Wine is intimidating. Unlike beer, the drink of the people (but not the People’s Revolution, that would be vodka), wine is surrounded by an army of designated ponces, fancy French words, hundred-dollar glasses, and shelves with what seem like millions of subtlely different bottles. Your not-yet-liver damaged correspondent has taken upon himself the task of making the wine world simpler and translate the jargon of the honorary 57th member of the Francophonie.
Wine is typically classified by two things. First is the color (red, rose, or white) defined by the length of time the grapeskin is exposed to the grape juice. For the absolute novice, color is the easiest way to determine what wines one likes. Second is the type of grape (or varietal). Chardonnay (white), Cabernet Sauvignon (red), and White Zinfandel (rose) are all examples of wines classified by their varietal grape. Some wines (like a restaurant’s house wine) may not be made exclusively from one grape type; these are called blended wines.
If I’ve told you anything you didn’t already know, things like vintage year and region won’t likely even be discernable to you, and a cheap California wine is probably sufficient for your drinking needs. Another thing that intimidates many newcomers to the wine aisle is the variety of prices for wine. In this way, wine is somewhat like beer. Those who have not developed the palate to determine the character of tannins (naturally occurring flavoring chemicals) or different terroir (flavors, textures, and “character” wine acquires from particular growing regions) are not going to benefit from a $20 bottle. Indeed, a $3-5 bottle would probably be sufficient for an evening’s imbibing. Good brands for economy California wines include Charles Shaw ($3.29/bottle, Trader Joe’s), E&J Gallo (usually around $4.99/bottle, Bloom), and Sutter Home (usually around $4.99/bottle, Bloom). I would avoid the Barefoot line; it is overpriced at $6.99 given that I can’t tell the difference between it and Gallo. Whatever line you choose, it will include several varietals and should serve as an introduction to wine.
So, one might now ask (after much not-drinking) what varietals are good to try. Certainly Chardonnay, a white wine made from the chardonnay grape, is a typical “first wine.” However, Chardonnay is typically aged in oak barrels, which yields an intense, dry taste. An easier first wine might be Sauvignon Blanc, which is sweeter and smoother. For reds, Merlot is a good first taste, but it is otherwise quite boring. Shiraz and (red) Zinfandel have more interesting palates with spices and high alcohol concentrations. White Zinfandel is the typical entry-level rose and is quite sweet with a low alcohol content.
The wine world is so prolific that no one could possibly try everything (especially given that each year produces new vintages that trained tasters can identify). The budget entry-level drinker should just leave the French language tapes and plane tickets at home. Take courage from the many studies that show that even poncey upper-class wine snobs often prefer box wine or three-buck-Chuck (a.k.a. Charles Shaw) in blind tastings. All I would say is drink wine that you enjoy, not necessarily the wine the booksellers and vintners might want you to enjoy. So raise a glass of plonck (cheap wine) to the grape and drink to your enjoyment.