Behind The Butter

ELR Wine 101: Red Wine For Newbies

Good afternoon and welcome back to ELR Wine 101! Did you all do your homework yesterday? My glass of Riesling from Alsace was just fab! πŸ˜‰

Today I’m going to briefly cover red wine, my favorite! When dealing with wine, there’s just SO MUCH information out there. That being said, this is really a very very short cliff-noted version. I’m not going to talk about all the different varietals, just the “big ones” that stand out in my mind.

First off, we all know how awesome red wine is. It really is. Check out my latest True/Slant article for all the amazing health benefits! Goes right up there with dark chocolate in my book!

The four varietals I’m going to talk about today include:

  1. Merlot
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon
  3. Pinot Noir
  4. Zinfandel

Yes, there are more types of red wine than just these (like Syrah/Shiraz) but for time’s sake we have to keep it short, sweet and juicy.

So first up…………..Merlot!


Now, if you have seen the movie Sideways I kindly request that you put that scene where Miles screams at the top of his lungs, “I don’t drink any (beep!) Merlot!!!!!!!!!!” out of your head. Merlot can be really, really good! And, it is a GREAT red wine to start out with if you are a newbie because it is usually light and very easy to drink. With food or without food, Merlot is always a very safe bet. If you are at a restaurant and the wine list is very daunting… safe. Order Merlot.

Because Merlot grapes need certain specific conditions to grow (relatively cool climate and good soil), they can be sort of touch and go….especially in places like California. Good Merlots are awesome while very cheap, icky Merlots are bad, bad, BAD. A yummy Merlot has flavors of ripe plums, dark cherries and blackberries. You have tannins, but not as many as are in “bigger” wines such as Cabernets and Zinfandels.

What’s a tannin, you ask? Great question! Tannins are in both black tea and red wine and they are more of a “feeling” than a specific taste. The feeling of sort of your tongue drying up (not necessarily in a bad way though LOL) is from tannins. If you drink Earl Grey tea you know what I’m talking about! Some red wines have more tannin than others. I personally don’t care for too much tannin in my wine so my favorite reds are on the lighter side—Merlots and Pinot Noir. Wines with a lot of tannin in them are best served with food, such as cheese. Actually, cheese CUTS the tannin level down so if you take a bite of cheese and then take a sip of red wine, the wine actually tastes smoother and more velvety on your tongue. How cool is that?!

Great Merlots that I love:

  • Murphy-Goode Merlot (very light, easy to drink and only $15)
  • Deloach Merlot
  • Cakebread Merlot (SUPER expensive! I have only tasted it at a tasting one time but I fell in love….)

After you have conquered Merlot its time you move up to Cabernet Sauvignon, commonly called the King of Wine.


Cabernets are very tasty indeed and have flavors of dark fruit, black current, tobacco and even vegetables like bell peppers. You might be laughing at that but really, depending on where the grapes are grown, Cabernet’s flavors can be all over the board. Cabernet is one of those wines that people LOVE to serve at dinner parties. Why? Its so delicious with food! Honestly, I personally ONLY like Cabernet with food because the food really brings out the flavor of the wine and vice a versa. You may think Cabernet’s bold flavors are too much for you but try it with some homemade mac & cheese (seriously) and it will just rock your world.

If you aren’t used to drinking red wine and not sure you will like it, I recommend asking the guy at the wine shop about the taste of the wine first. Cabernet is one of those wines that can be SO different! You can find Cabs that are very, very dark and full bodied with flavors of tobacco and cedar or you can find some with bright, fresh fruity flavors. I recommend the latter. When you are just starting out, look for the lightest Can you can find because it will have the least amount of tannin (the funny tongue feeling, remember?).

Some Cabernets I like include some California Cabs like Murphy-Goode (obvi) that aren’t TOO heavy or dense and also I LOVE Cabs from Argentina and Chile….look for Cabs from the Mendoza region in Argentina and the Maipo region in Chile. In my personal experience, they don’t disappoint!

Now we get to my very favorite……the oh so delicious Pinot Noir……..


