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Rules of Thumb II
In imcomplete guide to wine etiquette

I have a book called Rules of Thumb that catalogues rules of thumb for almost everything from cooking to painting your house. However, there is not a single entry in it for wine. So, two years ago I thought I would begin to compile my own. Here is the third annual edition of the Wine Guy's rules of thumb for wine.

Cooking with wine:

As a rule of thumb: If you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it! The wine's defects will only become more pronounced in the dish.

Serving Wine:

As a rule of thumb: Learn to use a good double lever waiters' corkscrew. It is still the cleanest, most effective way to extract a cork.

As a rule of thumb: Place red wine in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before you serve it, and remove white wine from the refrigerator 20 minutes before serving. To be exact...

Serve Chardonnay at 52 - 55 degrees

Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris or Riesling at 45 - 50 degrees;

Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz or Vintage Port at 62 - 65 degrees

Pinot Noir or Beaujolais at 58 to 62 degrees

Champagne at 42 to 45 degrees

Tawny Port and Dessert Wines at 57 - 62 degrees

For comparison, a refrigerator's temperature is about 40 to 42 degrees.

As a rule of thumb: Never pour a glass more than half full unless it's Champagne.

As a rule of thumb: Use good glasses! And, no, they don't have to be Riedel... just make sure they have plenty of room to swirl.

As a rule of thumb: Always sniff your glass for soap residue before you pour. Nothing tastes worse than Cabernet with nuances of Cascade...

As a rule of thumb: Letting any tannic red wine breath will improve it. Contrary to what Consumer Reports called a wine myth, oxidation helps smooth out a young tannic red wine. Open a young Cabernet, Merlot or Zinfandel 20 to 40 minutes before dinner and decant it or pour it into glasses. It will improve. Use caution with older vintages where the tannins have already softened, as they are often at their best the moment they are opened.

As a rule of thumb: Decanting is the most important thing you can do to improve any red wine. Just pour carefully and don't be afraid to leave a half inch in the bottom of the bottle if it will keep the heavier sediments out of the decanter.

As a rule of thumb: If your wine has a sulfurous aroma (rotten eggs) the winemaker has likely overdone the sulfites. Drop a penny or a piece of copper in your glass and it will sometimes eliminate the odor.

Measuring Wine:

As a rule of thumb:
When planning a party, anticipate that your guests will consume 2 glasses per person during the first hour but will average 1 glass an hour during a 4 hour event (unless you have friends like mine - then just be sure that the wine cellar is locked.)

Each 750 ml bottle will provide 5, 5oz glasses of wine

A case (12 bottles) will provide 60 glasses of wine

1 - 60 gallon barrel of wine will make 20 cases

1 - ton of grapes will fill 2 & 1/2 barrels

A Magnum bottle is 1.5 liters = 2 bottles

A Jerboam bottle is 3 liters = 6 bottles

A Methuselah bottle is 4.5 liters = 8 bottles

A Salmanazar bottle is 9 liters = 12 bottles

Storing Wine:

As a rule of thumb: Always cellar a truly fine wine long enough that you forget how much you paid for it.

As a rule of thumb: Red wine does not keep well after is opened. For overnight storage, always use a nitrogen gas spray like "Private Preserve" or a "Vacu Vin" vacuum pump.

As a rule of thumb: Heat is wine's worst enemy: Even one hour in a hot car trunk can ruin a wine completely. An over heated wine will push the cork up and flow out under the foil capsule leaving sticky runs down the side of the bottle.

Overheated wine deteriorates very quickly but is usually still good for a short period after the event. I have had many a cooked wine that was still just fine a few days after the damage was done.

As a rule of thumb: There is no evidence that cold temperatures or freezing damages a wine unless the cork is forced from the bottle and the wine is exposed to the air. I still can't imagine that it does wine any good so take precautions accordingly.

As a rule of thumb: Only a small percentage of wines are intended for aging or will improve in the bottle for more than a year of two. Choose wines for long term cellaring carefully.

As a rule of thumb: Always store your wine horizontally with the label facing up so you can see any sediment build up when you decant it.

