Sommelier's Guide to Wine

Everything You Need to Know for Selecting, Serving, and Savoring Wine like the Experts


By Brian H. Smith

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This updated and revised edition is the essential guide for aspiring wine connoisseurs who are seeking the knowledge and confidence of a C.I.A. wine professional.

Written by a leading wine educator from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America, The Sommelier’s Guide to Wine is an engaging, in-depth introduction to the often-intimidating world of wine.

This fully updated guide provides a basic text for wine aficionados. Created in a handy size and format, it gives wine lovers the confidence and savvy to navigate the wine list in a restaurant or the aisles of the local wine store. Foodies, wine expert wannabes, wait staff, and wine lovers alike can learn how to present, serve, drink, and store wine just like a sommelier. The guidebook explains different wine styles, grape types, wine regions, and includes tips on how to properly pair wines with specific foods. Learn about all the new wine trends, too.

It’s the perfect introduction to the complex world of wines.



Born in London, Brian H. Smith was educated and worked in the wine trade there before moving to the United States. Smith has taught and lectured extensively in educational programs, seminars, and conferences in the United States and abroad, and for the past 20 years has been one of the leading wine educators at the famed Culinary Institute of America. He is the co-author of Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America's Complete Guide to Wines of the World (2001) and the James Beard Award-winning WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine (2008).


This manual is a basic guide to what appears to be a complicated subject. The intended reader is anyone who wants or needs to know more about wine. If you enjoy eating out, like to have friends over for dinner, host business contacts for dinner, or work in a restaurant, then this book is for you. This guide will help you, as a restaurant-goer, to find your way through any wine list and to order wine with confidence. And if you are a waiter, or hoping to become one, you will find that mastering the fundamentals of wine selection and wine service will greatly augment your capabilities and job opportunities.

The information in this book has purposely been kept simple and streamlined. If you want to make wine complicated, you can. But to select wine to accompany a meal, and to serve wine effectively, you simply need to know the basics. For the customer, this guide follows a simple premise. Everybody has his or her likes and dislikes. The information presented here will enable readers to identify the characteristics of wines they like and to develop a vocabulary with which to communicate their preferences.

For the waiter, or someone who will be serving wine, this manual focuses on informal settings and practices rather than formal ones. Again, if you want to, you can turn wine service into a mysterious ritual for both the waiter and the customer. I prefer not to do that. A waiter’s goal is to get wine into the customer’s glass in a simple, effective, but not overly familiar manner. That is the secret to serving an enjoyable glass of wine.

In addition to my position as a wine teacher and trainer at the Culinary Institute of America, I have worked in the wine retail business and as an importer and distributor. I have assisted restaurants in developing their wine lists and training their staff, and have given innumerable wine tastings for consumer groups and students of the food service industry. Throughout my work, one thing has become clear—the starting point for learning is recognizing that you like something about the subject. Once you have learned to identify what it is you like about wine, then you will probably develop some curiosity as to why there are different flavors and textures in it. If you follow that curiosity, you will find that it is very easy to learn about wine and to develop your own reference points.

That is certainly how I learned about wine during my years after high school and through college and university, when I traveled back and forth to France whenever I could. I lived and worked in many places around France, and after a while, I realized that part of what attracted me to the country was the French people’s simple but genuine fascination with enjoying meals. Wine was always served, but the French commitment to enjoying food and wine was not pompous. Often, it was not even informed. If you stopped the average French person on the street and said “Merlot,” he or she might not have the faintest idea what you were talking about. But they were all attuned to the pleasures that wine can bring to a meal.

Today, most of us drive; some of us even enjoy it. But we don’t need to know the complex workings of the internal combustion engine or the carburetor system in order to enjoy driving. We just need to know what we like in a car and how to operate it. That’s how I saw the average French person approach wine.

Even if the task of “learning” wine mainly requires identifying what it is we like, there still needs to be some application of knowledge and experience on our part. I strongly encourage you to read about wine. You can read this book and then stop, or you can read this and then venture on to more in-depth works. Two formative titles I read early on were A Wine Primer, by André Simon, and Wine, Hugh Johnson’s first book on the subject. They were both wonderfully informative but also wonderfully simple.