Will you just look at how lush and delicious those grapes look?! Truth be told, Pinot Noir is my very favorite kind of wine. In fact, I rather adore it. I love the fact that Pinot Noir grapes are extremely temperamental and can’t be grown everywhere….that it takes a lot of love, blood, sweat and tears to make a truly great one. I love the fact the Pinot Noir is rich, but also light at the same time. I love it that I can drink it with anything and everything or with even nothing at all!

Pinot Noir is GREAT for newbies because, like Merlot, most are light and have minimal tannins. In fact, just writing about this makes me want to leap up and race to Total Wine to buy a bottle! When you have a yummy Pinot Noir its almost like velvet on your tongue. Cheesy, I know, but very true.

Different regions have different styles of Pinot Noir, of course, and my favorites hail from California and the Pacific Northwest. Personally, I like lighter bodied reds so I really go for Pinots from the Russian River Valley (Angelina is a great one I highly recommend) and oh! Talus Pinot Noir is one of my faves! Very light and fruity…perfection! πŸ™‚

Last but not least—-Zinfandel….no NOT the pink stuff! πŸ˜‰


For awhile I believed only White Zinfandel existed. Oh boy, I loved that stuff. Thought I was so cool bringing my own bottle of $4.99 Arbor Mist to a party when I was just 18. I won’t get into details but lets just say I can’t even SMELL White Zinfandel today. Yes, many people love the stuff but oh boy, that stuff is just INJECTED with sugar water. No thank you!!!

I finally discovered “true” Zinfandel, to be specific California Zinfandel, when I was working at Roy’s Restaurant. Roy’s loves California Zinfandels and I tasted one after work one night. Holy wow! It was good! It certainly packs a punch, that’s for sure! Think bold flavors of black pepper and blackberries, with a characteristically spicy note. Most Zinfandels are considered “big wines”, which means they are bold, tannin-licious, and have a high alcohol content—think better with food! One glass of Zinfandel and you might fall off your bar stool if you haven’t eaten for a few hours (I know from experience).

If you know you like bold and spicy, try a California Zinfandel. I’ve been surprised at how different they can taste! You guys that are slowly making the transition from white wine to red, ummm not so much. I say stick with something lighter like Merlot or Pinot Noir until you totally come over to the dark side. Zinfandel might be a bit too much too soon. However, if you love deep, rich, full, sexy reds….try it! Try a few actually since they can be very different. Like I said, I’m partial to California Zins, especially those produced on the Sonoma coast. For some reason I’ve found Sonoma ZIns to be a little less “wam bam thank you m’aam” than some others I’ve tried.

So that pretty much sums up Day 2 of ELR Wine 101! Homework, obviously, is to enjoy a glass of red wine to the absolute fullest…..and let me know what you think. πŸ˜‰

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  • gina (fitnessista)
    July 14, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    i’ll definitely be doing my “homework” tonight πŸ˜€ i was bummed you skipped shiraz though, it’s my fave!!
    i’m so excited for you and can’t wait to read about your trip!
    take care <3

    • jenna
      July 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm


      Awww I’m sorry. Honestly I skipped it just because there’s SO much info and so little time. This post alone took 2 hours to write! I shall include some Shiraaaz for you later in the week though πŸ˜‰

  • Cait (Cait's Plate)
    July 14, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    I LOVE THIS!! I am such a wine moron so this is so helpful!! My boyfriend’s family LOVES wine and I’m always so clueless about it when we all go out to dinner so this totally helps πŸ™‚

  • Sassy
    July 14, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Hey there! I just discovered your blog (thru another blog, via yet another blog) and I just adore it! I just love your joie de vivre! Keep it up.

    On the subject of wine, have you ever explored some wine from the Niagara Region of Ontario? There are a couple of world-renowned vinyards in the area and they produce a fantastic array of wines. A Canadian speciality is ice wine and if you can get your hands on some it truly is something to savour!

    PS I’m heading to Paris in October and hoping to catch a class at your alma mater, Le Cordon Bleu! One of my life’s dreams would be to study patisserie there. All the best, S.

  • Karla North
    July 14, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Interesting read! I’ve never tried a Pinot Noir before, but I think I will now.
    I also love Shiraz, so I look forward to your post on those!

  • Lisa M
    July 14, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    This is awesome Jenna!
    Question…Is a Merlot typically lighter than a Pinot Noir? I thought it was the other way around. I love light, dry but fruity reds and I’ve been drinking Pinot’s mostly.

