To grow your tastebuds, know your palate

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A reader writes: "I'm a 62-year-old man who's trying to develop into wine drinking, given its health benefits.

My local supermarket seems to have a plentiful supply of available wines.

Quite frankly, my hit-or-miss purchases have not left me enamored of wines.

I'm hoping to get some input or suggestions to help me in this pursuit. I'm looking for mild, nonsweet and enjoyable types of wine. Your candor is appreciated.''

Though this would seem to be a simple enough request, it pretty much stumps me. I would love to be of value to this reader -- in fact, to all readers -- but in order to find and recommend some wines that would generate more hits than misses, I need more information.

Here are some pointers that will help anyone hoping to find more wines that they can enjoy. I don't wish to sound geeky or snooty, but it's not very useful to try to describe the sort of wines you like in such general terms as mild, nonsweet, dry, etc.

It is often the case that people say they like dry wines, for example, when they really prefer off-dry.

Or sometimes they may be served a wine that is technically dry and they find it too sweet.

So it is more helpful to isolate certain can't-miss characteristics that speak to what you know you enjoy.

Start with red or white. Most novice wine drinkers prefer one over the other.

Next, think about what type of meals you enjoy. The food matchup can sometimes be the deciding factor as to whether or not you like the wine.

This need not be a chore, and it's fine to experiment, but some things just don't work. If you really like hamburgers and only drink sweet white wines, that's going to be a challenge.

How about price? It's difficult to find wines that are more than just quaffable if your spending limit is less than $8 a bottle.

If you want to explore more rarefied flavors, try wines from small producers and expect them to be more expensive than wines that are mass-produced.

The most helpful thing you can do is jot down the full name and vintage of any wine you encounter that you genuinely enjoy. If you can indicate just one specific wine that you truly like, it provides a starting point for your wine adviser, whether that person is a columnist, a friend, a sommelier or a retailer.

For example, another reader wrote with this query: "Zins, typically, are getting too 'elegant' for my taste. Seems like they are leaving out the spice and pepper.

Even the Ridge Geyserville and Lytton Springs seem a little too elegant to me these days. Can you recommend an old-time zin for me?''

With just this information I know this person is interested in a specific grape, and also that the wines cited are not the style the reader has in mind.

By old-time zins (such as would have spice and pepper flavors), I am guessing that they would probably enjoy field blends, perhaps harvested at lower ripeness than the monsters that are made today.

So I could point to some old-time producers such as Pedroncelli or Foppiano, who make affordable zins and blends that are more rustic than elegant.

Last but not least, maintain a spirit of adventure.

No matter how many wines you taste, or how much you know about wine, there will always be disappointments along the way.

Focus on the successes, identify everything about them that you like, and you improve your percentage of winners immensely.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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