Category Archives: Dining Out

Healthier Eating Out: The 15 Secrets!

Full course dinner

Image via Wikipedia

By Danielle Omar
from ‘Food Confidence: Eat Smart, Live Confidently‘ 

In this post  I’m tackling how to eat out successfully. This advice is for those of you who eat out regularly and need to adopt some strategies for healthier and lower-calorie eating.

How to order:

  1. Choose lean meats and fish that are baked, poached, broiled, or steamed
  2. Choose foods that do the portion-control for you (i.e., soup, small plates/tapas or appetizers)
  3. Avoid beverages other than water — no calories in your drinks!
  4. Avoid fried foods
  5. Sub-out high fat or large portion rice, pasta and other grains for double-veggies or a side salad
  6. Limit or avoid alcohol
  7. Order salad dressings on the side so you can control amount used; use dip and stab method
  8. Order burgers and sandwiches with sauces/dressings on the side, or not at all
  9. Skip cheese on sandwiches, burgers and salads
  10. Order salmon or grilled chicken entree salads as your meal

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Simple Strategies:
  1. Order first! Don’t let others influence your decision
  2. Check out the options online first, know what you’re going to order before you get there (don’t even open the menu!)
  3. Don’t come hungry; plan a snack 1-2 hours before the meal
  4. Eat your veggies/salad first — eat lowest calorie to highest calories
  5. Eat bread plain — don’t soak it in seasoned oil or butter — this alone can save you 100’s of calories!

Danielle Omar, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and consultant, wellness educator, nutrition blogger and busy mom. She founded ‘Danielle Omar Nutrition’ to help busy professionals and families navigate their hectic lives with the power of food confidence. She blogs at under the slogan “Mindful eating strategies and eat-smart tips from the food confidence expert.”


Share Your Passion for Healthy Dining

Zenergo  is the activities social network — Don’t talk about what you’re doing — get together with like-minded friends and do it!

Zenergo can help in several ways.

Join Zenergo (it’s free, and easy!) with your friends and share your dining-out calendar on Zenergo. Forget sending emails back and forth — a shared calendar dedicated to this activity is much cleaner. Discuss your culinary adventures — among yourselves, not with the whole world! Even post pictures, with full privacy.

Zenergo is perfect if you have a formal (or informal) dining group; you can maintain your email list easily, send messages, maintain that activities calendar, share pictures, store documents.

Don’t have a group? Find one in your area on Zenergo. Or just find someone nearby who shares your enjoyment of fine dining! Zenergo makes it easy to connect with like-minded people near you!

Try it right now — just go to and create an account (it’s short, and not very nosy – we just ask your age and zip code for best matching). Give it a try!


Like this post? Share with friends — repost — Sign up for email alerts about more interesting Zenergo activities!


WINE TUTORIAL 4: Order & Drink Wine in a Restaurant Like A Pro!

By Mac McCarthy, Zenergo

We’ll do this tutorial mostly in bullet-list format — You’re busy, we’re busy, right?

Wine is a complicated subject so it’s no wonder it’s baffling if you haven’t made a study of it. After all:

  • Wine is made from living fruit, so hard to predict exactly how it will taste.
  • It’s made from various grapes with different flavors.
  • It’s grown in a variety of soils, countries, climates, and weather conditions–and the weather changes from year to year.
  • Wine growers have choice of various methods of growing, tricky decisions about when to pick the grapes.
  • Winemaker has many choices as to exactly when and how to crush, how long to leave the skins in contact with the juice.
  • Many choices as to type of yeast, type of barrels, how long to ferment, how long to age, how much sugar vs alcohol to allow.
  • Blending different wines produces still more variety.

So no surprise when there are so many different wines, flavors, styles, so it seems you’ll never catch up.

You won’t ever catch up, but it sure can be fun trying!

And then there are the pompous twits, who try to intimidate you.

Don’t be intimidated! It’s a beverage!

Don’t know much about wine? Most people don’t!

The great thing is: Learn a little, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it. You will be surprised how many people know less than you’ve learned!

So just follow the THREE SACRED RULES OF WINE TASTING which I just made up:

Rule 1: Like What You Like

Don’t like wine? Alcohol, tannins the usual cause for young people. You still have taste buds! Don’t be embarrassed. Eventually your taste buds will die like everybody else’s, and you can tolerate that harshness.

Anyway, if you find something you like, drink it; if you find something you don’t like, don’t drink it. Don’t force yourself to drink more than you like of what you don’t like.

Rule 2: Learn More by Tasting, Tasting, Tasting! Try, try, try. You will never run out of new things to learn. (This is the most fun rule, isn’t it!)

Rule 3: Don’t become a Pompous Twit. Be nice! Remember when you were a wine novice!

Bonus Rule: Don’t be a wine bore, either; not everyone is as interested as you are.


When you get stuck ordering wine for the table, just keep it simple:

1. If you don’t know anything about wine, get someone else to choose.

“Hey, Bob over there knows everything about wine — Let him choose.” Bob can deny it but he’ll be stuck. Heh heh.

2. If you get stuck, ask what everyone else likes. Let them argue among themselves.

3. When in doubt, get a White. It has no tannins, often less alcohol, so it’s easier on everyone.

You can order Chardonnay, but try a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Gris/Grigio.

4. When in doubt, ask the waiter “what do people like?”

5. Don’t order White Zinfandel, so you don’t get laughed at. White Zin tastes fine, but it’s a cheaply made wine that more knowledgeable people disdain, so skip it. On the other hand, “Rose” is a newly hip wine now, so ordering one of the pinks can be a good outflanking move.

What’s a Rose? It’s a light-duty Red: The skins on red-skinned grapes give the juice its red color during the crush–the longer it soaks in the skins, the redder the wine. Just take the skins out sooner than usual, and you have a Rose. Less skin contact=less red color, less tannins, and uh less flavor but easier drinking. Most Roses are drier than White Zin is.

6. Rule: If you don’t know much about wines, don’t get experimental! Not in a business dinner, anyway; with your newbie wine friends, go ahead, though!

7. Rule: When in doubt, buy it BY THE GLASS. Reduces your losses if you don’t like it. (Sometimes the waiter will even replace the glass with something else if you don’t like that one. Don’t abuse this privilege.) Besides, bottles of wines are wildly overpriced in all restaurants.

