MOORHEAD, Minn. - I love wine. And by wine, I mean a certain uber-sweet, flavored apple drink produced in California that many will remember as their first sip of alcohol.
It's cheap - like under $4 per bottle at the local liquor store. Because of its sweet, almost pop-like flavor, a bottle can be swilled down in minutes, making it a tempting choice for a broke recent college graduate like myself.
However, now that I'm "too old" to chug bottles of Boone's Farm before graduation and family events, I figured it was about time to move on to something a little more sophisticated.
Enter Justin Blanford, store manager of 99 Bottles in Moorhead and a certified sommelier, to help expand my tastes beyond flavored apple wine.
Having passed the sommelier test earlier this year, Blanford knows a lot about wine, including the climates in which grapes are grown, as well as being able to define the exact type of wine he's drinking while practically blindfolded. In fact, part of the test to become a certified sommelier is just that: blind taste-testing.
The three-part test is then followed by a 45-question, timed theory portion, where questions are taken from a pool of tens of thousands, ranging from soil composition and weather to growing regions and climate. After that, candidates advance to a practical service examination where they demonstrate their knowledge while serving tables, just like in a real restaurant.
Once the test is completed and passed, candidates receive a pin and the right to call themselves certified sommeliers
"It's a frustrating thing to study," Blanford says. "You realize how much bigger the subject is than you gave it credit for as you dive into it."
It's not easy, either, and many applicants don't pass the examination. Blanford says the idea is to show how sommeliers handle situations with humility.
"It's important to understand that there's a lot you don't know still," he said. "That's part of why I find the subject so interesting. You can spend an entire lifetime studying wine and know one percent of what there is to know. I am actually very comfortable saying I know less than one percent of what there is to know about wine, and I know a lot about wine."
Choosing a wine
There isn't a secret to choosing the "perfect" bottle of wine, according to Blanford. Instead, he says it's all about posing the right questions to a sommelier or yourself.
"Usually, I am trying to gauge what the people are after," Blanford says. "I would ask a few questions - white or red, sweet or dry, things like that - then help make the best product decision possible for the best price."
Finding an enjoyable bottle of wine also doesn't have to break the budget.
"People think to get a bottle of 'good' wine, you need to spend enormous amounts of money," Blanford says. "I am never about selling the most expensive thing I can. It's always about selling the best fit for what the person wants."
Many liquor stores carry wines for under $10 that can "knock your socks off," he says.
When choosing wine to go with a meal, the food menu may be the most important consideration. Generally, he suggests pairing the color of the protein to the wine, like fish and chicken with a white wine or steak and ribs with a red. For foods from certain countries - Spanish dishes, for example - pairing with a Spanish wine would be the best bet.
"There was a saying that 'what grows together goes together,'" Blanford says. "It's a better pairing, because often the wine has been geared to go with the local cuisine."
When at a restaurant, choosing wine can be trickier. Higher prices on the wine list can terrify some, and pretending to know more about wine than you really do can lead to embarrassment or a bad pick.
In an article for BBC Good Food, author Victoria Moore says there are a few steps to successfully pick wine while dining out. Always picking a style of wine that you and your company enjoy drinking, and picking it quickly, can avoid awkward and long looks through the wine list only to find out your choice was not the right one, she says.
Starting with the "New World," or Western Hemisphere, section of the wine list can dramatically reduce the number of wines to look through, as well as the cost. Similarly, looking through the newcomers to the wine list can pinpoint wines that are affordable, and they're on the list because someone fell in love with it.
If all else fails, ask the sommelier for advice.
And Blanford says to keep in mind wine isn't supposed to be a cause of stress. It's meant to be sipped and enjoyed, so if you happen to like that $4 uber-sweet bottle, drink it. No one has to know.