Wine 101: Four Benchmark Reds

Sommelier and founder of LearnAboutWine Ian Blackburn talks to us about pinot noir and more

Do you know your Grenache from your Gewurztraminer? Neither do we. So we’re talking to the pros—master sommeliers, wine shop owners, vintners—to get a better basic understanding of the vine, grape, and that delicious liquid in our glasses. Welcome to Wine 101.

Getting started on the road to wine can be a little intimidating, especially when you’re a newbie like me who is more versed in the ways of cocktails and beer. So many wine regions to memorize! And those wine tastings where people pick up scents like wet stones and a Granny Smith apple? I, uh, smell grape?

But the best way to learn is to familiarize yourself with the basic red and white wines first. Nothing crazy yet like Nebbiolo and Gewurztraminer. Do a wine tasting in the privacy of your own home among friends where you feel free to share your tasting observations like “It smells like cat pee” without any judgment. It really is fun stuff.

For suggestions on some good red wines to begin with (I’ll cover whites in a future post), I went to L.A. wine expert Ian Blackburn, founder of, a wine education and event site that hosts palate building classes and wine tastings. 

Ian picked benchmark reds that are perfect examples of the grapes they represent and easy to find in your local wine shop.

2009 La Fenêtre À Côté Pinot Noir: “A good wine for the money would be À Côté made in Santa Barbara by Joshua Klapper…one of the good guys. It’s ready to drink, very varietal, very pretty and doesn’t require any aging but it is not overripe or ends up tasting like a different grape.”  Also try: Riverbench, Bonaccorsi, Brewer Clifton, D’Alfonso Curren and Crawford Family

2010 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot: “In terms of classic references for Merlot, in my class I use Duckhorn. They are just spot-on with style and character for the Merlot grape. They’re not trying to turn it into Cabernet and play off the “chocolate covered cherry” references. There’s so many good Merlots right now and at cheap prices…. this is more expensive but a very strong offering.” Also try: Swanson, Cakebread, Peju, and Gentleman Farmer

2009 Silverado Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: “I really like Silverado as a readily available brand. Napa Valley 2009 is current in the market right now. It’s a really good Cabernet that tastes like good Napa quality Cabernet should. Hints of eucalyptus/mint on the nose (think Vicks Vapor Rub) and then cassis fruit in both the nose and palate. All of these are expensive enough that they have the proper production techniques, but a good value from Napa Valley (cheaper wines may have too much manipulation to be correct).” Also try: BV Rutherford, St. Supery, Peju, and Joseph Phelps

2010 Mauritson Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel: “It’s a really good representation/character of Zin as Clay’s family is a specialist. They are focused on Zin, it tends to be nice, chewy fruit from berry to plum skin, slightly elevated alcohol, lots of bite and not too jammy. Zinfandel from Dry Creek is really classic and delicious and probably as close to an international wine as this varietal produces.” Also try: Dry Creek Vineyards, Bedrock, Ridge and Biale

Now get to tasting! If you feel like trying your hand at those descriptors, here’s a wine tasting grid.

This weekend, check out LearnAboutWine’s “Exploring Pinot Noir.”