8. Rule: If someone else pays, or you’re splitting the tab, don’t over-buy! Get something from the middle of the list.

9. Rule: At a restaurant or bar, don’t buy the most expensive wine. It’s stupidly overpriced and not worth it!


Don’t bother. They skip half the letters, and use this accent.


You can’t. Even though they pronounce all the letters, it turns out they’ve got letters you never heard of.

11. How to Ask for Wines in a Wine Store (or bar)

“Hello there, I want to buy a wine and I don’t know much about them, so I could use your guidance. Here’s what I like:

“I like reds.”/”I like whites.”

“I like heavy-bodied (big) wines.”/”I like light-bodied wines.”

“I don’t like it too alcoholic (“hot”).”

“I do/don’t like sweet wines/dry wines.”

“I don’t like too much tannin (‘pucker’).”

“I don’t like too much acid (‘tang’).” More acid is excellent for food wines, by the way, because it’s “palate-cleansing.”

A typical beginning wine taster would likely be happiest asking for this: “I’d like an inexpensive (‘$10,’ or ‘$10 to $20’) red/white wine that’s ‘approachable,’ (easy to drink for someone still learning about wines), not too heavy or tannic, please.”


Made to sound complicated, but it’s pretty straightforward.

Main rule is: Reds with red meat; whites with white meat/fish

Red meat is beef, steak, pork chops, any barbecued or heavily sauced meat.

White meat is chicken, fish, pork chops (swings both ways).

Reason: Tannins in red wine match tannins in red meat.

Delicate flavors of chicken, fish aren’t overwhelmed by white wines.

EVEN BETTER: Have European-style red wines with meals:

–Lighter red wines like Burgundy, Italian reds.


By contrast, American-style wines are COCKTAILS. Because we don’t drink wine with all our meals, we drink them at cocktail parties in place of mixed drinks….

So don’t try to hard to match American reds with foods. Remember my mantra: “What goes best with a Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel? Why, another bottle of Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel, of course!”

With Chinese food: Try German white wines: Rieslings are the classic. French Beaujolais work well too. Any wine that’s light and crispy.

Thanksgiving: No hope, too many tastes; bring what you like, pretend you know what you’re doing. Remember! Nobody else knows much about wine either!


Much rigmarole. Here’s what to do at a fancy or business dinner if you’re stuck being the one ordering the wine:

1. If you order by the glass, it will just be served to all of you.

2. If you order a bottle of wine, by the bottle, the waiter will first show you the bottle. Nod wisely, as if you know what that means.

He will then open the bottle. If he offers you the cork (very rare these days), wave it off.

He will then pour YOU a little. Give it a swirl, a sniff, a taste. Then nod approvingly. He will serve the rest.

OR, if you’re gutsy, just wave your hand and say, “It’s fine, serve everyone.” This makes it seem like you are so beyond all that.

THE REASON they offer it to you to taste before serving the rest of the table: a.) To ensure it’s what you ordered (but how would you know?) b.) To ensure it’s ok (but how would you know?) c.) To ensure it’s not “corked” – actually, you WILL know this! If it seems to smell odd (for a wine), frown – then ask the waiter “Would you check this please?” and hand him the glass. If it’s corked, the waiter will know and replace the bottle immediately. If not, he’ll say it seems fine. Say OK and let him pour.

3. When it’s time to drink:

a. Hold glass by stem so it doesn’t get warmed up.

b. Swirl to air it out. This releases some of the alcohol and some bad aromas. (That’s why you serve yourself less than half a glass.)

c. Sniff. You may learn to enjoy what you smell, over time. SOME wines smell WONDERFUL! Many don’t smell like anything. Oh well.

d. Sip. Just a bit. See if you like it.

e. If so, continue to sip. DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH. This is a SIN anytime, but especially at a business dinner.

f. If you don’t like it, just put down the glass and ignore it for the rest of the evening, or from time to time pick up the glass and take a tiny sip.



1. Lots of mumbo jumbo, mostly b.s.

2. But not completely: The bottom line: Thin-walled glasses make wine taste better than thick-walled, like beer glasses, jugs, or water glasses (also better than paper/plastic cups).

3. BUT! Wine in anything is better than no wine!

4. FOR YOURSELF, go to BevMo and buy wine glasses.

Riedel is most famous, also expensive — $10 a glass!

But there are competitors at much lower prices.

Don’t worry about special glasses for each wine type (Bordeaux, Pinot, Cabernet, Zinfandel, etc., etc . !!) — Note that the glasses aren’t MARKED so you won’t remember which glass goes with what.

BETTER IDEA! Go to IKEA to the section where they sell glasses

Get a DOZEN pretty decent glasses for $10-12!! Get two cases and you can throw a party!

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Guides for beginners, even how to pronounce French wine labels

Wine for Dummies:

Also Dummies books on French Wine, Red Wine, White Wine, Italian Wine, and Champagne. Author McCarthy (no relation) has also written other wine guidebooks.

SAVVYTASTE.COM – Slogan is “Find the Wines You Like!”

JOIN A  GROUP — See for example:

Us! ZENERGO.COM has  groups in your area, and people you can friend as wine-tasting buddies, also  events. And if you don’t see one near you — start one and invite people in your area to join!


SKIP NAPA, it’s so touristy that they are overwhelmed, overpriced, and don’t serve the good stuff (too many young tourists just trying to get drunk; it must be depressing).

TRY SONOMA, the next valley to the West — just as many wineries, just as tasty, less expensive, less crowded, and less rude. The old town of Sonoma is very pleasant too.

Cuda Ridge, Livermore

Cuda Ridge, Livermore

–EVEN BETTER: TRY LIVERMORE, about 45 minutes east of San Francisco, out 580 towards the Central Valley; has some of the oldest vineyards in California. More than 40 wineries, under-discovered, unbelievably tasty wines, not overpriced, and glad to see you.

EVEN *MORE* BETTER–TRY THE (San Francisco) EAST BAY URBAN WINE TRAIL! Believe it or not, there are a dozen “urban wineries” in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and San Leandro — in former warehouses and airplane hangers. The wines are wonderful, some you’ll never see anywhere else, prices are reasonable, and they love tourists! Check for winery locations and hours.