  • Becca
    July 14, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    I love love love Merlot. My favorite is from a winery called 14 Hands – which is in Washington State – and is actually a “cheap” Merlot that retails around here for about $9 a bottle. It’s delicious, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a good, full-bodied merlot. Their cab-sav isn’t too bad, either. πŸ˜€

  • Megan (The Runner's Kitchen)
    July 14, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Great post! Your tutorial will be very helpful the next time I meet my girlfriends for wine. I never know what type to order and so I usually just guess!

  • lk (helathy delicious)
    July 14, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    pinot noir is my all-time favorite wine too. So delicious, and it pairs well with just about anything.

  • Kerrie
    July 14, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    Hi Jenna,
    I also love Cakebread but you should try Shafer Merlot- my all time fav and it’s about $45 a bottle so a bit expensive but perfect for a special occasion. And I love to tell my BFF that White Zinfandel is NOT wine πŸ™‚

  • Lisa
    July 14, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I always considered merlot more full-bodied than pinot as well. Glad to see I’m not the only syrah/shiraz fan here.

  • Sarah
    July 14, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Another great wine post! I love wine…

  • Victoria
    July 14, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    I’m enjoying the wine 101. πŸ™‚ My absolute favorite wine is pinot noir, and the Angelina one is my go to at most of our local restaurants.

  • Pru
    July 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I recently went on my first wine tasting, and that’s when I tried Pinot Noir for the first time. The region we went to is about an hour away from where I live (Beamsville, “The Bench,” Ontario) and is apparently big on Pinot Noir so I had many different ones. I think it may have become my new favourite red. I don’t know if you’d carry any wines from up here, but if you come across a Malivoire Pinot Noir (I can’t remember what year – the labels have little lady bugs on them) it’s pretty good for the price!

    I did my homework last night. I had some Reisling (which I also picked up on the tour) – with a tuna sandwich! It actually went pretty well with the mustard and fruit I had with it.

    Thanks again for another enlightening lesson!

  • jamie @ sweatyhugs
    July 14, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Awesome post! I always say that Pinot Noir is the 4th love of my life. (After the husbando and 2 kiddos!)

  • Jen Papaya
    July 14, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Jenna I love love love these wine courses! I worked at a restaurant in college where we had a “Wine Wednesday,” and we actually had quite a large selection of wine, but I somehow managed to get through over a year of working there without learning ANYTHING. But since, I’ve grown quite interested, and it always seems so overwhelming. These are so helpful!

    Hope those Murphy-Goode interviewers are reading, because this is great stuff! Keep it up lady!

  • Shelly
    July 14, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    I love Pinot Noir from the Pacific Northwest. The ones from Oregon’s Willamette (pronounced Will-am-it) Valley region are particularly yummy! (I went wine tasting there with friends one spring and it was SO much fun!!!)
    I also love Zin’s. I particularly like the Francis Ford Copolla Zinfandel. I think it tastes really meaty and kind of spicy. I think it’s perfect with grilled food!

  • Shelly
    July 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    As for White Zin, I’m with you- it’s not my favorite. My boss (who is very knowledgeable about wine) swears by bone dry, metallic French Rose’s (not white zin’s at all) during the summer but I keep explaining to him that a 50 something year old man with a moustache can look sophisticated (or at least open minded) drinking pink wine in a way that a 20 something petite blonde cannot. Haha.

  • MarathonVal
    July 14, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Wow, I feel so ignorant, I always thought I wouldn’t like Pinot Noirs because I thought they were spicy and very full of tannins! Thanks for opening my eyes to this!

  • Ally
    July 14, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    So just now got to reading your wine posts. I have to represent for my state and STRONGLY encourage you to try some New York State Rieslings from the Finger Lakes. I’m not a fan of overly sweet at all – I hardly ever care for the German ones you see on a lot of restaurant wine lists but some of our Dry Rieslings from the Finger Lakes are amazing and although not widely distributed if you can find one I’d love for you to try it out. Of course some of them are quite sweet but the good ones are great!!
    A couple you might be able to find that I like are from Dr. Konstantin Frank’s, Herman J. Weimer, Swedish Hill or Glenora. In addition I’m a huge fan of Ravine’s wine cellar, Lamoreaux Landing and Shaw vineyards as they all make more of a dry style wine…but I don’t think you will have much luck finding them in Florida πŸ™ I wonder if I could get you a bottle or two??? hmmm not sure what the laws are for shipping alcohol. haha.
    Also, a little known fact about Rieslings vs. Chards is that many actually age quite well so you can have them a few years and get an entirely different wine!! I’m sure you probably know this but I just discovered that.
    Anyway, I am really enjoying these wine posts and good luck on your trip!! Remember to look out for a finger lakes Riesling and let me know what you think!!