In addition to reading, you will need to taste, and to practice tasting. This is best done in the company of friends or coworkers. When tasting is done in a group, you will find that one observation from a friend will help you to focus or clarify your impression of the wine. You will also find that certain descriptive words often get repeated for particular wines, such as blackcurrant for Cabernet Sauvignon, or ripe apple for Chardonnay. You may adopt these words yourself, or you may develop your own descriptors. I have never been convinced that a banana smells the same to me as it does to you. So, if I say “banana” but you think “tropical fruit,” there’s nothing wrong with that. If I say “leather” and you think “tea,” we’re in the same ballpark. In other words, don’t worry if somebody in the group uses a descriptive term that doesn’t match what you perceive.

For a lot of people who are just beginning to taste wine, developing a vocabulary to describe what is in the glass can be a very daunting task. Indeed, many of the students I have taught say they cannot smell anything in the glass. But with time, when working in a group, most students can eventually detect and describe the aromas and flavors of wine. The box about Tasting Terms should help provide you with words to express what you experience.

A common question raised by my students is whether something made from grapes can really give off other smells, such as cherry or leather. The consensus is yes! What it suggests is that the aromas and flavors in grapes or in wine are similar in molecular structure to other smells and flavors, or that the smells and flavors of particular wines simply remind us of other fruits, vegetables, or plants.

Keep an open mind, let the wine’s aromas envelop you, and, most of all, enjoy!




Wine is the result of allowing the natural sugars in grape juice to be converted into alcohol by yeast. That process is called fermentation. The combination of grape flavor characteristics, plus variations in methods used in the fermentation process, allow the wine maker to produce wines of many different types. The myriad types of wine are described in greater detail in Wine Styles. However, since grapes are the starting point for any wine maker, it helps to know something about them first.


Grapes are either greenish-yellow in color (these are called “white” grapes) or a deep reddish-purple (called “red” grapes). The juice of white and red grapes is usually the same clear color. To make white wine, the wine maker can use white or red grapes since white wine is made using only the juice of the grapes.

To make red wine, red grapes have to be used, because the color of the wine comes from the skin of the grapes.

All grapes provide juice. The juice contains the sugars, as well as many of the flavoring elements that make one wine taste different from another. The skin of red grapes provides some flavor, but it also provides the color pigments and a substance called tannin, that makes some red wines feel rough and harsh in the mouth when the wine has just been made and is still young. Tannin is the same substance that makes strong tea or eggplant skin taste bitter. It also causes the mouth to dry out, leaving an astringent, or puckery, sensation.

Full-flavored red wines with high levels of tannin, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, are usually meant to be aged. As they get older, the tannins drop out of the wine as sediment, making the wine seem much smoother and mellower with age.

All grapes also contain acids in their juice, and these acids end up in the wine. The level of acidity in the finished wine will have an effect on the taste of the wine and will also leave the drinker with an impression of the wine’s texture. Wines with high acidity are described as “crisp” or “clean.” Wines with lower acidity are said to be “smooth” or “round.”

Wine Styles

From the different steps involved in the fermentation process, and from the various characteristics of different grapes, wine makers can make several types of wine. Any of the types identified here could be made from one single grape type, or they could be made by blending together wines made from two or more different grape types. A blended wine is not necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, blending is one of the standard techniques a wine maker uses to produce the best wine he or she can every time. Even if a wine is labeled as containing one single grape variety, it is likely that the wine maker used grapes from different locations, made the wines separately, and then blended them to achieve the desired result. It is also probable that some of the wines—especially in the case of Chardonnay, for example—were aged in wooden barrels and others were not, and that the wood-aged wines were then blended with the non-wood wines. Most producers of high-quality sparkling wines make individual lots of wine from different grape types and then blend the wines together. The same is true of a number of red and white wines from different places around the world.


When a wine maker uses the clear juice pressed from white or red grapes, and allows all of the grape sugars to turn to alcohol, the wine will be “dry,” i.e., not sweet. Dry white wines include Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, which have alcohol levels of around 13 to 14 percent.

Chardonnay has long been a popular dry white wine.


If the wine maker stops the fermentation process before all of the sugars have been converted to alcohol, the wine will retain a small amount of sugar, making it taste slightly sweet, or “off-dry.” Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines are often made semi-sweet or off-dry, with alcohol levels of around 11 percent or 12 percent.