And the two dozen Santa Cruz Mountains Wineries (see for maps and details) produce some of the best wines in the country! Worth the drive, it’s about an hour south of San Francisco.

This hardly scratches the surface! California has famous wineries in Santa Barbara County (“Sideways” anybody?), down in San Diego County, and up in the Sierra Foothills. Just think: Every time you come to California, you can visit another wine-country area, with completely different wines and different vibes! That’s why your California friends are smiling all the time — it’s not the weather, it’s the wine!


That’s an order, not a headline!

There are commercial (=real) wineries in every state in the United States. Even Alaska.

Most are pretty doggone good. Some are, uh, not doggone good. But it’s fun to visit and try! Make your own list of good/not good! (And send it to us. We’ll post it. Or post it yourself, on your wine group that you create on Zenergo! Maybe we’ll put it on the Wine Page for everybody else to read too!

Just remember: Learning about wine will take you the rest of your life. That’s the good news! And your life will probably be longer because of it!

See the other three posts in this series:

For Beginners: What To Taste (and What Not To Taste!)

Wine Tutorial: Roses, Champagne, White Wine, and Dessert Wine

Wine Tutorial: Getting Started Tasting and Drinking Wine

Copyright Michael “Mac” McCarthy 2011, all rights reserved. The four posts in this Wine 101 series are now available combined as an Amazon Single for your Kindle. Click the link for more info.

WINE TUTORIAL 3: For Beginners–What To Drink (and What To Skip!)

By Mac McCarthy, Zenergo

Jean Edwards Cellarsm, Napa

When you first try various wines, you quickly find that some — well, many — are hard to take, especially for a beginner. Many wines are acquired tastes — you have to get used to them.

Especially for red wine, the tannin (a stinging, puckery sort of sensation on your tongue, similar to what you’d experience if you sucked on a teabag) is what makes it hard to take. Some red wines are very tannic, so they definitely take practice. And wines, especially red wines, can be acidic on top of that. And then there’s the alcohol, which is not very high for wines (10% to 16%) compared to liquors, but liquors are hard to take too, aren’t they? That’s why you mix them with soda and fruit juice!

Luckily, there are a lot of wine types that are “approachable,” which means easier for beginners to like right from their first taste — they are much less tannic, less acidic, and lower in alcohol. So start with these wines that are safe for a beginner like you. NOTE: I indicate where these particular grapes and wines originate, but most are made in many places — especially in the United States, which makes a version of almost every type of wine in the world.

[A good way to learn is to join with others to share and try wines. On, you can sign up for the Wine Tasting Activity, find others in your area with similar interests, join or start your own wine tasting Group, and find out about wine tasting events in your area. Give it a try.]

Safe Wines for Beginners


Louis Jadot Beajolais-Villages

Beaujolais (and Beaujolais Nouveau) is an area in France that makes a very light, fruity, mild red wine from the Gamay grape, very easy to enjoy. The “Nouveau” is sold around Thanksgiving time. In fact, it makes a good turkey-day wine. (It’s also supposed to be consumed before New Year’s Day, as it doesn’t age like the regular wines from Beaujolais do.)

Pinot Noir (but $$) Pinot Noir can be a light yet flavorful wine that’s very approachable, with more interesting things going on with it than the simpler Beaujolais. It’s tricky to shop for, though, for a few reasons. One is that good Pinots can be pricey. Some of the very best, from Burgundy (or “Bourgogne“) in France, can have price tags that will take your breath away even more than the flavor does. And, to confuse things, many Pinots made in Oregon, Washington, and California are made in a more intense West-Coast style that’s not much like the light Burgundies we’re recommending here. So when you shop for a Pinot, ask the clerk if this is a “French-style” Pinot, or a “West Coast-style.” Buy the French-style ones.

Rhones are blended wines made along the Rhone river in France; they can be light and easy to drink, but the flavors a highly varied – some like ’em, some don’t. A famous example is Chateauneuf du Pape. Personally, I like the ones from Gigonda. Americans make Rhone-style blended wines too, and they also vary a lot in what they taste like. It’s a good area for exploration.

Ruffino Chianti

Light Italian wines: Chianti (not in straw bottle), Sangiovese, Valpolicello  are light ones easy to drink. There are other Italian reds that are intense, that you might not be able to handle as easily. One clue: If it’s a light red — if it looks watered down compared to other, dark reds — then it’s probably lighter in taste, too, so it’s worth a try.

Cheap Australian Shiraz wines can be great fun because they show a lot of fruit. Examples are Yellowtail and Rosemount, and best of all they are usually very affordably priced.

Any red wine from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Light yet flavorful, they sometimes don’t say what grape is in the wine; in many cases, they are native American grapes, not the French-sourced grapes all the rest of the wines are made from, and that can be very interesting — a lost marketing opportunity, if you ask me.


I’ve already lectured you about why Roses can be tasty wines that you should be trying at every opportunity, despite whatever you may have heard about White Zinfandel. There is more variety in Roses than in any other wine type — from completely “dry” to lightly sweet. And, let’s face it, folks, even White Zinfandel has the not-to-be-dismissed virtue of being very easy to drink — light, with no offensive elements, it’s a perfect starter wine, which is why it’s so popular. Just know that you’ll get tired of it after a while because it’s bland and flabby, but until that day comes, you can sip it without concern for your tongue. And please remember that this is *not* what other Roses taste like, nor other red Zins, nor other sweet dessert wines, so when you do get tired of it, don’t swear off the good stuff.


White wines, lacking tannins, are easier for beginners to taste — though there are still a few whites that have enough acidic tang to make your taste buds jump. Whites are often lower in alcohol than reds, too, which is a bonus. The real trick for a beginner is finding a white wine that actually *tastes* good — not just doesn’t hurt, but has a flavor that a beginning taster finds pleasant and enjoyable. Here are a few popular grapes.

Chardonnay – No longer “fashionable,” but easy to drink, which is why it continues to be popular. When you get tired of regular everyday Chardonnay that you find in bars and nightclubs, you can graduate to the tasty White Burgundy from France, which is very different, and to the many new “unoaked” Chardonnays being made in the US, where the fruit comes forward in a delicious way. Americans are experimenting with the taste of Chardonnay, so taste around.

