I don't need to tell you it's freezing outside, but I do need to remind you that if you're hibernating in your apartment without a bottle of wine in your Snuggie-covered lap, well, you're doing it wrong. As crockpots buzz to life, it's the time of year to curl up with an earthy, lush, bold or spicy red wine to drink with dinner—or just your favorite Netflix series. Whether you're shopping at a small wine boutique (see our list of new shops below) or grabbing a bottle from the grocery store, there's no reason to feel lost among the shelves. These 10 pointers from Mike Baker, Advanced Sommelier and manager at Vin Chicago (formerly the Wine Discount Center, 1826 N. Elston Ave.), guarantee you'll zero in on a winter red to call your own.
1. Get in the right frame of mind. "Realize that buying wine is all about pleasure," Baker said. He acknowledges that shelves can seem overwhelming, but said that approaching them with an open, happy mind will make the process easier. "If you come at it from the mindset of 'This is all about fun,' then you shouldn't run into too many failures."
2. Shop small. If possible, visit a store where staff can answer your questions. "What you sacrifice at convenience places is the experience of someone to guide you," Baker said. "If it's a good place, people will ask you questions. They can guide you toward things you might end up really liking."
3. Go to tastings. What's the best way to learn about wines you'll love? Tasting them. Some shops offer free, informal tastings or classes, which are a great way to become familiar with new bottles in a low-pressure environment. (See below for new wine shops with tastings.)
4. Look beyond the label art. Yes, that penguin/zebra/owl is adorable, but it tells you little about what's in the bottle. Instead, Baker suggests, look at alcohol levels and grape varieties, both of which should be printed on the front, back or side of the label. After tasting a few styles, you'll find a grape or region that you like.
5. Use your words. "The language of wine tends to be one of its greatest roadblocks," Baker said. When talking to a store's staff, try describing why you like a wine, keeping in mind that there's no wrong vocabulary. Think about adjectives such as "hearty," "ripe," "earthy," "fruity," "spicy," etc.
6. Think food. Whether or not you'll be drinking the wine with a meal is one of the most important considerations when choosing a bottle. With food, Baker recommends asking for a rustic, earthy wine. For sipping solo, he recommends warm, densely fruited varieties.
7. Talk money. The wine shop is not the place to be shy about your budget. "Be forthright about what you want to spend," Baker said. "The person who's helping you wants you to be comfortable."
8. Think importer, not vineyard. If you're not familiar with every winemaker under the sun—and no one is—you can look for the importer label (usually on the back of the bottle) that indicates the middleman between the vineyard and the retailer. Importers are like curators for wines grown abroad, and Baker said some are known to be "100 percent reliable." Some of his favorites include Eric Solomon (French and Spanish wines), Jorge Ordonez (Spanish wines) and Kermit Lynch (French and Italian wines).
9. Serve it right. "The ideal serving temperature for red wine is not the temperature in your home when the heat's blazing," Baker said. If your thermostat is set to anywhere near 72 degrees, pop the bottle of wine in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving to cool it down. If you don't finish a whole bottle, replace the cork or screw cap and it should last a day or two on your counter. In the case of some complex wines, the flavors might even improve.
10. Banish hangovers. "The No. 1 cause of hangovers is excessive consumption, no matter what you're drinking," Baker said. Refill your glass in moderation, especially because red wines are generally higher in alcohol content than white wines (by approximately 1 to 2 percentage points). That can add up over the course of a few glasses, so drink water alongside your wine.
4 NEW SHOPS TO TRY
It's time to put your newfound wine knowledge to use. Stop into one of these recently opened shops and find your next favorite.
3714 N. Southport Ave. 773-871-8888
This Lakeview staple has a new address just a few doors from its original location, but its focus remains on small-production wines. Look for approximately 120 bottles for less than $13, as well as an expanded selection of wines from Oregon and California.
Free tastings: First Saturday of the month
Independent Spirits Inc.
5947 N. Broadway 773-989-2115
Open since July, this Edgewater shop offers bottles from small producers as well as Old World gems from Italy, France and Spain, plus a notable selection of craft spirits.
Free tastings: 5-7 p.m. Fridays (wine); 5-7 p.m. Thursdays (spirits)
3325 N. Halsted St. 773-281-5154
Since taking over the former Kafka Wines space in February, Paired has helped educate Boystown diners on food-friendly wines to bring to some of the neighborhood's BYOB restaurants. Designated selections in the $13-$20 range, as well as an online interactive food-pairing tool, make choosing a bottle easier.
Free tastings: Check pairedwine.com
1149 N. State St. 312-255-9463
This wine shop relocated in October to the Gold Coast and offers wines for all price points, with a special focus on bottles in the $15-$25 range.
Free tastings: 2-4 p.m. Saturdays
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