A wine can be made pink in one of two ways. One way is to use red grapes and allow their clear juice to sit in contact with the skins overnight, giving the juice a pink color. The pink juice can then be separated from the skins and made into wine. This is usually how the famous White Zinfandel is made. Or the wine maker can blend some red wine with white wine. Wines with brand names such as “St. Nick’s Rosé,” or “Poolside Blush” are usually made this way.

White Zinfandel continues to be a favorite pink or rosé wine.


Here, the wine maker uses the juice and skins of red grapes and turns all of the grape sugar into alcohol. Familiar dry red wines include Merlot and Syrah.


In addition to producing, the fermentation process forms carbon dioxide gas. If the wine maker can trap the gas in the wine, it will be released as bubbles in the wine after the bottle has been opened and poured into a glass. Sparkling wines can be white, pink, or red. They can also be dry or sweet. The most well-known sparkling wine is Champagne, which comes from the Champagne region in France. There are also many other sparkling wines from California and all around the world.


A sweet wine is one that contains very high levels of sugar. Such wines are also called dessert wines. The high sugar levels are achieved by leaving the grapes on the vine for a longer period of time than normal. During the extra ripening time, sugars continue to build up in the grape, and many of the grapes will begin to dehydrate and become raisins. Some grapes are also attacked by a mold called botrytis. This mold causes the grapes to dehydrate, concentrating the sugars in a smaller quantity of juice. With such high sugar levels in the grapes, there is still plenty of sugar left in the wine even when the fermentation stops. Sweet dessert wines are often labeled “Late Harvest,” or “Botrytis.” The wine called Sauternes from Bordeaux in France is a famous example of a botrytis-affected dessert wine.

Wines labeled as Botrytis will have a distinctly sweet, dessert profile.

In recent years, Icewine has become very popular, mostly because some high-quality versions from Canada have been introduced at reasonable prices. For Icewine, grapes remain on the vine until the temperature gets so cold that the water content of the grapes freezes. The frozen grapes are picked by hand and pressed. Very small quantities of unfrozen fruit sugar solution are collected to make into Icewine, while the frozen water content is left behind. Austria and Germany are also high-quality producers of Eiswein, made in the same way.

However sweet wines are made, they are usually more expensive than their drier counterparts because the dehydrated or frozen grapes yield much less juice.

Most sweet wines are white, but there are a few very sweet red wines, including a wine from northern Italy called Recioto della Valpolicella.


In some parts of the world there is a tradition of adding extra alcohol to a wine during or after the original fermentation. If the extra alcohol is added during the fermentation, the high level of alcohol stops the fermentation, resulting in a sweet fortified wine such as Port from Portugal.

Fortified Port wines are a product of northern Portugal.

If the alcohol is added after fermentation, the wine is usually dry, like the Fino Sherry of southern Spain. The final alcohol level of these wines ranges from 17 to 21 percent. Like sparkling wine, fortified wine is made in many countries around the world.


As a restaurant customer, you will receive better service and are likely to find that your wine enhances whatever you are eating, if you have a working knowledge of tasting terms and know how to describe the kind of wine you are looking for.

If you are a waiter, you will find that talking about wine with your customers becomes ten times easier if you first taste the wines on your restaurant’s wine list. If you are of legal drinking age, ask your manager for permission to taste the wines on the list and volunteer to be a member of the tasting team that considers new wines for addition to the list.

There are five main considerations in tasting. They are not complicated or ritualistic, and you do not need any particular skills in order to undertake them. You could probably apply the same ideas to a glass of orange juice or a bowl of chili. You are simply assessing what it is that makes you like or dislike what you are tasting.

These five questions could be asked about any food or beverage, but we apply them here to wine:

1. What does the wine look like?

2. What does the wine smell like?

3. What tastes, flavors, and textures are noticeable in the mouth?

4. Do you like it?

5. What can you store in your memory bank?

As a consumer, the beginning steps are to figure out what it is that you like in wine so that you can communicate that to the waiter. Do you like dry wines? Do you prefer wines with a fully ripe flavor that reminds you of juicy fruit like peaches or mangoes, or is a higher level of acidity what you are looking for, similar to biting into a Granny Smith apple or drinking unsweetened lemonade?

As a waiter, when you taste wine you should be concentrating on information that you can use to help your customer make informed decisions. From that point of view, you do not need to know how the vines grew or how the wine was made. You simply need three snapshots—from looking, smelling, and tasting—that will give you three or four key terms to describe the wine.

