Swirl Girl: Wine 101: Drinking + learning = fun

Roasted bone marrow. Beef cheeks and fennel fronds. Lamb bacon. If you're like most Americans, you have absolutely no idea what these foods are and you've never even considered eating them. Let's try this again: Edamame beans. Free-range chicken. Balsamic vinegar and fresh mozzarella. Even if you don't have these ingredients in your refrigerator, you certainly recognize most, if not all of them.

The point of that little exercise was to illustrate how far our collective knowledge of food has come in the past ten years. Everything you ever wanted to know about the hottest new foods, why you should eat them, and where you can buy them is right in front of you. There's the veritable bonanza of cooking shows, the rise of the rock-star chef and dozens of food porn magazines to leer at in the checkout line.

Wine, however, remains a mystery wrapped in riddle for many. Why aren't people busy guzzling as many new and different wines every year as they are scarfing up jamon-wrapped pork rinds, or any of the other foods du jour? Simple: People don't think wine is fun.

Wine can seem overly complicated and intimidating at best; snobby and high-falutin' at worst. Making wine fun is all about challenging what you think you already know and like about it. Drinking copious amounts of wine in the company of say, six or eight of your fellow wine-curious companions also helps. Becoming more knowledgeable about (while having fun drinking) wine incorporates these three simple steps:

• Absorbing factual information about the wine(s) • Experiencing that factual information by actually tasting the wine itself (combine steps 1 & 2 in a single sitting if you can) • Keeping track of what you liked and disliked about the wines you've tried.

As for the first step, there's one book that anyone with more than a passing curiosity about wine should own, and that's The Wine Lovers Companion ($15). This book is like a Webster's Dictionary that's all about wine. Perfect for everyone from novice to expert, there's nary a wine term, varietal, region, or descriptor that's not in here. If you're more of a visual learner, scoop up Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia: Fourth Edition ($31.50). Beautifully illustrated with detailed maps of wine growing regions, wine labels, and charts, this volume will painlessly educate you about wines and inspire you to drink a lot more of them.

Step two is clearly the fun part, because you actually get to taste wine. Note that the operative word in this sentence is "taste," and not drink. These are two vastly different activities. Prepare to "taste" the wine you're currently learning about as though you were gearing up for your very own wine judging competition. Create the proper setting (i.e., a comfortable seat at a table so you can swirl, sniff, sip and take notes), have the right equipment (your wine tasting notebook, some water for sipping and maybe some plain crackers to clear your palate if you're tasting more than one wine), and last but not least, bring the right attitude. Attitude matters because the goal here is to disabuse yourself of whatever previously formed opinions you might be holding onto.

Now, to execute: swirl, sniff, and sip the wine. Refer to the factual information about that wine and actually have a conversation with yourself and/or the aforementioned wine-curious companions about how your experience with that wine is the same or different from what you'd read. Take notes on what your tastebuds, combined with your newly-elevated wine IQ , are telling you. Repeat with the remaining wines. Want an easier way to execute step two? Plan a trip to wine bar and make friends with the staff. Check out Caveau Wine Bar (450 East 17th Avenue) or Trios Enoteca (1730 Wynkoop Street), two spots that feature a wide selection of bottles and a team of wine-loving pros who know what they're talking about. And if this option still doesn't feel like it's keeping it "real" enough for you, pretend the recession's over and get thee to your nearest/favorite/warmest wine making region and make Spring Break 2010 all vino, all the time.

The final step is perhaps the most important, because the biggest issue most people have when learning about wine is remembering what the hell they've already imbibed and whether they loved or loathed it. You can keep track using anything from a fancy leather-bound wine journal to your iPhone. Just remember to do it: Write down what you drank (the producer, grape varietal, vintage, and price are a few key stats) along with your own personal "review" of the wine. You can keep it brief, but do yourself a favor and elaborate beyond "This wine rocked" or "This wine sucked." Describe the flavors as best you can, along with your overall rating, using a scale from one to ten. Be sure and record whatever food you ate with the wine as this can have a massive impact on your impression of the wine. Don't worry about not knowing all the fancy wine terms or getting all Robert Parker on yourself; just capture enough information to remind yourself of what you sipped when it's time to head back to the wine shop to restock.

Learning about wine is actually way more fun than just guzzling it mindlessly, because at the end of the day, you'll end up drinking wines you appreciate all the more for being able to understand what really makes you love them. Plus, you'll know exactly which wine goes perfectly with lamb bacon.