Moving on up

Whether we were talking about great barbecue wines or winter-warming reds, wine shop owners and staffers couldn't seem to help coming back to one thing: too many people aren't willing to experiment.

Instead, they'll stick with white zinfandel, a common gateway into the wine world. Champagne for special occasions. Cabernet? Gasp!

Making the transition isn't hard, said Josh Shapiro of Vino 100 in the Short North. But the evolution has to be smooth - jumping several rungs up the ladder will just leave you with a bitter taste.

"It's been a long time since I've had a white zin, but ... ," Shapiro trailed off, laughing. But he agreed to offer his suggestions for making the transition, which he called a "six-step plan."

White zinfandel ... riesling or gewurztraminer

These varietals are soft and sweet, but make sure you get one with some acidity to up the ante.

Pinot grigio

The sweetness is still there in the popular Italian wine, but this white brings a bit more body.

Chardonnay

This step is made easier by chardonnay's familiarity and availability. Still, with the wide range of chards, tell the staff at your wine shop what you liked about the pinot grigio to find one that's up your alley.

Pinot noir or beaujolais

The jump to red wine is typically the most challenging. Finding a red that's fruity, like an Australian pinot noir, might help balance out the bitterness that comes with increased tannin levels.

Shiraz or merlot

Select one of these easy-drinking reds based on what you liked about your previous picks. Again, a wine shop staffer can help.

Cabernet

Once you've reached this level, you're drinking "real wine," Shapiro said. Cheers are in order!

You can too

Making wine at home requires lots of interest, but no impatience.

The process takes about 16 months start-to-finish, but there's a rewarding end to the wait, said Nina Hawranick, who owns The Winemaker's Shop in Clintonville with her husband.

The store sells everything you need for the process, and a basic equipment starter kit costs about $90. There's also "just add water" prepackaged winemaking kits that take only four or five months to complete.

If you're looking to really call the wine your own, though, this is what you'd do:

1. Combine the wine base - this can be a ready-made mix, or pieces of fruit, vegetables, other plants - with sugar, enzymes, yeast and tannins in a five-gallon plastic bucket, where they will ferment for one week. On top of the bucket, you'll place an air lock half-filled with water to keep air and other contaminants from entering. Stir twice a day if you're using a solid base.

2. A week later, filter that liquid to a narrow-necked jug called a carboy, which has less surface area. You don't want any solid materials at this point, so make sure you press the juice out of the wine base if you used a pulp. Top off with water so there's no air in the jug. A stopper and air lock go on top.

3. The wine will ferment and settle in this stage, dropping little pieces of sediment to the bottom of the jug. Every few months, siphon the liquid out and remove the sediment. This is called "racking."

4. When the wine is beautifully clear for months straight, add any flavorings you want, like oak chips or vanilla beans. Let that sit for another week, and then you're ready to bottle.

5. This is the fun part. Pick your bottles, siphon in the wine, and top it off with a cork - you'll need a machine for that. Think about labels and bottleneck covers as a special touch on your work!

Other vino things to know

* What does the year on the label mark?

The year is called the "vintage," and it marks the year the grapes were grown and harvested. An unmarked bottle is a blend that may include grapes from several different harvest years.

* Do you want the oldest wine you can find because it's been aged longer?

Stores primarily carry ready-to-drink wines these days, so if it's for sale, it's ready to drink. Vintages are more important when collecting pricier wines and those meant to be aged. Anymore, only real enthusiasts have wine cellars where they age wines for years.

* What gives wine its color?

The skins of the grapes, since grapes' juices are colorless or golden. White wine is usually fermented from green grapes, without the skins; for red wine, seeds, stems and the skins from dark grapes are included in the fermenting process. Rose is either made from red grapes whose skins are removed earlier in the process, or it's a blend of finished white wine and finished red wine.

* How long can you keep an opened bottle of wine?

If you re-cork it (plastic wrap and a rubber band work if you've thrown the cork away) and keep it in the fridge, it will last another three to five days. Over time, oxygen will reduce the wine's flavors and aromas.

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