Introducing The Reluctant Sommelier


This month, we’re introducing a new columnist, The Reluctant Sommelier. Nina, a professional wine educator, has offered to share some of her thoughts about, and experiences in, the world of wine. We’re thrilled to see her here. -Ed.

By Nina Sventitsky

In this, my first wine column for Part-Time Audiophile, I’d like to get something straight from the start.

I have the title of Silver-Pin Sommelier, but I will not be reminiscing about the fantastic Chateau Laf—- or Domaine La——- that I had back in ’97 … we’ll have none of that here, ever. It’s boring and you can do that on with all of those other guys who refute your love of Cabernet Sauvignon because no one has proven scientifically that your $46 bottle is better than their $6 plonk. Which they made, in their basement, using Welch’s, tartaric acid and some old 2 x 4’s.

Taking the somm course(s), passing the exam, and hanging the certificate (I have one, and a cute little silver tastevin pin for my lapel) makes me expert at nothing. It just says I’m curious, and it’s just one of the milestones I’ve taken in my journey with wine. There is always so much to learn and there is always someone who knows more than me, at any given time and place.

I will add that I am not a wine fanatic. I am known to be exuberant and enthusiastic in general, and maybe a little frenetic in personality. I simply don’t go bonkers over that last wine I had; maybe I am not a big believer in the ultimate anything. Expect down to earth advice here, fun facts, and some cool ideas to train your appreciation of wine, and help you buy/order it better.

Gold Standard resizeBut first, the RULES.

1. Don’t ask me what my favorite wine is. Who cares what my favorite wine is, it surely won’t be yours. I don’t have A Favorite Wine; I have wine style preferences that line up with what I’m doing/eating/in the mood for.

2. Let’s use terminology that actually means something. It’s fine to be colloquial, but not lazy. The word ‘sweet’ should only be used to refer to wines with residual sugar in them. Moscato d’Asti, dessert wine, Porto, etc. If you refer to a fruity wine as sweet, I’m gonna bonk you over the head. Do you mean “fruity and smooth”? Then say that. Do you like “powerful, full-bodied tannic reds”? Say that, instead of “I only drink Cabs.”

3. Please don’t say “I only drink Cabs”. Be open to the world of other red varieties. More on that later.

3. Please don’t say you don’t like white wine. Pity, as whites generally have great aromas — it’s easier to get the floral and exotic aromas of white wine than reds. Spices, “ethereal” scents like beeswax, florals like acacia and orange blossom, that’s what’s to like with whites. 90% of what we TASTE in wine is actually olfactory, but you knew that already. If you are a provenance snob, some of the world’s best wines are whites. Chateau d’Yquem or Meursault anyone?

4. Use ratings and reviews as guidelines, not gospel. Some of this stuff is driven by advertising and the economic model to be sure — but then again, you’re getting free advice so take it and use your judgement.

5. Price is NOT indicative of quality, but it is a reality. I will not entertain arguments or comments about the criminality of high-priced Napa cult wines. Go make the wine yourself, take $10M and turn it into negative $500,000 and then you can complain about what’s shiite and what’s not for $100. It’s a ridiculous train that I’m sending to another depot. No defense, no apologies.

6. No such grapes as Barolo, Brunello, Chianti Classico, Rioja, Burgundy. Those grapes would actually be (take this down, you’re gonna need it if you don’t want to sound like a fool): Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Sangiovese (mainly, with a few others), Tempranillo (again, mainly T, with sometimes a few other varieties) and Pinot Noir.

7. Use “variety” to name a grape, and “varietal” as an adverb or adjective. “The varieties in Bordeaux include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc …”. “This Pinot Noir is varietally correct — it tastes of mushrooms, fresh berries and dirt.” Okay to exchange conversationally, but train yourself now, I had to change an entire course book last year for this.

