Whether it's your goal to become a certified oenologist or to simply know your way around a restaurant wine list, you'll want to check out these tips the famed British wine critic Jancis Robinson shared with us about how to handle sommeliers and always choose a great bottle. If you want to go deeper, check out Robinson's new book, Wine Grapes, the result of four years of research into over 1,000 vine varieties. Robinson has also co-authored The World Atlas of Wine and edited the Oxford Companion to Wine.
DETAILS: How do you make the jump from wine novice to wine expert?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Through a lot of hard work! I'm sitting here in Châteauneuf du Pape answering your questions at 10:15 pm having got up at 5:30 am, driven the length of the Rhône Valley tasting the latest vintage at five important addresses that I thought my readers would be interested in. I was also crazy enough to be the first person outside the wine trade to take—and pass—the Master of Wine exams back in 1984. I'd recommend the courses that lead up to the Master of Wine certification, run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust throughout the United States.
DETAILS: When eating out, what kind of questions should you ask a sommelier if you aren't sure what kind of wine you want?
JANCIS ROBINSON: It's really such a good idea to ask the sommelier—that's what they're there for. Tell them roughly how much you want to spend, what food you've ordered (which they should know, really), and one or two wines you've enjoyed in the past.
DETAILS: What's the most important thing to remember when picking a bottle of wine, whether in a wine shop or at a restaurant?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Even though I've been earning my living writing about wine, I always say the best way to learn about it is not to read but to establish a personal relationship with a local wine retailer. Tell them which wines you've liked so far; it's in their interest to steer you towards something that's better, more interesting, or a better value. If you don't like what they recommend move on to someone else. There are many parallels between wine and book stores; it's all about personal recommendations.
DETAILS: How is reading a book on 1,368 types of wine grapes going to help the average person pick a bottle of wine?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Unlike previous generations who had to know wine geography to make sense of wine, we live in an era when most wines are labeled with the name of the principal grape variety they're made from, so once you find one you like, it's pretty easy to find another.
DETAILS: Any tips on trying to retain all of that information?
JANCIS ROBINSON: Even I can't remember everything in the book's 1,240 pages. Just latch onto a variety or two that you know you like and remember those names.
—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.