Women In Wine: Victoria Levin Teaches Us How To Navigate The Wine List

By Fabiana Santana

Walking into a wine bar isn’t always the most wonderful experience. Being bombarded with everything from Bordeaux to bianco might sound like fun for a seasoned wine expert, but for the rest of us, we are happy to get through ordering without looking foolish.  It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Many of the new wine bars popping up in neighborhoods everywhere are focusing on the wine enthusiast, not expert. And as long as you drink wine and like it, you are considered an enthusiast!

That is the thinking at The Tangled Vine, a hot new wine bar in Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood.  Wine director Victoria Levin has created a wine list that is organized from lightest to richest  –  so it is easy to navigate –  and makes sure to point out specific traits about the wine. For example, if it is organic, biodynamic or sustainable, Victoria lets you know.

I absolutely love watching a group of people sit down to dinner, somewhat awkwardly, somewhat tentatively and observe as they begin their wine journey for the night, “ she explains. “Slowly they start to let themselves go and enjoy each other’s company, soon laughing unabashedly and having a warm, generous time. Wine brings people together. It also tastes really damn good.”

Victoria was introduced to wine at a young age and has never taken a formal wine class.

“Be it a $4 table red at the end of my hard working father’s day or good ol’ Manischewitz as part of our Shabbat mini-rituals, I saw wine handled with love and admiration… and I always got a sip. Wine at my house was always cheap, always bold, and always respected. So, when I started as a Busser and Host at a local bar and had to completely fake my way through the wine questions via teenage feminine charm, my love for this crazy industry was officially sparked.”

Victoria  says she “became a sponge” to the restaurant’s Wine Director and made that her pattern at every restaurant she worked at. She truly has a love for wine and encourages women to explore the world, not shy away from it.

“I love that every day of its life, the same bottle of wine will taste differently. “

As for navigating a wine list, Victoria says start slowly and at the beginning.

“Many wine lists have a little blurb on the first page explaining the philosophy of that particular list – read it! Sometimes it helps. Then, hope for descriptions, they can also help. If something sounds interesting, ask for a taste of it. Know that most wines by the bottle cannot be opened for a taste, but anything by the glass can. That being said, please don’t ask for 5 tastes of 5 different wines. Enjoy yourself without pressure or criticism and see what you like or dislike.”

The Tangled Vine, 434 Amsterdam Avenue New York, NY 10024 (646) 863-3896

She suggests that beginners start with beginner wines. “Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Prosecco for white/sparkling and younger Pinot Noirs and Beaujolais for red (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau, which is an entirely different animal and more of a marketing ploy). Also important, and very much so: use the people who are pouring the wine for you! A server, bartender, Sommelier, Manager, someone there should know enough about wine and their particular list to guide you in the right direction. Just remember, be weary of the mechanic trying to sell you a new engine when all you need is your oil changed. The most expensive wine may or may not be the best, and if you don’t like it… stick to your guns.”

Victoria wants every single woman to walk into a wine bar with confidence. So, she made us a cheat sheet!

Take us through properly tasting wine: What are we looking for in terms of color? Smell? Why Swirl? What are the flavors we are looking for? When someone says dry, what does that mean?

To be frank, most people who taste wine as a bottle is presented or a glass is offered have no idea what they’re tasting for. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t matter! If you like it, drink it! I once had a customer polish off an entire bottle of totally oxidized and rather effervescent Chianti. I found out about it afterwards when he asked me if I’d like the last sip of his “new favorite.” I thought it was horrible; he was in love! Who cares… as I said, if you like it, drink it! However, of course there are certain guidelines for both novices and connoisseurs alike.

Color: Color is such a varied characteristic, depending on grape and terroir and certainly age. An older red can take on tones of blood and brick – delicious! An aged white can certainly lean towards orange as it develops. An unfiltered wine can be cloudy and thick, whereas a clean Sancerre is iridescent and crisp not just to the palate but to the eye. There are many degrees of what a wine should look like as it ages, from beautiful long legs to sadly turning brown, but there is no right or wrong here.

Smell: Part of this is pretty cut and dry. If it smells like your grandma’s basement, it’s corked. If it smells like an old wet towel, the bottom of your camping tent, moss and mildew and an old sponge, it’s corked. If it smells like pure rubbing alcohol and vinegar, it’s done and gone. However, wine can smell like some usual suspects of berries and apples and spice and – yup – grapes, or it can smell like leather and gravel and barnyard animals and cat pee… all positive aspects too! So, if it’s Burgundy Pinot Noir, you want stink and kink. If it’s New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you want grass and melons galore. Know that bringing the glass an inch away from your nose and taking a quick sniff won’t do the trick. Stick your nose as deep inside that glass as it can go and take a nice, loooong whiff. What do you smell at first? While you’re breathing in? On the finish? The complexity here is immense.

Swirling: Swirlage is completely necessary but is done wrong by most, and is overdone by many. You’re letting oxygen hit the wine and open it up, you’re livening up the bouquet, you’re letting it yawn and stretch and rub its weary eyes. There is no need for grand gestures or swirling so hard you rub a hole into the wood or marble, nor is it a good idea simply to shake the glass ever so slightly. Hold the stem of the glass tightly, and simply draw a few quick circles on the table with the base of it. It’s ok if it makes noise. It’s ok to take your time. The wine won’t judge you and neither should anyone else.

Flavors: Again, there are more terms to describe what a wine “tastes like” than there are actual ways a wine can taste. What you want is balance, complexity, depth and character. How you get there and how you define these is up to you. I happen to love a big, rich, bold red that either punches me in the face with leather and spice or surrounds me in a blanket of earth and chocolate. Sounds sexy doesn’t it? Well, wine is sexy! Really, what you don’t want to taste is a lot of alcohol or feel too much heat – maybe it’s too young to drink, maybe it was a bad year, etc. You certainly want proportion – sure, I love strawberries, but do I want strawberry juice or a glass of wine? Of course you want to avoid vinegar, once again that moldy basement, anything too tart or too bitter… the list goes on. Again, if you like it, if it simply tastes good to you, enjoy.

Dry: Ah, the ever misunderstood concept of “dry.” Many believe this to be the opposite of “fruity”, when in fact it simply refers to the amount of residual sugar a wine contains, all potentially affected by acidity, tannins, alcohol content… A wine can be chock full of fruit – think tropical salad for white or juicy raspberries for red – but if there is no “sweetness” or sugar on the finish, the wine is somewhat dry. A Riesling – which many assume to be permanently sweet – can certainly be dry, and many of them are. Don’t mistake fruit for sugar, although it’s quite easy to do. A great example is many woman’s beloved and widely consumed Sauvignon Blanc. Generally, it is a superbly dry wine, yet many drink it due to its high fruit content – honey dew, melon, grapefruit. The process of it all can be complicated, but ever so rewarding.