One of the most universal experiences of the holiday season is a harrowing walk down the wine aisles of your supermarket or liquor store, steeped in the feeling of near-complete ignorance. “Red goes with meat, white goes with fish,” you think to yourself as you evaluate which pinot has the best combination of price point and impressive-looking label.
Even if you have graduated to the ranks of a wine expert, chances are you remember something like this in your youth. At its worst, wine can feel inaccessible.
But at its best, wine is distilled pleasure. While most of us have our favorite foods and flavors, we get to discover a new realm of taste as we explore what wines we enjoy drinking. I used to feel like this exploration was limited to people with the means to invest in bottle after bottle as they figured out what they liked through process of elimination.
Talking to Todd Getzelman, owner of Revel Wine Bar, showed me how low the barrier to entry actually is. The trick is to meet someone who knows what they’re talking about, and start a judgment-free conversation.
I am sharing our conversation with you, along with a map of places you can find professionals whose passion is to help match you with your ideal wine during — and beyond — the holiday season. All you have to do is tell them what you like.
At the start, though, even telling a sommelier what you like can be daunting. The vocabulary around wines can seem unfamiliar. How are you supposed to taste notes of wood or tobacco? What does it mean for a wine to be greedy?
"There are flavors, and then there are aromas. When you hear words like 'wood,' that's more about the aroma or scent," he said. "What I tell people is to tell me whatever you picture when you smell or drink the wine — like a kitten playing in the dirt on the side of a volcano — and together we can work to match those associations with what you're actually tasting."
Todd broke down the general strokes that categorize wine for me like this:
“There are five major components of flavor in wine: alcohol, sweetness, dryness, tannin, and acid. Any of these can be overpowering,” he said.
“When tannins are coming on the strongest, that’s when you might get that dry, cottony mouth feeling. When you feel that heat on your tongue or in your throat, that’s you tasting the alcohol. Acid in wine causes a mouthwatering sensation. It might taste a little like lemonade. And of course, you know when something is cloyingly sweet,” he said.
As you get a handle on what flavors you like best, you’ll start to recognize these traits yourself. In a well-balanced wine, each component can take its turn shining. “For instance, some acid makes a wine refreshing,” he said. “Some sugar will tone down the alcohol and make a wine drinkable.”
His job as a sommelier is to help you figure out what measure of these components you like best: whether that’s a mild, bubbly rose (“That’s my favorite wine to start with,” he said. “Even a big cigar smoker likes bubbles.”) or a full-bodied, commanding Cabernet that grabs you almost like a Scotch or whisky would.
“Sometimes, wines can hit this aromatic note that recalls a very specific memory,” he said. “A dresser at my grandparents’ house that had these unknown votives on it that we never identified. We never knew what that was, but we taste it here.”
Todd took me through the full spectrum of flavors, making stops midway at a Riesling that tasted more like lemonade than I thought possible for a grape-based drink, and at a sauvignon blanc with ambergris-like tones he affectionately referred to as "cat pee" ("Don't print that," he said right after). My favorite was a medium-bodied Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre (GSM) red blend, which was evenly balanced across each component part. “It’s a Goldilocks wine!” we said in conversation.
“One thing I tell everyone, though, is: Let us help you. We want you to have the best wine. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you come in with. There are no dumb questions,” he said.
He is happy to sample wines for guests as they figure out what they like the most. “It’s like an ice cream shop. We’ll let you sample anything, so please be courteous,” he said.
“But above all, whether you come here to Revel, or go over to Ariel, the wine buyer at Time Market; or Jenny at Rum Runner — we’re not pretentious. We’re all hoping and striving to improve and make wines more accessible to people,” he said. “Drinking wine is a pleasure that we want to share.”
If you’d like to learn more about wine tasting with the Revel team, be sure to check out their Sunday School classes. They post upcoming classes on their social media, and you can buy tickets, when available, here.
Below is a list of locally-owned stores with wine experts on hand to talk through your wine selection. If I missed one of your favorites, let me know! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM @elliceeats on Instagram.
Location: 3719 E. Speedway Blvd.
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Pro tip: While you might think of Feast as a restaurant foremost (I know I did), they are also an over-the-counter wine shop that will order you any wine or spirit available in Arizona. Talk to Kevin to get non-judgmental help making a choice, or owner Doug Levy when he's around.
Thanks to reader Gail for letting us know about Feast's wine shop!
Flora’s Market Run
Location: 2513 E. Sixth St.
Hours: Market is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. (Open 8 a.m. to noon on Thanksgiving Day.)
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a recommendation at the upscale grocery, ask for wine buyer Steven Cavecche.
GEORGE Wine Shop
Location: 5350 E. Broadway
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Closed on Thanksgiving Day.)
Plaza Liquors and Fine Wines
Location: 2642 N. Campbell Ave.
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. | Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. | Sunday-Monday, 12-6 p.m. (Closed on Thanksgiving Day.)
REVEL Wine Bar
Location: 416 E. Ninth St.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 4-9 p.m. | Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Location: 3131 E. First St.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. | Sunday, 12-6 p.m. (Closed on Thanksgiving Day.)
Location: 444 E. University Blvd.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. (Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.)
Pro tip: If you’re looking for a recommendation at the upscale grocery, ask for wine buyer Ariel. She’s usually on the floor and happy to help you navigate their selection!