressures.

*By the 1700s, a class of wealthy consumers develops in France and England. Up to this point, wine was imbibed when about a year old; afterwards, a market for quality wines evolves, and producers are beginning to realize that good grapes and aging in barrels leads to a superior product. Meanwhile, the first vineyards are being planted in California by the friars establishing missions.

*The 1800s bring the maturing of the winemaking process, and the evolution of a wine trade similar to what we have today. By the middle of the century, fine wines are being produced in California, just as the grape pest phylloxera begins to ravage the vineyards of Europe.

*Just as some vineyards are recovering from the blights of the last century, the First World War arrives and batters the European industry anew. American wines are achieving top qualities, but Prohibition ends U.S. production in 1919. The Catholic Church is the lone large producer in America, making wine for medicinal and sacramental uses.

*Prohibition is repealed in 1933, but Depression wracks the world, hindering a renewal of production in the United States while further hampering the post-war recovery in Europe. The Second World War creates new problems.

*Post-war prosperity helps re-establish the wine industry in Europe and the United States, but the latter's products are considered indisputably inferior. Meanwhile, winemakers in the Napa Valley are refining their art. By the '60s, boosters are claiming that California wines are rivaling those of France, but few believe it.

*The '70s brings an explosion in consumption of wine by the American middle-class, and California wines feed the demand; even more sophisticated drinkers are beginning to appreciate the New World's product.

*In 1976, a blind tasting of wines in Europe results in tradition-shattering news; a red and a white from different makers in the Napa Valley are judged to be the best of the event.

*By the 1990s, wines are judged on their own merits, regardless of their origin. A flourishing transfer of wine between all parts of the world develops in the aftermath of quality winemaking endeavors in South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and parts of the United States not previously acquainted with vineyards.