Forget labels, grapes, ratings, or prices. The best lesson I learned about wine was to drink what I liked.
So you don't taste apricot, rose petal, earth, smoke, or whatever else some classically trainer sniffer tells you is in the glass. Who cares. Oh, you do care. Then start by appreciating that wine, unlike many spirits, relies heavily on provenance. And follow some steps. We like the ones from a past Esquire article:
1. Always decant your wine. It's anybody's guess which wines need to "breathe" and for how long, but decanting a wine is a good way of signaling to your guests that they're about to drink something worthy of special treatment. Enjoyment of a wine tends to be strongly influenced by how good we expect it to be.
2. Choose based on the label. The foundational text for this emerging branch of wine theory was written by Matthew Latkiewicz, who is no one's definition of a wine expert. The basic idea is this: Our impressions of the wines we drink are influenced by what we think of the label (see #1), so choosing a wine based on the label isn't so crazy, after all. I personally like to go for Old World bottles with pictures of châteaux on them, or New World ones with animals doing things or trendy graphic-design elements.
3. Spend $15-$30 per bottle. It's unlikely that you're going to get anything totally undrinkable in this range. A real expert can suss out a fantastic $9 bottle. You, friend, are not a real expert, so don't play that game. Don't spend over $30 for a wine you haven't tasted. Wine tasting is subjective. One man's ambrosia is another's cat urine.
4. Drink your reds colder. Can you think of a single drink other than wine that people tell you to drink at a tepid 70 degrees? While there are certain science-y advantages in terms of opening up a wine's aromas, I find wine at this temperature to be hard to get through. I always chill my red wine down a little bit before drinking — we're not talking "Tap the Rockies" here, just pleasantly cool and refreshing. Also, if a wine is not so great, this tends to mute its objectionable characteristics.
5. Ask the guy at the wine store for help. Regardless of what his tastes are, he'll give you some great material to regurgitate to your guests. Such as:
"The interesting thing about this Merlot is that it's made by a fourth-generation Napa grower who's still using the same vines his great-grandfather brought over from France."
There. The wine tastes better.
6. Serve the best wine first. If it's hard to tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine when you're sober, just try doing it once you've had a few glasses (alcohol deadens the palate). So, save the plonk for the end of the night, and no one will be the wiser.
If all else fails, go to Bar Luca.