So, with a modicum of humility, a maximum of curiosity, and the patience of a five year-old — let’s get to it with the subject of my next column, answers to Ask the Sommelier. I’ve got resources, a bunch of somms and wine educator friends from many different regions, and my own common sense. Silly and dumb questions welcomed, and this time snark will be at a minimum. Wine can be confusing, let’s clear it all up!

Leave your comments and questions below, thanks!

-The Reluctant Sommelier

About the Author

NinaSunsetGlassNina Sventitsky has been “into wine” for the last 20 years. She serves as the Secretary General of the North American Sommelier Association (NASA) and is the brand ambassador for the wine region of Rioja, Spain. She is also a professional wine educator, focusing on US varieties. Her professional certifications include: WSA/NASA Silver Pin Certified Sommelier, NASA American Wine Specialist, NASA Italian Wine Specialist, WSET Advanced Certificate, and the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1.

She’s also a partner at WyWires.



  1. As a follow up to our discussion, I’ve recently tried a rather nice PG, Mezzacorona dolomiti ’13. It was very reasonably priced and had more than a passing resemblance to Santa Margharita.

    Anyhoo thanks for the advice.

  2. Hi Nina, thanks. I live in North Havana, AKA Key West. Many great restaurants with awesome wine lists, but for a town full of legitimate alcoholics the store wine selection is poor. Cavit is readily available and is about as reliable/predictable as it gets. It is a perpetually mild disappointment, but maybe I’m expecting to have my cake and eat it too. Thanks for your advice!

  3. WordPress thinks I duplicated a post. Anyhoo great column. Why is Santa Margarita so popular beyond my opinion that it’s an awesome PG? Successful Marketing? We burn through that stuff at my 7 member household quickly and at $25 a bottle I was looking for a recommendation of a more affordable magnum domestic PG that was similar in flavor profile. SM’s overriding descriptor for me is “balanced.” Like goldilocks’s porridge. Thanks!

  4. Cool idea to marry these stepchildren. My question: why is Santa Margarita so darn popular beyond the fact that I think it’s a freaky good Pinot Grigio? Successful marketing? If you were attempting to souse a regiment with PG, what magnum bottle domestic would you recommend for someone who leans towards SM? We burn through that stuff at my chaotic 7 member family home quickly, and at ~$25 per 750ml bottle, that gets painful. Thanks!

    • Matthew:
      Agree about Santa Margharita – the good news is that it got people drinking Italian white wine. the bad news is that there is expensive Pinot Grigio out there that deserves a $25 per bottle price – but it comes from the neighboring regions of Alto Adige and Friuli…that said, what you like about PG is that it has some nice aromatics, nice fruit, pleasant both to quaff and to pair with spicy ethnic food, right?

      Where do you live and buy your wine? Therein lies the solution to your question. Once I know where you buy your wine, I’ll be able to tell you what your alternative is.

  5. Two glasses of good wine are a very effective system tweak. It makes everything sound like analog and the fast forward button far less attractive.

  6. I would like to echo the first comment above and add a question. By the title of “Silver-Pin Sommelier” would that mean the title of “Chef Sommelier” by any chance?

  7. Wine enthusiasts and varietals of wine are very similar to audiophiles and their various choices of audio equipment. Tastes vary. There are no “absolute bests” only varying levels to which some can appreciate and others can’t. Our ability to hear music and be emotionally connected to it happens at every level and it’s only after being exposed to what’s possible as with wine can you then learn to appreciate what feels good to you. Not that you’ll “like” the flavor of an Opus One, but you will have the sense of what others find captivating at that level. Wine as in reproduced audio, is an acquired taste that requires time, effort, patience as well as money to explore. What you discover along the way is that only thru trial and error can you learn more about yourself and what the limits of your imagination, personal tastes and budget can realize!! Like most worthwhile ventures in life, its not the destination but the journey that brings the greatest joy….

  8. Looking forward to Nina’s posts. I probably can no longer afford a great audio system, but can still afford a great bottle of wine (I think).

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