Kim Crawford New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc from the US or New Zealand – This grape makes a white wine with a little more character than oaked Chardonnays, so it’s a popular next step for many drinkers. It has a little but of a tang, a kind of “stony” taste. It is fashionable, though. French versions (from Bordeaux and from the Loire Valley) taste different (and good).

Viognier and Pinot Grigio (Italian) or Pinot Gris (French) are light white wines that vary from maker to maker a whole lot. They can sometimes have a wonderful flowery or fruity aroma–and no particular flavor; or they can be very tasty — it’s a crap shoot. Experiment.

Italian Prosecco is a sparkling white wine, like champagne but much easier to drink — slightly sweet, fruity, fun. In fact, you should consider it for your wedding reception in place of Champagne–it’s easier for non-wine-drinkers to enjoy, and it’s much less expensive.

Any white from Germany, Alsace, or Austria, such as Gewurztraminer (do yourself a favor and just call it “Gevoortz”), Riesling, or Gruner Veltliner, tend to be aromatic, light but with an acidic tang, and vary from very dry to lightly sweet — to, in the case of late-harvest “Spaetlese” and “Trockenbeerenauslese,” quite sweet. All these whites vary a lot from maker to maker, so don’t give up if the first ones you try you don’t care much for. Keeping trying; you’ll find one you like. There’s a whole world of white (and red) wines, from unique grapes most of which you’ve never heard of and probably can’t pronounce, in the world of German, Alsatian, and Austrian wines; it’s worth a lifetime of flavorful study. While all the wine snobs are festishing over in France, you could becoming an expert in a different, tasty world.

Late-Harvest Reds and Whites

Dashe Cellars 2007 Late-Harvest ZinfandelDon’t like sweet wines? Ha ha ha — you’re wrong! You just haven’t had a chance to try a well-made one! Seriously, though, there are many, many so-called Dessert Wines (or, for fun, “Stickies”)  that are unbelievably delicious — like the best piece of liquid candy you’ve ever tasted. Look for Sauterne (a French white made from Sauvignon Blanc)), Tokay (Hungarian), Canadian or German Ice Wine (white), or Muscat (red). They mostly come in half-sized bottles and vary from a little bit expensive ($18 for a half bottle?) to oh-my-God expensive (hundreds of dollars for a vintage Chateau d’Yquem, also a half bottle). Try the cheap ones — they are also tasty. And meant to be sipped–they can be very high in alcohol.

Wines Not Safe for Beginners

Reason: These wines take getting used to – they are dense, heavy, intense, very tannic, alcoholic, acidic – OR ELSE expensive yet just hard to know when you’ve gotten a good bottle.

ZAP Festival San Francisco 2010

Zinfandel — Me, I love big, jammy red Zinfandels — heck, I vclunteer at the big ZAP Zinfandel festival every January in San Francisco, where 300 winemakers serve up over 800 Zinfandels! But others find it overwhelming. Exceptions: Any relatively inexpensive red Zinfandel with an aggressive, hard-hitting name intended to give you the impression that this is one bad Zin, baby! — is likely to be light and easy to drink — the name is a marketing gimmick. For example, Seven Deadly Zins, Earthquake Zin, and Cardinal Zin (best label ever, though) are fun and easy to drink, fruity, and affordable (thank goodness!). (This is similar to the marketing-wine rule that any wine with a fun, jokey, smartalecky name and picture is probably junk wine that, however, *tastes great*! Not sophisticated — just fun.

Jean Edwards Cellars 2007 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon– is usually made as a Big Red — heavy, tannic, sometimes expensive, and highly variable in flavor and style. You won’t know what you’re buying, so drink someone else’s until you find brands that work for you.

Merlot – Can be absolutely delicious when made right, but bland and mediocre if not; unfortunately, the best-tasting Merlot is the most expensive Merlot.

French Bordeaux and Burgundy – Because the good ones are expensive, the really good ones are very expensive, and the affordable ones vary all over the map in flavor and quality. Don’t jump into this world yet; drink OPB — Other People’s Bordeaux.

Argentinean Malbecs – Can be as big and intense and amazing as a great California Cab — but, unfortunately, just as costly. If you’re willing to spend the bucks, go ahead, you will rarely be disappointed. (Which is wonderful, because a couple of decades ago, Argentinian Malbec was dreck!)

Champagne – In general, the best are expensive; and surprisingly many people don’t really care for the taste of champagne, even good champagne — it has an acidic edge that you might not like. If you have to buy Champagne, go for the Champagne-type bubblies made elsewhere in France: Clairett de Die Cave Carod, for example, can cost as little as $13(!). Cremant d’Alsace is another winner. And there’s a Champagne-style bubbly made by a winery called Gruet in, of all places, New Mexico, that costs as little as $8.50 — yet tastes great. (If you like Champagne, that is — see above.) Can you believe that? I’ve tasted it, and it’s true.

China — The best-known red wine from China is from a winery called Great Wall. Really. Its  Cabernet Sauvignon is awful, truly awfuo. One day, maybe soon, China will produce good wines for export; we’ll be glad.

California Syrah – I love West-Coast Syrahs — because they are made in a dense, big-red, intense, fruit-forward style that I love. As a beginning wine drinker, though, you may find it as overwhelming as big red Zins. However, Syrah can also be made in lighter styles, and is the backbone of the blend of wines that makes up Rhone-style reds, where the mix is much easier on the palate.

Port — Port wines and the related styles of Sherry can be a traumatic experience for beginning wine drinkers. They put brandy in it! And you can taste it! Arrgh!

An exception might be Madeira — maybe. It’s just as dense, intensely sweet, even raisiny, yet not as harsh. Have a sip.

Where To Start?

Start Your Own Wine Group

As we said earlier, a good way to learn  about wines — and a fun way — is to join with others to share and try wines. So start a wine-tasting group of your own — Head on over to Zenergo, sign up (easy & free), join the ‘Wine Tasting’ Activity, and from there click ‘Create’ for Groups. Put in your info, send invites to your friends – and there you have it! A wine group spot where you can coordinate your tasting events, manage your email list, post your pictures, a chat amongst yourselves — all in one convenient spot! If you host public winetasting events, post them to Zenergo and recruit from among local members!

