How to Develop a Palate for Wine

The “Wine For Lawyers” series is written by sommelier and criminal defense lawyer Brian Tannebaum.

There are few terms that annoy me more than anything that ends with “for lawyers.” So when Sam asked me if I would pen some thoughts on how to not embarrass yourself with a wine list for lawyers, I immediately said, “oh, absolutely.”

Instead of limiting this series to how a lawyer who knows little to nothing about wine can deal with a wine list, I have three areas of wine I’d like to discuss in three separate posts. First, expanding your wine world; second, purchasing wine for yourself or others; third, the “I like a red that’s smooth” wine list advice.

My Background

While I realize lawyers don’t really care about the backgrounds of those who sell them the secrets of marketing and practice development, I tend to care whether the person I’m listening to has any clue as to what they are saying.

I’m a full-time lawyer. In 2011, I was certified as a sommelier. There are three levels of sommeliers: certified, advanced, and master; I’m certified. It’s like having a bachelor’s degree. Recently there was an uproar over people like me obtaining certification as a sommelier because the traditional role of the “somm” is to serve wine at a restaurant. Other than having to serve wine, I took the same test. So we’ll leave it at I know something about wine. And I know, you know wine too, and I’m going to be “wrong” about this and that, but that’s the first lesson you will learn about wine: there is little agreement on anything.

I think Pinotage (a South African varietal) is the worst wine ever produced, and I enjoy Portuguese reds. I have only had a couple Bordeaux wines that I like, and I detest oaked Chardonnays (the ones you like because they are “buttery”). I know, you love Bordeaux (because you’re supposed to), and your girlfriend won’t order anything else but a “butter bomb Chardonnay.”

That’s OK, I do not care.

This article isn’t about telling you what to drink; it’s about giving you tips on how to expand your wine knowledge.

Developing Your Palate

A routine question I’m asked is, “I want to learn about wine, how do I do that?” Being a sommelier with a law degree, I always give this complicated answer: drink wine.

And I mean it. You learn about wine by drinking more wine. There are still types of wines I haven’t tasted, and I take every opportunity to taste something new. You are cheating yourself in the wine world — and many people do — by finding one wine you like and only drinking that wine. I see this behavior all the time. You find that $10 Cabernet (with the awesome label) and buy a truckload. I ask if you have ever had some other one that’s $2 more (and ten times better), and the answer is “no.”

Explore, spend more — or fewer — dollars and see what’s out there. I’ve recently been serving a $7 Grenache that I bet blows away some of the $15 wines you “swear by.”

Going to the wine shop and buying bottles on the advice of the owner or salesperson is a great way to spend money, but not a real economical way to know what you like. I suggest you find out which local wine shops have weekly or monthly tastings. Usually, they are free or next to nothing to attend — $10 or $20 — and you may even get a free glass or discounted wine purchased at the tasting. It makes for a nice evening with your date as well. This is where you can taste a bunch of wine, as well as talk to people in the industry.

If you like or don’t like something you try at a tasting, the person next to you, or serving you, can suggest another wine you may like. After a few of these tastings, you will realize you like Pinot but not Malbec, or that some of those cheap Spanish Tempranillos for $12 are something to buy by the case. You start to familiarize yourself with different wines, different regions that make the same wines, and that is the key to, as they say, “expanding your palate.”

The best way to find tastings in your community is by checking out the websites of or calling your local wine shops and getting on their mailing lists. There is also a website, The Juice, which has tastings and events all over the country. You can sign up to receive updates for any city. When you go to these tastings, get to know the regulars, and eventually you will find yourself invited to other events. Yes, lawyers, you can network and maybe develop a few good referral relationships; I wouldn’t want you to think there wasn’t a business angle.

One last piece of advice on attending tastings: buy a bottle. Those of you who pay the $10, ask for refills of everything, and buy nothing, everyone else notices you. Just don’t do it. Pony up.

How to Develop a Palate for Wine

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