It's time for those of us who love to talk about wine to own up to something: There's no such thing as a "comfort zone" when it comes to our favorite beverage. The best anyone can hope for is probably a no- or low-discomfort zone.
And that's just fine — and not terribly difficult to attain.
Sensible people who delve into wine, or even make it their life's work, come to realize that the more they learn, the more they realize how much they don't know. There simply are too many grapes, regions and brands. (Good thing it's so tasty and fun to drink.)
But here's the deal: Wine does not ask anything of us. It is here for our pleasure, not to intimidate us. The consternation and dismay we might feel are self-induced, something we can address. We don't berate ourselves because we don't know every fruit in the world (how many of us can explain the different characteristics of Kaffir and Key limes?) and we shouldn't do it over this form of fruit juice.
The world of wine is complex, but no more than you choose to make it. It is your call on how far to journey down this road, whether and when to take detours or to just say, "Hey, I'm content in this cul-de-sac." That means recognizing that it's all about the journey, not the destination.
There are ways, however, to make that excursion more enjoyable and comfortable. Among them:
Get social: Besides being a social lubricant, wine is a sociable beverage, meant to be shared, especially with a meal. It's great for celebrations, but also for the most casual of gatherings. And a truly swell way to learn more about wine is to get friends together for a themed gathering and rummage through a region or a grape; have everyone bring Rhône reds, or sauvignon blancs from different continents.
No right or wrong: To each his own, because our palates vary wildly. As Mark Twain noted, "There are no standards of taste in wine, cigars, poetry, prose, etc. Each man's own taste is standard, and a majority vote cannot decide for him or in any slightest degree affect the supremacy of his own standard." In this case, it really is "all about you." If people ever tell you that you're wrong about your wine perceptions, that's their problem, not yours.
Book 'em, vino: The best way to learn about wine is to pop corks, but the second-best is to read about it and/or take a class. From books by Karen MacNeil, Kevin Zraly and Jancis Robinson to magazines (I particularly like Wine & Spirits), from newspapers (even the New York Times has a consumer-friendly wine columnist in Eric Asimov) to blogs, there's an infinite font of incisive, insightful perusing. And get on the e-mail lists of local stores that offer classes, including Sunfish, Surdyk's, Total, Haskell's and Kowalski's.
Coming to terms: Forget about those testing notes with five aromas and five flavor components. Focus on nonfood, "real" words such as crisp, creamy, silky, hearty, soft, harsh, rich, thin, complex, spicy. When sniffing and sipping wine, look for such aspects as purity, ripeness, expressiveness, freshness (especially with whites), weight (light, medium or heavy) and texture (on the midpalate and finish). Harmony is paramount: Are the fruit, alcohol, tannins and acidity aligned?
Talking the talk: Hey, it's OK to stick with "yuck" or "yum" as your go-to terminology. But if you want to expand your horizons, using the types of terms and analysis mentioned above is crucial. Especially at wine stores or restaurants, because ordering or buying the wrong wine is an unnecessary, dispiriting detour on this odyssey. Nothing will help your explorations more than connecting with a good wine monger and conveying, in no uncertain terms, exactly what you like and what you don't. Basically, approaching and appreciating wine is a balance between having an open mind and trusting your palate.
More good news: The wine world is doing its part to make fermented grape juice less daunting. Wine now comes in cans and kegs and screw-top bottles. Boxed wines are better than ever, a godsend for those who want only one glass a day, and not every day. Really good pink and sparkling wines are more prevalent and wallet-friendly than ever before.
Now it's up to each of us to take it easy on ourselves throughout this jolly jaunt, and to make it a lifelong learning experience.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.