For more great articles,
Subscribe to the Zenergo Blog today!  


Copyright 2011 Michael “Mac” McCarthy, all rights reserved. The four posts in this Wine 101 series are now available combined as an Amazon Single for your Kindle. Click the link for more info.

WINE TUTORIAL 2: Roses, Champagnes, White Wines, and Dessert Wines

By Mac McCarthy,  Zenergo

Now let’s talk about wines that aren’t red. A lot of people think they don’t like one or another of these kinds of wine: You drink reds, not whites; roses are stupid sweet plonk; “I don’t like sweet wines.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Pay attention.

As a beginner in wine tasting, don’t fall into the trap of focusing only on one kind of wine. If you try a Chardonnay and like it, the temptation is to just drink Chards from now on. After all, there are so MANY kinds of wines, and it’s confusing! Right?

Well Yes, it’s confusing, but No, that’s not an excuse to stop experimenting. You would miss out on some wonderful wines if you’re not willing to try new things. This is a rich opportunity to find new fun things to taste.

A lot of them you won’t like. But a lot of them you will. I promise!

Many people only drink white wines. An equal number of people only drink reds. Even more people think Rosé’s are a bad joke, and too sweet — and so they think they don’t like roses. And also they think they don’t like “sweet wines.”

Don’t be those people.

Open your mind, your palate, and your glass to lots of different kinds of wine. If you haven’t already tried THAT wine, from THAT winemaker, in THAT vintage — you don’t know what it tastes like. Give yourself a chance to be surprised. (Or to confirm your suspicion that you won’t like it!) Especially if it’s being offered to you. (It’s harder to justify blind experiment if you’re paying to buy a whole bottle of unknown wine.)

We’ll review white wines, champagnes, and dessert wines. Let’s start with America’s most misunderstood wine…..


Laughing Pig Rose Wine

Laughing Pig makes delicious Rose

There are pink wines – or blush wines, or ROSÉ’s (that’s rose-ay, with an accent mark over the ‘e’ — because it’s French — and yes, it means ‘rose’). These are very popular in France but have been out of style in the US because of White Zinfandel, which is a cheap, poorly-made Rosé. White Zin is sweet, but it lacks acid balance, so while it’s very easy to drink for a beginner — it has no offensive harshness to it — after a while it seems flabby and boring. You’re ready  to move on to better-made wines.

Unfortunately, when people get out of college and graduate from white Zinfandel, they learn all the wrong lessons — they think what they don’t like is Rosé, and sweet wine. This is wrong: What you get tired of is poorly made sweet roses. A well-made Rosé can be divine, as you will discover when you get a chance to try it. And roses come in everything from very dry to very sweet.

Rose is coming back in fashion in the USA, happily – so if you find a Rosé or two that you like, you can be leading-edge and hip. (Watch for a local Rosé tasting event if one comes to your area. “RAP” is an annual Rosé-tasting event in San Francisco, but they may have similar events around the country.)

Rose can be made from any red-skinned grape — Pinot Noir (the standard in France), Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Barbera — so there is more variety in Rosé than in any other type of wine–and more different shades and types of pink than you can imagine. Rose is usually mild and easy for beginners. It’s an adventure. They can be completely ‘dry’ (not sweet), or lightly sweet, and everything in between, and can have a lovely aroma. Try them!

(A bonus: Since roses aren’t popular in America, yet every winemaker loves roses, they will each make a little Rosé, just for themselves. Since there is no ‘standard’ for how Rosé should taste — no ‘market’ they need to conform to — each winemaker makes his or her own Rosé to suit his or her own taste — so every Rosé tastes a bit different from every other maker’s Rosé. And that, my friends, is the very definition of wine adventure!)

White Wines

The most popular white wine in America is Chardonnay, which can be an excellent wine but is widely manufactured to be cheap and enjoyable for those with unsophisticated palates. Chards can be too vanilla-y and oaky, so you can get tired of them after a while.

2009 Passaggio Chardonnay bottle

2009 Passaggio Chardonnay

To show your sophistication, then, try the “unoaked” Chardonnays — that’s the new wave. And much more like French Chardonnays in how they taste. Small winemakers in the US are experimenting with Chardonnay, so keep tasting the new stuff — there is getting to be quite a fascinating variety in the Chardonnay market.

Sauvignon Blanc has become the popular alternative to Chardonnay. It has more of an acidic tang, kind of stone and steel and mountain brooks sensation to the taste. New Zealand is noted for its SBs, especially the ones from the Marlborough area.

BTW, pronunciation: Being French words, there are extra letters not pronounced: “Soh – Vinn – Yohn.” And while we’re at it, the French leave off the last consonant when pronouncing a lot of wine words: Cabernet drops the T: “Cab-Ber-Nay” and so does Pinot Noir: “Pee-No No-are.” Once you’ve mastered these, be sure to look pityingly at your friends when they mangle the words. It’s mean, but it’s fun.

Here are some other, even lighter and often fruitier, white wines — but fair warning: How they taste varies widely from one winemaker to another. But none are harsh; at worst, they can be bland.

Luna Vineyards Pinot Grigio

Luna Vineyards Pinot Grigio

Viognier – pronounced: “Vee – own – eeyay” – light and flowery, sometimes not much actual taste.

Pinot Gris (“Pee-No Gree”), called Pinot Grigio in Italy (Pee-No Gree-Jee-Oh). Aromas of flowers and fruit like peaches and pears and grapefruit. Often not a very strong taste at all.

US winemakers produce these types of wine as well. Shop around until you find a version you like.

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German/Austrian/Alsatian White Wines
2007 JW Morris Gewürztraminer

2007 JW Morris Gewürztraminer – $4 at Trader Joe’s, but having trouble finding it these days….

German white wines are in a class by themselves. They taste not at all like other whites; they are less acidic, for one thing; many of them tend to be slightly sweet, in a good way. They can be pricey (but see Trader Joe’s ‘JW Morrison’ brand, which can be tasty and TJ-cheap).