As a rule of thumb: Always choose a cool dark place with a consistent temperature and low vibration to store your wine. While a 55 to 58 degree cellar temperature is optimum, a 60 to 65 degree quiet corner will do fine for short term storage (2 - 3 years). Remember, the warmer the storage, the quicker the wine will mature and then deteriorate.

As a rule of thumb: Wine cellars generally ruin more wine than they improve because of over aging. Wine is like a living thing, it has youth, maturity and finally it grows old and dies. Think of it as a bell curve... the idea is to drink it at the top of the curve.

Choosing wine:

As a rule of thumb:
Beaujolais Nouveau is almost always mediocre wine. It's a French publicity stunt that has worn as thin as the wine. Spend $11 and buy a Cru Beaujolais to find out what kind of wine the Gamay grape really makes.

As a rule of thumb: Run when you see the word Reserve on any bottle of California wine that costs less than $20. Check a review before buying any reserve wine over $20. My experience is that even with legitimate reserve wines, the non reserve will score higher at least 50% of the time.

As a rule of thumb: When Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate or James Laube of Wine Spectator give a 90+ score to a red wine under $15, buy a case! (And, yes, I know I'll hear from the "numeric ratings are taking all the charm out of wine" crowd on this one, but I find their judgment to be pretty consistent).

As a rule of thumb: Sulfite-free, organic wines usually taste like battery acid. Let me know if you find one that doesn't

As a rule of thumb: Never trust the alcohol percentage printed on the bottle. The alcohol percentage on the wine label is often printed long before they know the actual alcohol level (the law allows 1.5 percentage points of variance - ie. it could say 13.4% and really be 14.9%).

As a rule of thumb: As good as they taste, big, jammy, high alcohol Merlots and Shirazes are great for sipping, but don't always pair well with food. The same goes for high alcohol, very oaky Chardonnays. A little balanced acidity is a good thing at dinner.

As a rule of thumb: Old world style wines from France and Italy are higher in acidity and lower in alcohol and will generally be easier to pair with food since that is what they were designed for. I usually stay away from Italian or French wines for a party because they generally don't show well without food.

As a rule of thumb: No one should be allowed to say they don't like sweet wine until they have tasted a good Australian Tawny Port served to them in a brandy snifter.

This one comes from Richard Best, author and wine writer from Oakville, Ontario - visit his web site and sign up for his weekly wine reviews at (You can also buy his book The Frugal Oenophile's Lexicon of Wine Tasting Terms here at the store)

As a rule of thumb: Always Buy Two! Has this ever happened to you? You go into your local wine store to pick up a bottle of that wine you enjoyed so much a month or two ago, only to discover that it's sold out. No doubt you'll make a good alternate choice, but that wasn't what you were looking forward to.

Many wine experts recommend that you never buy a single bottle of wine. Instead, always buy two bottles of the same wine. There are a number of benefits to doubling up your purchases this way. If you enjoy your selection, then you'll have another one to look forward to later, perhaps after a year of ageing. And if it's not what you had in mind, you can always give it to a friend.

This is also a very good way to begin a wine cellar -- one “tested” bottle at a time. Plus you will always have wine on hand that you know you like. In those rare instances when you discover a wine that is “corked”, you'll already have a backup, thereby avoiding a disappointing evening or a hasty trip to the wine store.

Wine & Cheese Pairing:

As a rule of thumb: The whiter and fresher the cheese, the whiter and crisper the wine; the darker and stronger the cheese, the darker and heavier the wine.

As a rule of thumb: The perception that cheese has to go with red wine is a misconception. Most cheeses go better with white wines, not red, and often better with sweet wines, not dry wines.

As a rule of thumb: Cheese is usually a bad idea as a hors d’ oeuvre since the butterfat coats the palate and dulls the taste buds. This is why the French always offer the cheese course after the entrée.

As a rule of thumb: Pair acidity with acidity, fruitiness with fruitiness, and weight with weight.

As a rule of thumb: Soft Cheeses like Brie, Camembert, St. Andre, young Gouda coat the mouth and will make red wines taste tart and acidic. The sparkle of Champagne or crisp aromatic whites like Riesling will cut through creaminess. A big, buttery Chardonnay will often complement the richness.

