A new year brings opportunities for new beginnings, new adventures. Therefore, I offer four ways to spice up your wine exploration in 2012, because even with something as varied and diverse as wine, it's easy to fall into a rut.
Visit a wine store you've never been to before. If you normally buy wine at a supermarket, check out the nearest specialty wine retailer. Yes, it might mean investing a little more time, but your reward will be greater variety and better value for the price.
Get to know the store owner, and ask him or her to recommend a bottle in your price range but out of your comfort zone. You might find a wine that's not available anywhere else in the area; it's an experience you're unlikely to have at the grocery store.
Keep a journal. If 90 percent of success is just showing up, the key to wine appreciation is paying attention. You don't need to create a database of every wine you've ever tasted, but taking notes can help jog your memory about a wine you liked last month: You know, the one with the blue label. This also can help your conversations with retailers.
I use an app called Evernote that allows me to snap a photo of a wine label with my phone and enter a few words, then syncs automatically with my iPad and home computer. When I'm feeling more traditional, I use a Moleskine notebook.
Explore a new wine region. Do you love Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon? Try something different: a cabernet from the Santa Cruz Mountains or Washington state's Columbia Valley. Or explore Napa's sub-regions and learn to recognize the stony minerality of the Stag's Leap District and the gritty earthiness of "Rutherford dust."
More a pinot noir fan? Try comparing pinots from the Sonoma Coast with those from the smaller Russian River Valley, or contrast pinots from Santa Barbara County's two valleys, the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria. Oregon pinot? Compare those grown on maritime soils with ones from volcanic soils. You might even learn some of the geological history of the Pacific Northwest.
Drink local. Take a day trip or weekend getaway to your local "wine country;" visit a few wineries, stay at a local bed-and-breakfast, eat at a local restaurant. Then come home and tell your local retailer about the wines you liked.
Keep in mind that wherever you travel for business or pleasure, you are in wine country. Maybe you won't have time to escape that conference in Phoenix to visit a winery, but the restaurant might have Arizona Stronghold on its list. W herever you are, make it a point to ask about local wines. If the restaurant offers them by the glass, that's an easy way to try something new.
One of my most memorable wines in 2011 was an Ehrenfelser — a grape I'd never heard of — from Cedar Creek Estate Winery in Canada's Okanagan Valley, bought at a Vancouver store that sells only British Columbia wine. I have a photo of it in Evernote.