Try any Riesling (“rees-ling”) you see, or any Gewurztraminer (“Gay-VORTZ-tramminner” with the “tramminner” part run together in a burst; some people just say “GayVORTZ” and leave off the end part). You may be pleasantly surprised. The bottle labels are generally unpronounceable: “Spatauslese,” for example. Don’t even bother. My favorite German white wine is something called Bott Freres; from Alsace on the French-German border, about $25, and worth it. Another favorite is wines from the importer “Dr. Loosen” (pronounced, approximately, “Doctor Loow-zin”), a little pricier.

White wines from Germany, Austria, and the Alsace can be very dry, or medium-dry, or a little sweet. Everyone buys the dry, but you will be surprised how much you enjoy the off-dry/semi-sweet or medium-sweet ones as well. Tell the wine-store clerk “I’m looking for a Riesling, not too dry” and you’ll get something pleasant.

Another fun white is the Italian sparkling wine called Prosecco – it’s light, a little bubbly, a little sweet, and very easy and fun to drink; it’s also somewhat inexpensive. Consider it as an enjoyable alternative to Champagne. (For one thing, it goes better with wedding cake….Hint hint.)


Cremant d'Alsace

Cremant d’Alsace is a Champagne alternative–Delicious!

Champagne is a tough one. A lot of ‘girls’ like Champagne, but I find cheap champagnes to be harsh, with a sharp edge. Good champagnes range from $35 to $95 for a decent one, and hundreds of dollars for spectacular vintages. If you absolutely have to buy a bottle of champagne and make an impression, here are brands and types you can safely pay $30–$50 for and not embarrass or disappoint yourself:

  • Chandon – At $12, a drinkable champagne at a surprising price (Shahn-Dohn).
  • Perrier Jouet makes very tasty champagnes at a midrange price ($50?) (Perr-y-aay Jooo-aay)
  • Veuve Clicquot (pronounced, approximately, “Vuuhv–Klee-Koh – good luck) makes a tasty champagne called Ponsardin.
  • A French nonofficial champagne called Clairett de Die – $13, actually, and I think it’s as tasty as any bottle many times the price. Someone who knows French bubbly will be impressed that you’ve even heard of it. It’s not “champagne” because it’s not made in Champagne province, and it’s made with a different process than the “methode champaignois.” (Clair-ette deh Dee-aay)
  • Another non-Champagne champagne is a type called Cremant d’Alsace, also uses a different process and therefore is not “champagne,” but tastes the same, but kind of creamier, not as sharp, and not awfully expensive. (Cream-ahnt duh-Al-say-s). One maker I’ve tried is Domaine Allimant-Laugner. In the U.S., Schramsberg makes a Cremant, at $32, that I find creamy and delicious.

In the U.S. you’ll also find champagne-type “sparkling wines” made from various other grapes besides the traditional Pinot Noir of France. You’ll also see Rosé sparkling wines, and (oh dear) flavored sparkling wines — with peach, berry, or other fruit essences added. To make them taste good for those of us who haven’t a sophisticated palate for real Champagne. If you come across this stuff, pretend to be amused or mildly offended (depending on the impression you want to convey of being superior to this swill) and then go ahead and hide your enjoyment. Because, sophisticated or not, this stuff is like soda pop and tastes great!

Dessert Wine

Do not, in my presence, announce that you “don’t like” sweet wines. You are being silly. The only way you could “not like” all sweet wines is if you don’t like sweets. You like ice cream, don’t you? Have a favorite candy bar? Eat Lifesavers? Lollipops? M&Ms? Do you ever eat dessert? I mean, when you’re not watching your waistline?

Of course you like sweet things. And you’ll find you like well-made sweet wines too. Try some until you find which you like and which you don’t.

Dessert wines are meant to be sipped, not swilled, and are often served in tiny glasses, for two very good reasons: First, they can be very alcoholic (not all, but many–check the label). Second, many are very VERY sweet, and are meant to be served at the end of the day, or winetasting, or after dinner–just like dessert.

Sauterne, Chateau Guiraud

Chateau Guiraud Sauterne, France–Wow!

There are both red and white dessert wines. The whites tend to cluster around a French white called SAUTERNE (so – tern). There are French Sauternes that are unbelievably expensive — hundreds of dollars for half-sized bottles. But there are less famous French Sauternes that cost $15-$30 for those half-sized bottle — and taste just as good, one advantage to having an unsophisticated palate! There is a Hungarian white called Tokay (toe-kay, also spelled Tokaj, but pronounced the same), with expensive famous labels. If you see either of these being served, get in line. At least try it.

Another famously tasty, very sweet white dessert wine is Canadian Ice Wine. Its tall, thin bottles are, sadly, pricey too. It is made from grapes left on the vine to freeze, and picked in February (what the birds haven’t eaten). And. it. is. delicious!

Madeira 1922 and 1968

Madeiras from 1922 and 1968 ($$$!)

In the Reds category, the first big grouping is PORT. As a beginner, simply avoid Ports; they can be very good, but they can overwhelm the beginning drinker because they have a dose of brandy whiskey added at the end of the production process. Ugh. Sherry is also challenging for  beginners. Try Madeira instead — it’s very sweet, very intense, almost like liquid raisins, but much easier to handle. Older ones are expensive — $500 for a 1960, anybody? — but younger ones can be reasonably priced. An open bottle of any of the above will last for weeks, even months, without changing their taste.

Rosie Rabbit Late Harvest Zinfandel

Rosie Rabbit Late Harvest Zinfandel. Yes!

A better bet for beginners is a “Late Harvest” wine – these are made from grapes picked as late in November as possible, so they have started to dry out – drops are squeezed out to make this FAB-ulously sweet and tasty wine. American winemakers create late-harvest wines from a wide variety of grapes — Zins, Cabs, Pinots, Syrahs, Muscats, or white grapes like Semillon and Viognier. Moderately pricey half bottles can be sipped, and left open for weeks. Yum!

Miscellaneous Factoids About Your Wines

Wine labeled as “Claret” is a Bordeaux-style wine; claret is the traditional English term for French Bordeaux.