As a rule of thumb: The creaminess and strong flavors of most blue cheeses like Stilton, Maytag, Gorgonzola or Roquefort tend to fight dry wines. Sweet wines like Port or late harvest whites tend to make the best matches.

As a rule of thumb: Hard cheeses – like Cheddar, Aged Gouda, Parmegiano Reggiano or Manchego are firmer, drier cheeses that lack the heavy butterfat of softer cheeses making them the wine- friendliest cheeses of all. These are often the best cheeses to pair with dry red wines like Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah. Fortified wines like Sherry, Maderia, aged Tawny or Vintage Ports also pair well with these mature, brittle cheeses.

As a rule of thumb: With goat cheeses like Chevre, Pecorino Romano or Manchego… The one thing that almost everyone who works around wine and cheese agree on is that fresh, crisp Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect match for fresh, young goat cheeses. Aged goat cheese, like other hard cheeses, will pair well with dry reds and fortified wines like Sherry or Port.

As a rule of thumb: Extreme Cheeses like Smoked Cheddar, Beemster, Cotswold or Limburger are those with added ingredients like pepper, chives or sage or very strong, almost ammoniated flavors. They are the most difficult to match with wine. Look for very bold reds like Shiraz or Zinfandel or fortified wines as your first choice to pair up with these cheeses.

Speaking of Port:

As a rule of thumb: True Vintage Port is designed to age in the bottle for 10 to 15 years before it fully matures. Often a Late Bottle Vintage Port that has spent 4 to 6 years in oak is a better choice than a Vintage Port drunk too young. Not to mention the fact that a good LBV can be had for $18 to $20 compared to $50 plus for a Vintage Port.

As a rule of thumb: Mature Vintage Ports do not hold up well after they have been opened. Nitrogen or pumping will help, but don't ever expect the wine to taste as good on the second night.

As a rule of thumb: Ruby, Vintage Character or Late Bottle Vintage Ports do not benefit from further aging and are very stable and store well after opening.

As a rule of thumb: The Australian's generally make better, and certainly more affordable, Tawny Ports than the Portuguese. I think it's because that start their multi-year blends with riper more consistent wines.

Restaurant Wine

As a rule of thumb: Most restaurants place their biggest markups on their cheapest wines. I pity the poor White Zinfandel drinkers who are routinely charged $18 for a $3.99 bottle of wine.

As a rule of thumb: Most restaurants don't have wine cellars. Accommodating distributors support their lists by holding back popular wines and selling it to them a few bottles at a time at the highest possible price (a mark up that the restaurant passes on to you and me). A restaurant that has invested in a cellar or at least buys by the case is usually worthy of your support.

As a rule of thumb: Always avoid the house wine, it often comes out of a box in the back room. Only a small proportion of wine conscious restaurants have house wine worth drinking.

As a rule of thumb: Avoid wine by the glass unless you can tell how long the bottle has been open, or there is some sort of wine preservation system in place. Look for a wine consol behind the bar that injects the bottle with inert gas or for vacuum stoppers on the bottles.

Wine Tasting:

As a rule of thumb: The only thing you will get out of a large wine tasting or wine festival is a headache.

As a rule of thumb: Wine tasting and wine drinking are two very different things.

As a rule of thumb: Never wear perfume to a wine tasting.

Bad Bottles:

As a rule of thumb: If the wine smells moldy or like damp cardboard, send it back. It's corked - contaminated by a bad cork.

As a rule of thumb: Clear, glassy tartrate crystals in the bottle or on the cork are harmless and do not effect the flavor of the wine.

As a rule of thumb: If a white wine looks just a little too golden and smells like Sherry, send it back. It's oxidized - the cork leaked air.

As a rule of thumb: If there is more than 1/2" between the bottom of the foil wrapper and the wine level in the bottle don't buy it or let a waiter open it. It's probably oxidized because the cork has leaked.

As a rule of thumb: If there is any evidence of the cork bulging up or signs of leakage from beneath the foil don't buy it or let a waiter open it. It's been cooked (overheated wine expands and pushes out and around the cork) and will likely taste flat and fruitless.