If you are just beginning to taste wine, it is usually best to start with at least two wines, but no more than four. This allows you to compare the characteristics of one wine to another without becoming overwhelmed. Taste white wines in one sitting and reds on another occasion; it’s best not to mix and match until you become more accomplished. Finally, don’t prejudge. Let your eyes, nose, and mouth tell you what the wine is like.

What Does the Wine Look Like?

With two or three glasses in front of you, pour a small tasting portion (1.5 ounces) of each wine. A good comparison to start with would be three whites: a Washington State Riesling, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and a California Chardonnay. Try to pour the same quantity of each wine, since this makes comparison easier.

Look at the glasses in front of you and try to determine which wine appears darker in color. With white wines, this will mean that the wine seems golden yellow rather than pale. With the sample wines above, the Riesling will seem pale, even greenish-yellow, whereas the Chardonnay will be more golden.


The following short list of terms will be useful in developing a beginning vocabulary and in understanding what other people mean when they speak about wine. I have grouped the vocabulary words into categories and have suggested terms that are descriptive of one extreme or the other. An explanation of what these words mean and how they are used to describe wine is in the section that follows.

Typical Words for Aromas/Flavors

Assertive - Subdued; Ripe - Green; Full - Light; Fruity - Vegetable; Mineral - Woody

Typical Words for Body/Weight

Full, Big, or Robust - Light or Delicate

Typical Words for Tastes

Dry (not sweet), Sweet, Bitter, Acidic or Tart

Typical Words for Textures

Smooth, Buttery, Oily, Round - Crisp, Sharp

What does this tell you? It suggests that the Riesling will be a light, simple wine, whereas the Chardonnay will be stronger and more complex in flavor. The same can be true when comparing the color of red wines. A Pinot Noir will usually be more transparent and have a bright cherry-red color, whereas a Cabernet Sauvignon is more likely to be deep purple, even blue-black, and opaque. This tells us the Cabernet Sauvignon will be a bigger, more powerful wine. The next two steps should help you to confirm this.

What Does the Wine Smell Like?

I like to think of the smells of wine as falling into three basic groups: fruity, vegetable, and mineral. Fruity aromas are often all that are evident, but sometimes there are nuances of vegetable or mineral in addition to fruity. In the fruity range, it is a useful step to simply be able to identify the aroma as fruity. Having done that, you might then go on to determine if the fruit smell reminds you of green fruit (limes, Granny Smith apples), yellow or orange fruit (apricots, peaches, mangoes), red fruit (red apples, red plums, tomatoes, strawberries, cherries), or black fruit (dark plums, blackcurrants, black figs). In “Wines by Grape Type”, I have listed the usual fruit associations for each of the major grape types.

In the vegetable range of smells, there are the same kinds of possibilities. You may be able to identify a sort of green vegetable smell (asparagus, green beans, grass), or red vegetables (beets), or an earthy aroma (such as parsnips or mushrooms). In general, as you move from green fruit smells to dark fruit smells, and from green vegetable aromas to earthy vegetable aromas, the flavors of the wine will be correspondingly fuller and more aggressive.

The mineral range of smells are often the most difficult to identify, but they have to do with earth and rock. Some wines remind us of a good handful of rich potting soil, while others have what might be described as a hard edge, something like the smell of clean pebbles pulled out of a stream. It is often speculated that there may be a relationship between these smells in the wine and the kind of soil that the vines were grown in. However, the subject of soil and its influence on wine is extremely complex and better left to other texts. For most beginners, it is not worth worrying about. I will simply say this: Vines grown in mineral rich soils (especially limestone, gravel, and slate) seem to have an increased level of acidity when the wine is tasted and a clean rock aspect to their aroma.

Take each glass in turn and gently sniff the wine. Don’t swirl the wine in the glass at this stage: Just lift up the glass, smell, and think. Keep your thoughts simple and consider the following:

Is there a strong, obvious aroma, or is it light and delicate? The strength or intensity of the aroma is usually related to the intensity of flavor.

Is the smell fruity? Or mineral? Or a combination of the two? If it is fruity, the flavor of the wine will probably be straightforwardly fruity as well. Any rock or earthy smells suggest a more complex wine, with mineral aromas and flavors.