Wine is made in every state in the USA; many are very nice, many are very interesting. A few are not nice or interesting but still worth trying just for the novelty. In New York State, in the Finger Lakes region they are experimenting with wines made from native American grapes such as “Cayuga,” and these are very much worth trying, especially as a beginning wine drinker, because they are light and easy to drink.

Wines are also made in virtually every country in the world, with varying degrees of success. Lucky for us wine tasters, the science of winemaking has made such great strides in recent decades that you will see even more very good wines coming from apparently improbable places in the future. I’ve had very good wine from Mexico, from Sicily, and from Israel; I’ve had very bad wine from China, but I hold out great hope for an evolving Chinese winegrowing industry.

Australia, of course, has such good wines — not just inexpensive, fun-to-drink supermarket wines, but sophisticated German-style whites as well — that if you visit that land, you really must try to visit a winery or two. Likewise South Africa, which produces unusual wines as well as the usual.

Learning More–the Easiest Way

You can only really learn about wine by tasting it — often and in variety. Luckily, this is a fun thing to do. Unluckily, it can be costly — if you do it by yourself. It’s also less fun that way.

So do it the easier and more-fun way: Taste with friends. Go to wine tastings with friends. Visit wineries with friends. Throw wine-tasting parties–this can be best of all because you can just declare a BYOB party, pick a theme (my group, BAWDY, has done everything from “California Cabs” to “Favorite Everyday Wines,” and I’m lucky enough to belong to The Pompous Twits, which has members with real wine cellars (yes!).

And if you’ve already got (or are planning to start) a wine-tasting group of your own — we can help you: Go on over to Zenergo (the host of this blog), sign up (easy & free), join the ‘Wine Tasting’ Activity, and from there click Create for Groups. Put in your info, send invites to your friends – and there you have it! A wine group spot where you can coordinate your tasting events, manage your email list, post your pictures, a chat amongst yourselves — all in one convenient spot! If you host public winetasting events, post them to Zenergo and recruit from among local members!

Our Next Post: What WINES You’re Likely To Like

There are more kinds of wines and winemaking areas than we’ve covered in these two blog posts so far — but don’t worry about it. Just scanning these two blog posts puts you ahead of quite a few of your friends and drinking companions! Congratulations! You are just a few more blog posts away from being a wine snob! (Just kidding. You are just a few blog posts away from being a wine enthusiast!)

In another post, we’ll talk about kinds of wines that beginners are most likely to enjoy tasting — and wines you are likely to dislike (because they have strong, aggressive flavors that take getting used to). Even better, we’ll give you some tips on how to buy wine at a store for a party or as an impressive gift without wasting your money; and what to do when you’re at a fancy restaurant and somebody asks you to order the wine! (Step one: Don’t panic! We have a plan!)

Be sure to comment below–questions accepted, compliments welcomed — and be sure to share with your friends!

Copyright 2011 Michael “Mac” McCarthy, all rights reserved. The four posts in this Wine 101 series are now available combined as an Amazon Single for your Kindle. Click the link for more info.

Wine 101: Getting Started with Wine Tasting: Your Wine Cheat Sheet

By Mac McCarthy

Consider this a cheat sheet for wine beginners.

When you want to start or join a wine group in Zenergo, or find a wine-Activity friend, or go to a wine Event — it can be intimidating if you’re just getting started learning about and enjoying wine. Jargon, buzzwords, pompous wine twits, puzzling wine-bottle labels, and so many types, prices, and opinions!

First piece of advice: Don’t let it get to you. Rule One in wine — and the only real rule — is Find Out What You Like!

When you taste a wine, you either like what you’re tasting, or you don’t. Nobody else can tell you what you’re supposed to like — it’s your taste buds, and your preferences. If you hate red monster wines and they like ’em — great! That’s what makes horse races.

And Rule Two: Try New Wines! You’ll find more you like.

Over time, your tastes will change and develop as you try more wines. So don’t jump to conclusions too fast — you may not like this kind of wine now, but another winemaker, making wine from the same kind of grapes, will make it very differently — and you may like that. The only way to know is to try!

Of course, you could go broke buying random bottles of wine to see if you like them. So don’t do that. Do this instead:

BAWDY--Our Winetasting Group

BAWDY–our amateur winetasting group–it’s all about fun, not formality!

1. Go to wine parties. Or hold wine-tasting parties of your own, with your friends. Or make wine-tasting friends on Zenergo and try wines together. Sharing gives you more choices and more tastes, and costs less.

2. Go to wineries. Every state in the USA has winemakers — and most countries of the world too. There’s probably a winery association in your area — they’ll have guides and maps and special events and tourist weekends. Visiting wineries is a great weekend activity!

3. Buy cheap wines. Not just box wines or jug wines — they can be easy to drink, but they aren’t good examples of what wine can be. You can find very interesting wines in your supermarket these days, or at your Trader Joe’s or other specialty grocer. You’ll actually find wines for less than $5 — some of them quite tasty. The great thing about picking up bottles of Two-Buck Chuck, for example (Trader Joe’s famously cheap wine brand) is that if you don’t like a bottle — it was only two or three bucks, you can pour it out, it’s no big loss. You’ve at least learned you didn’t like that one.

4. Keep track. Keep a notebook — just jot down the wines you find you like. That way you can get it again next time, because I promise you that you won’t be able to remember exactly which ones were which. And write down the exact info on the wine label: The maker, the year, the name of the wine, and any other special words, like Reserve, or Estate Bottled, or the name of a vineyard. Wineries make lots of different wines, and they can vary a lot in how much you like them. You might love the “Gallo Sonoma Reserve” and then get a bottle of the “Gallo Sonoma Cellars” and find out it’s very different, and that you don’t like it at all.

So you have to pay attention to a lot of detail on the wine label, unfortunately. So fair warning – if you really like something, write down the stuff on the label. “Gallo Sonoma Reserve 2005 Merlot,” for example, tells you that it’s made by/for Gallo, it’s more or less from Sonoma County in California, it’s their “reserve,” which usually means it’s their better stuff, it’s grown in 2005, and it’s a Merlot grape wine. All 5 of those facts are meaningful – the Gallo Cabernet, for example, will taste very different, and the 2004 Merlot may taste better, or worse.

(Good luck with French or German wines — there’s so much hard to decipher info on the label.)