  • Sarah (Running to Slow Things Down)
    July 14, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    LOVE Pinot Noir! I had it for my first time this past year and it’s by far my favorite so far…not that I’m all that knowledgeable on wines (at all) but I do know what I like. πŸ˜‰

    Fun post!! πŸ˜€

  • Christie @ Quit Your Diet
    July 14, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    Great post, Jenna. I have never been fond of reds but you have tempted me to try pinot noir. I’ll let you know when I try some!

  • Lauren (Runandrejoice)
    July 14, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Girl, you’ve got my mouth watering over here! (Not that that’s anything new after reading your posts, duh)

    It’s true, Pinot Noir was the wine that helped my Mom transition from white to red, it’s SOOO good! I’ve never had a Zinfandel that wasn’t white, and Cabs are my favorite so it looks like I, too, have some homework to do!

  • Angharad
    July 14, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Great wine 101! Shiraz and Malbec are my favorites so sad they weren’t featured but I’m glad you covered the ‘basics’ because now I am chomping at the bit to try a good Pinot Noir – not my usual tipple!

    Looking forward to homework!

  • Vanessa (Last Night's Leftovers)
    July 14, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Awesome post! I love me some red wine πŸ˜‰

  • Kathleen
    July 14, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    And now I want a glass of wine. You’re great at making wines easy to understand. I really love your blog.

  • HeatherBakes
    July 14, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Great info!
    I’m cracking up at the white zin reference. My grandmother still LOVES that stuff and it makes me gag.

  • Colette
    July 14, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks again! This was great! I’ve always been a bit afraid of red wines, but it’s probably because I never had the right one. I’ll have to try a Pinot Noir. Very helpful Jenna!

  • Heather
    July 14, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I am really enjoying these! I’m such a “I like what I like” kinda girl but am interested in trying some new stuff. Tonight I’ll stick with an old stand-by though since I have a nice bottle of Shiraz at home πŸ™‚

  • Kim
    July 14, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Mmmmmmmm…..Pinot Noir is one of my favs!! I don’t think there are many reds that I don’t like. πŸ˜‰

  • Kelly
    July 14, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    I’m definitely a big Zin fan myself! You’ll have to pick up some wine when you are out in CA. Everything is MUCH cheaper than you can get back home and you can buy from so many more interesting boutique wineries. I did a bit of damage to my finances when out there but the wines I found were SO much better than anything I’ve found back home. Plus it’s easier to justify the price after getting a little tipsy at a wine tasting. I’ve also come to love Pinotage a lot lately and Pinot Noir and Cabs are always a favorite. Mmmmmm…you’re making me excited to go home and have another glass of my opened Zin tonight.

  • sirenjess
    July 14, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Hi Jenna, so I have a question for you what made you decide to go to Le Cordon Bleu? I’ve always loved baking (never wanted to eat it just bake it, I know weird). Lately I’ve been in a funk. I have a good paying job but it’s not my life’s dream. I don’t envision myself doing this job for 20 years. So I’m thinking about going to school for what I enjoy doing. How long were you in school? I would really appreciate it. Thanks.

    • jenna
      July 14, 2009 at 8:14 pm


      Honestly I graduated from school, traveled and then came home with all good intentions of settling down at a “normal” job. One day, out of the complete blue, Le Cordon Bleu called me (still don’t know how they got my number!) to see if I wanted to come in for an open house. I did and was sold in a second. I knew I didn’t want a desk job and the only way to make all my “dreams come true” (as corny as that sounds) was to bite the bullet and take a leap of faith!