If it is fruity, does the fruit seem very ripe (peaches, mangoes, pineapple)? Or green (like lemon or lime)? Full ripeness usually indicates a fuller-flavored wine, whereas green notes suggest a light to medium intensity of flavor.

Is there any wood smell, indicating that the wine was aged in wooden barrels, usually oak? Wood smells in wine sometimes smell just like sawdust; other times they seem to have a sweet aroma like butterscotch. And, because barrels are usually charred on the inside, many wines aged in wood display a smoky aroma, just like bourbon whiskey or hickory barbecue sauce. Whatever you detect, wood smells tell you the wine is more complex and has layers of flavor.

In the suggested lineup of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, the intensity of aroma will probably increase as you go from the Riesling to the Sauvignon Blanc to the Chardonnay. The Riesling should be delicately fruity; the Sauvignon Blanc more insistent but still a bit green; and the Chardonnay should seem like very ripe fruit. You may find something of the wet rock aroma in the Sauvignon Blanc, and you will almost certainly find wood smells in the Chardonnay, since most Chardonnays are aged in wooden barrels.

If you find that smells are difficult to detect in any wine, then you should try swirling the glass. This pushes air into the wine, which encourages the release of aromas. In this way, you may even find that the wine has secondary aromas in addition to the primary ones you initially discovered.

What Are the Wine’s Tastes, Flavors, and Textures?

Although experienced tasters use the terms “taste” and “flavor” interchangeably (as you will), it is worth considering for a brief moment that there is a difference between them. I believe that this will help you to set out down the tasting path. In standard western thought, there are generally four tastes identified: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. We never want to find a salty taste in wine, but the other three are all possible, individually or in combination. There are, for example, plenty of wines with both a sweet taste (from sugar left in the wine from fermentation) and a sour one (from high levels of acidity). These tastes are primarily identified by groups of taste buds on the tongue.

By contrast, there are thousands of flavors (such as banana, apple, butterscotch) that have much more to do with aroma than taste. In tasting wine, it is useful to concentrate initially on identifying the tastes of the wine. Once you have done that, you might then think about identifiable flavors.

A word of caution: I have found from working with thousands of students of all ages that there is a tendency to confuse sour (acidic) and bitter. Both “sour” and “bitter” have negative connotations when used in ordinary speech, and most people avoid extremes of sour and bitter in their standard diet. But many wines have small traces of bitterness, and lots of wines have elevated levels of acidity that create a sour taste. It is important to distinguish between the two.

Bitterness is sensed at the very back of the tongue and is often accompanied by a drying sensation. Eating some red lettuce radicchio is a good way to find out what bitterness is like.

Sourness is identified by a tingling sensation on the sides of the tongue and by the release of saliva from the glands at the top of the cheeks. In this regard, “sour” wines can have a positive side: They are literally “mouth-watering.” They cleanse the palate and refresh. There is often a relationship between acidity levels and the perceived texture of the wine. Wines with high acidity feel crisp in the mouth; you may even hear them described as angular or steely. To fully comprehend this, consider the opposite: Less acidic wines seem smooth in texture. There is a roundness and softness to these wines, and the lower levels of acidity are usually accompanied by full, ripe flavor.

Now for the process. Take a small amount of the wine in your mouth and immediately start to consider these aspects of the wine:

Does the flavor intensity seem light and delicate or full and strong?

Does the wine feel heavy (like cream), medium (like whole milk), or light (like skim milk) in the mouth? This is what people mean when they say a wine is full-bodied, medium-bodied, or light-bodied.

Is there a bitter taste (like tonic water, or the sensation from chewing an aspirin)?

Does the wine taste sweet or sour (acidic)?

What is the texture of the wine? Does it feel smooth, as though it has soft edges like whole milk, or is it crisp, like unsweetened lemonade?

Do you like the flavors?

Do positive or negative flavors or textures linger in the mouth?


On Sale
Jun 1, 2008
Page Count
208 pages

Brian H. Smith

About the Author

Born in London, Brian H. Smith was educated and worked in the wine trade in England before moving to the United States. He has taught and lectured extensively here and abroad, and for the past fifteen years has been one of the leading wine educators at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. He is the co-author of Exploring Wine: The Culinary Institute of America’s Complete Guide to Wines of the World (2001). He lives in Kingston, New York.

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