Wine for Newbies

wall of wine bottles at a wiine shop

Learning about wine can be quite intimidating. If you’re new to wine, you might be unsure of what to ask for when you enter a wine shop or tasting room. You may have an idea of what you like, but you’re not sure how to navigate trying or buying wine on your own. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with two industry pros—Jennifer Toth, owner of Summerlin Wine & Spirits in Wappingers Falls, NY; and Tristan Migliore, manager at the family-owned Whitecliff Vineyard in Gardiner, NY—about how to ease a customer who has very little knowledge about wine but wants to learn more.

HVWM: How do you approach a first-time customer that may like a certain wine, or type of wine, but are unsure of what it is?
Jennifer: People will often come in saying they tried a particular wine but didn’t like it. Or they will express that they really liked a certain wine but have no idea what it’s called. Thankfully, in doing this for so long I’ve learned to pick up on hints like bottle shape, color, or pictures on the bottle itself when people are explaining something they have tried!
Tristan: We try to be unpretentious about wine with everyone regardless of their knowledge base. When pouring for someone who has zero wine experience, I’ve trained the staff to ask what they usually drink—beer, cocktails, etc.,—and match that as closely as possible with the wines we have.

view of tasting room interior at Whitecliff Vineyard
Tasting room at Whitecliff Vineyard in Gardiner. Photo: John Kidd

HVWM: How do you work with a customer who is unsure of their taste in wine?
Jennifer: Well, typically if someone is brand new to drinking wine I don’t start them off with a red. Red wines can be a bit intimidating for a newbie. I will start them off with something like a White Zinfandel or [Vinho] Verde which I like to call the gateway drug to testing the water with sweetness levels. I try to listen for key words; people get curious about what’s popular at the time, like right now it’s “rosé all day”. Sometimes this is appealing to people who are new to wine.
Tristan: I usually give newbies a basic tutorial on smelling and tasting wine, and explain where on the palate they are getting the taste from to determine what they like and don’t like.

red wine pouring into glass with Whitecliff logo
Photo: John Kidd

HVWM: What if someone wants to venture into red wine?
Jennifer: Well, most times when someone is interested in trying a red they will ask for a sweeter red and that can get tricky because if you’re reading the wine notes some may say there is a sweetness to them, but it doesn’t mean the wine is particularly sweet. And someone who is a novice may say “this does not taste sweet at all!” A wine like Apothic Red [California red blend] is a fruit-driven, heavily extracted red that is dominated by Zinfandel. Due to the heavy extraction the flavor is quite jammy with a touch of sweetness. So I tell my customers this style is a good transition to reds.
Tristan: I usually suggest they start with something fruity and not too heavy. Our Red Trail works well for people who don’t usually drink reds as it’s light and fruity without being sweet. It’s a table red that is a sturdier blend with a bit of DeChaunac, Frontenac, and Noiret. We call this our gateway red because it’s pretty approachable with a very nice soft-fruit tannin. It’s definitely an agreeable wine for most everybody and it’s great with any type of Italian food. It’s popular year round.

HVWM: What trends are you seeing in the Hudson Valley right now?
Jennifer: I am seeing that there is a push for more locally-produced wines. With tourism, there are more and more wineries and distilleries popping up and there is more of a push for local. The most recognizable local wines we have are from Millbook and Brotherhood Winery.
Tristan: Hudson Valley wines, in general, cover a very broad variety of styles. We really believe there’s no wrong answer when it comes to trends and winemaking, and our neighbors tend to agree. Also, what’s popular really depends on where in the world you’re from. We try to solve that by having a LOT of different wines. Right now that’s 33 different wines. 

row of wine bottles on glass shelf supported by two wine barrles with woman standing behind
Yancey Stanforth-Migliore, owner and manager at Whitecliff Vineyard, with an impressive array of their wines. Photo: John Kidd

HVWM: What do you tell novices about the best way to store and serve wine?
Jennifer: You want to keep your wine at a level temperature. You don’t want to keep it in an area that is exposed to tons of sunlight. Most of the wines people are buying are meant to be consumed in the next few years—or next week (no judgment!). You don’t want to blast chill a wine necessarily but its okay to refrigerate it. The best way to serve a white is a little above the refrigerated temperature; when wine is too cold it tends to lock up the flavor. When you open a bottle it’s usually going to last only a few days, but there are different contraptions on the market to pull the air out of the bottle to help make it last a little longer.
Tristan: Wine should always be stored out of the sun, on its side, and between 50-70º Fahrenheit, ideally close to 55º. Serving depends on taste, but white is traditionally served around 40º, and reds at room or cellar temp (again, 50-70º). This all comes down to taste, however we wouldn’t ever recommend adding ice as that dilutes the wine.

HVWM: Last question, what are you personally drinking at the moment? What would you suggest a novice try?
Jennifer: In the wine world it’s so hard to narrow it down! I get very excited about rosé because it’s so food friendly and great year round. There are rosés that are really light and those that are full bodied. I also suggest anything with bubbles, like Prosecco. It’s a big seller because its not yeasty and dry. Prosecco has some fruitiness to it without being sweet, and it has great bubbles without being bready. It truly is a great everyday wine that is delicious in taste and perfect for celebrations.
Tristan: We are always most excited about our estate wines—we make many of them. My personal favorite is the Reserve Gamay Noir; for my mom [Yancey Stanforth-Migliore], it’s the Natural Riesling (which is wholesale only); and the Cabernet Franc for my dad [owner and winemaker Michael Migliore]. All of which are estate wines.

Stop in and see Jennifer at Summerlin Wine & Spirits at 235 Myers Corners Road, Wappingers Falls, NY.
Visit Whitecliff Vineyard’s tasting room at 331 McKinstry Road, Gardiner, NY.


Venturing into red wine for the first time? Here are a few more local reds to try:
Benmarl Winery Slate Hill Red
Clearview Vineyard Monet
Glorie Farm Winery Red Quartet
Robibero Winery Rabbit’s Foot Red

Top photo: Summerlin Wine & Spirits, Vanessa Randazzo.

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