Your Wine Cheat Sheet–Part 1: Background on Red Wines

We’ll start by giving you an overview of the main grapes made into wine — like Merlot and Cabernet — and the main countries noted for their red wines. In our next blog post, we’ll look at white wines, roses, champagnes, and dessert wines.

Even if you don’t like reds, scanning this blog post will let you keep up with wine-snob chitchat.

Red: A Rosenblum St Peter's Church Zinfandel

Red Wines in the United States

In the US, what the wine is called is usually based on what grape makes up most of the bottle, like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

In some parts of the world, like France, what the wine is called is based on the name of the area where it is grown – like Burgundy, or Bordeaux, or (in Italy) Chianti – and not on what grape is. But don’t worry about it. Areas tend to use specific grapes, such as Pinot Noir in Burgundy or Gamay in Beaujolais.

In the US the main RED wines you’ll find are: Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be robust and dense and “big” – more intensely flavored; Merlot, which can be somewhat lighter, with softer tannins (that tongue-stinging sensation like teabags) than Cabs and thus more “approachable;” and Zinfandel, the red version (not the white), which can be jammy and intense (and higher in alcohol). Pinot Noir makes lighter wines that are still very flavorful and vary a lot depending on the maker. Syrah is increasingly popular among the hip and can range from dense to very dense. Shiraz, which is a variant on Syrah, common in Australia, and can be light and fruity and very easy to drink. And Petite Syrah, which is less common, varies greatly in taste from winemaker to winemaker, and which a beginning wine drinker usually doesn’t like at first. Barbera is the main component in many Italian wines, and in the US can be made into a flavorful, fruity, easy-to-drink wine.

There are other grapes bottled in the USA that you’ll come across once in a while, and new ones being tried out all over the country, like Cabernet Franc, Primitivo, Charbonno, Nebbiolo, Carignane, and Gamay, and a hodgepodge of other lesser-known grapes. Never pass up a chance to taste something you’ve never heard of!

Red Wines in France

2011-Bordeaux Grand Cru tasting, San Francisco--A Lunch Bage

Chateau Lynch-Bages–a $$ “Grand Cru” French Bordeaux.

Very light red wines from France that are easy to drink for beginners include Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau, and an American cousin, Gamay Beaujolais. Beaujolais is pronounced the French way—that is, stupidly: Boo-Joe-Lay (except the Joe is a soft J, not a hard J like in Joe – ask somebody) – Beaujolais Nouveau (Noo-Voh) is a Beaujolais fresh from the barrels and not aged at all – it comes out Thanksgiving week and is great that week – and more awful every week that goes thereafter. Try it. it’s fun! (Beaujolais are made from the light-and-fruity Gamay grape.)

Burgundies can also be very tasty and easy to drink, light yet flavorful; they are made from Pinot Noir grape, but good Burgundies can be expensive. Very expensive. Very very expensive. So if somebody brings in a Burgundy, make that little eyebrow-raising “Well! I’m impressed” expression so the host will feel flattered – and will think you’re savvy. Score!

Also popular, with a distinctive aroma some love and some don’t, are French RHONE wines (pron. Roan or Rone), which are made of a blend of wines usually starting with a light fruity fun grape called Grenache, plus Syrah to give it some punch, and other random grapes like Mouvedre and Cinsault that you never heard of–up top a dozen grapes in the blend. No way to tell whether you’ll like them until you’ve tried them. Both Rhones and Burgundies (and Bordeaux) can vary widely in taste from winery to winery so if you try one sip and don’t like it, do try sips on other occasions from other makers.

And finally, though usually first in mind share, is Bordeaux, which is a red-wine blend made in the Bordeaux region of France and made of up to seven specific grapes, the main ones of which are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, in various combinations. Bordeaux is challenging for Americans mainly because quality varies wildly: The good stuff is expensive, and the affordable stuff is unpredictable. If you’re a beginning wine taster, you should drink other people’s Bordeaux rather than try to negotiate the purchase of the right bottle at the right price on your own.

Red Wines in Italy

In Italy, Chianti is easy to drink because it’s not very intense. There are intense Chianti’s, called “Super Tuscans,” that have more flavor, but even these are easy for a beginner to try. Chianti in general is a safe bet as a wine that won’t scour your mouth out. It is based on the Sangiovese grape, which is mellow; California makes a small amount of Sangiovese-based wines too. Another grape, called Tempranillo, bottled in Italy and elsewhere under various names, as well as in the US in small quantities, is also a safely mild wine. Also easy to drink is anything called Valpolicello, which I think is a Sangiovese wine.

Barberas, Brunellos, Nero d’Avola, and Primitivo wines can be stronger, more intensely flavored, but not too tannic, so give them a try – I love them; you might want to work your way up to them. (Primitivo is a Sicilian relative to American Zinfandel, by the way.)

Reds in Other Countries

There are a number of reds from Spain that are gaining popularity. Rioja (ree oh hah!) is the best known, and is usually milder than it likes to think it is. Mostly the popular reds tend to be somewhat heavy-duty, so sip cautiously.

Chile and Argentina make wine from a grape called Malbec (which is only a blending wine in France) – these used to be very cheap but very nasty, but Argentina, in particular, has learned how to make a truly wonderful, grand wine out of it. A great Argentine Malbec can compete head-on with a good California Cabernet — and unfortunately is priced similarly.

OK, that’s a start. Is your brain full yet? You may have to go try a glass of red wine, then!

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Move Your Wine Group To Zenergo!

But first, take a moment to consider the virtues of moving your (formal, informal, casual, super-serious, let’s-start-one-right-now) wine-tasting group onto Zenergo.

On Zenergo you can create your group, maintain your mailing list, send event invites, post pictures, keep a group calendar, store scoring sheets members can grab, and (if you choose) open your group to other Zenergo members to grow your group!

A Wine Group on Zenergo, with a Group for the January event.

In PART 2 we’ll look at Roses, Whites, Champagnes, and Dessert Wines!

Got comments? Post below!

Copyright 2011 Michael “Mac” McCarthy, all rights reserved. The four posts in this Wine 101 series are now available combined as an Amazon Single for your Kindle. Click the link for more info.