Buying smarter | Wine

Six simple rules for better, more satisfying wine drinking

Crowds will fill the aisles of the Boston Wine Expo this weekend, sniffing and swirling and sipping wines from around the world. They'll be there to meet importers and winemakers and sample varietals they've never heard of. Some will attend seminars by bona fide gurus. When it's all over, some will head home inspired to buy smarter and drink better in 2006. What are the chances they actually will?

The fact is, almost nothing that goes on at the Wine Expo is designed to make this happen. First, there's the scale of the event -- the ''so many wines, so little time" problem. A more serious dilemma is the lack of context. A format that encourages dipping a beak into Australian shiraz one moment and Prosecco the next isn't conducive to communicating the unique qualities of either.

There are ways to make your time at this event more profitable -- like doing your homework in advance, having a plan that focuses on a few areas of interest, and limiting your actual tasting. But when it's time to consider how you're going to do a better job of buying and enjoying wine in 2006, we suggest you give some thought to implementing some (or all) of our rules for drinking better and buying smarter.

Rule No. 1: Find a good local wine shop and be loyal to it.

Mom-and-pop, hip boutique, or something more ambitious -- if it has a personality, a point of view, and chooses wines by actually tasting them, then it's the real deal. If you're a regular, they know you by name and what you bought last week. You may not get the lowest price on a given bottle, but when the staff get their hands on some nifty close-out item, you'll get a call. Look for a shop where passion and experience are in evidence, and when you find it, stick with it. There's a reason this is the first rule. It's the most important.

Rule No. 2: Taste comparatively and often.

A sip here, a sip there -- the casual approach doesn't do much to train your palate, but some regular schedule of comparative, themed tasting will. Sip four Oregon pinots, or New World and Old World chardonnays side by side, and what you imagined were subtle differences suddenly emerge in high relief. It's the quickest way to get varietal character, regional styles, or what oak does into your head. More fun and effective when done in a group -- the chattier and more opinionated the better. And by the way, if your wine shop isn't pulling corks on a regular basis, you're in the wrong place.

Rule No. 3: Learn to write a tasting note.

It's true: You don't really know what you think until you write it down. Taking a tasting note forces you to pay attention to what's in the glass -- and let's face it, the better part of wine tasting is just paying attention. A note should be short, to the point, and useful. Name the wine completely, identify the vintage, then comment briefly on what you notice (color, aroma, flavors, texture, concentration, etc.). Purple prose is out. Conclude with a mark indicating overall appeal: a check, check plus, or check minus, for example. If a year hence your note conjures some modestly accurate memory of the experience, you've got it.

Rule No. 4: Move up to case buying.

Picking up the wine an hour before you intend to drink it is so graduate school. Now that you're engaged in some comparative tasting and in the habit of taking a note, you'll want to put your judgment to the test by making a modest investment in inventory. The first benefit is that your cost per bottle goes down, since 10 percent discounts are common even on mixed cases. The second is that your wine shop starts to take you seriously. The third is that you get to start a little wine cellar -- even if it's just a dark corner of your basement. The fourth benefit is not having to stop at the wine shop on your way home.

Rule No. 5: Read a good book.

Wine is something to drink, but it's also something to think. And although there's way too much information for any one person to absorb, there's plenty to be gained from running your eyes over good wine books. For updates on what's happening in various regions from vintage to vintage, there's nothing like Dorling Kindersley's small format Wine Report series, edited by Tom Stevenson. The latest is Wine Report 2006 (about $15). For something more comprehensive if less nimble, try the ''New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia" (about $50) from the same publisher and editor. We find the ''Oxford Concise Wine Companion" (Oxford University Press, about $20), edited by Jancis Robinson, an indispensable ready reference. ''Essential Winetasting," by Michael Schuster, is simply the best on the subject (Mitchell Beazley, about $30).

Rule No. 6: You never get anywhere drinking mineral water.