  • K
    July 14, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Love this course! Best class I’ve taken πŸ˜‰

    I used to do the white zin. too and yeah, I don’t think I’ll be going back to that stuff. There’s better kinds out there!

  • Debbie
    July 14, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    I had no idea you used to work for Roy’s! Have you been there for lunch yet? They have a great $10 chef special that is a 1/2 grilled chicken sandwich, potato salad (ok not the healthiest choice but so good), shrimp lumpia (think shrimp egg roll) and a chocolate torte. YUMMY and you can’t beat the price.

  • Heather @ Health, Happiness, and Hope
    July 14, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Great reviews of all these wines. You definitely have quite the knowledge Jenna! Trust me, you’d be perfect for the Murphy Goode job. πŸ™‚

  • Shanna
    July 14, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Hi Jenna, I have been an avid reader of your site for a long time but it is my first time commenting. I have never really enjoyed Merlot and usually avoid it at all costs but your post today has inspired me to give it another try!
    Your crack at White Zin cracks me up! I always think it is like the Smirnoff Ice of Wine!

  • Still Life in South America
    July 14, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Great notes on reds, Jenna. I love your suggestion to drink Cabernet while eating mac and cheese. Cabs are my favorite.

    Also, your suggestion for Cabs from Argentina and Chile is excellent. I highly recommend Argentine Malbecs from Mendoza and the lesser known Carménère varietal from Chile. Both are slightly drier but juicy reds. Very good with manchego cheese.

    Salut! πŸ˜‰

  • Little Black Dress
    July 14, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    This was awesome! Thank you so much. I mentioned in my email to Murphy Goode that most of the wine books and magazines turn me off bc they seem complicated and stuffy, and you have done a great job breaking everything down! Thank you!

    Question- you, rightfully so, have focused a lot on good, light, fruity wines for newbies. I however, am the polar opposite. Cab is my drink of choice and I hardly ever order anything else bc Pinots and Merlots taste too lite to me too often. I of course adore a good oaky, buttery chard, but find the rest of the whites too “fruity” for my taste.

    Can you give some recommendations for some full-bodied, viscous wines for us hard core types? The best I have ever had is Brunello in Montalcino, Italy. Unfortunately, to buy a good bottle of Brunello here in the states, it’s about $80! Help!


    • jenna
      July 14, 2009 at 8:34 pm


      Thank you!! Love it. I recommend Murphy-Goode Snake Eyes Zinfandel because its ROBUST to say the least. Its perfect to go with an Italian meal, which I know you love!

  • Daria (Summer of the CSAs)
    July 14, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I always just ordered merlot when I first started drinking wine because I didn’t know any other grapes. When I discovered pinot noir I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! πŸ™‚

  • Madelin @ What is for Breakfast?
    July 14, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks Jenna! Maybe you could also do a post on Champagnes and Sparklings Wines? Also, you should try Picardy Pinot Noir from Western Australia if you can get your hands on it!

  • Julie
    July 14, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    I followed a debate in Europe for a while about the EU’s plan to allow blended rose wines. French producers protested and the EU recently caved and scrapped their plans. If you’re interested, here are some details:

  • Kristen
    July 14, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Hey Jenna!!
    I love the ELR Wine 101 series! Just one thing–have you ever thought about including some sort of pronunciation guide for people like me who are slightly clueless about some of the crazier ones? =]

  • megan
    July 15, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Jenna, I love these wine posts! Thanks for all the great information! I was inspired by your white wine post to try a new chardonnay with dinner last night, and now I’m sure I’ll be craving a glass of red tonight! I have a bottle of Mark West pinot noir on hand, which is one of my favorites (and a great value too!).

  • Marika
    July 15, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Similarly to you, I only drank white wine before living in Italy, but while in Italy I learned to drink (and love) reds! Where I live in Europe now we don’t have a huge selection of California wines, but red wines from Chile (like Vina Maipo) are readily available and reliably good.

  • Jennifer
    July 15, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Love your wine 101 post! Very helpful and informative. I actually write a wine colum as well in the Check it out when you get a chance!

  • JavaChick
    July 15, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Would Arbor Mist be a true White Zinfandel? I’ve never had it, but I was under the impression that Arbor Mist is wine with other stuff added – like fruit juice.

    I quite like Sutter Home White Zinfandel.