Let’s be honest.  Lots of us in the U.S. are either intimidated by, or put off by, wine snobs.  It’s OK, they won’t be reading this blog, so we can talk among ourselves.  The first time I tasted wine, I was 16 and on my first prom date.  My boyfriend’s parents made a really nice dinner for us, there was a bottle of red wine on the table, and they asked “Would your parents mind if you had a glass of wine with dinner?”  I assured them that it would be OK,  like any good teenager would, and then I took my first sip of wine.  Ugh!  It was bitter and strange.  And the bad part was that I was raised to always be polite at the table — to say you like whatever is given to you, and finish it.  That was the night I decided that from then on, I was making the rules, not my parents (and you know what fun that makes in a household with teenagers).  I digress…

Since my introduction to wine started off on the wrong foot, I didn’t touch it again for years.  But then one day, I began to pay attention.  Every time I saw wine served, it appeared to have a secret code that went with it — and if you didn’t know the code, you were trailer trash.  Yuck.

At places where real people gathered (in my very limited experience at that time), there was never a bottle of wine in sight.  Football games?  Beer.  Parties? Hard liquor and beer.  Dinner with friends? Anything but wine.  Then as I began to go to nicer,  more expensive restaurants, I’d see the fancy pants waiter with a white towel over his arm and a stick up his butt, strut over to the table beside us, present the wine, hand over the cork to be sniffed and squeezed.  It seemed like serious business, and I couldn’t see any fun in it at all.  In fact,  I thought it was silly and pretentious.

Long story short, I later changed my mind and decided I wanted to find out what all the fuss and pomp and circumstance was about.  Maybe drinking wine would make me more sophisticated.  (When you pick yourself up off the floor, we’ll continue.)

People who drank wine gave me this sage advice:  “If you want to learn about wine, start with wine coolers (red or white wine mixed with Sprite or something similar),  then you’ll move to sweet whites, then dry whites, and then gradually your taste will evolve and you’ll end up liking the biggest, baddest suck-your-teeth-out-dry Cabernet Sauvignon you can find.  So, wanting to develop a sophisticated understanding of wine, I started with wine coolers.

I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion or it’s just a logical progression for us to prefer something sweet and then graduate to more developed flavors that aren’t masked by sugar, but it worked on me.  In fact, I went so far toward really dry wine that I had to be knocked off my perch to realize that sweet wines weren’t necessarily for beginners and winos.

When we began traveling to Spain many, many…  yes, many, years ago, I immediately noticed that in normal restaurants, and family bars, lots of people were drinking wine.  And there were no black-tie, white-towel-toting waiters standing at attention while the man at the head of the table sipped the wine.  In fact, most of the time, as the waiter raced by the table, he plunked down an already opened bottle and everyone served themselves.  Hmmm….  this was a different attitude about wine.  And I was lovin’ it.

Here’s our challenge, then.  Little by little we’ll explore the wines of Spain.  But I promise you we’ll do it the Spanish way — fun and useful, with a simple explanation of the flavors and the characteristics of the wine, and how to pair that wine with great food.  We’ll start with some you may have heard of, and then explore some of the lesser known grapes of Spain.  It’s a much longer road than you would expect.  Spain has an incredibly wide range of grapes planted — one estimate says that there are over 600 varieties of grapes in Spain, although there are only 146 officially recognized varieties, and of those, 80 percent of the country’s  wine production is from only 20 grapes.  Whew, that’ll make it a little bit easier.  It’ll be fun.  And besides, it’s totally selfish. This way I can learn more as we go, and I don’t mind you looking over my shoulder.  See how thoughtful I am?