Dinner parties, client meetings, and office get-togethers: there are plenty of personal and professional events where you’ll (happily!) need to order—or serve—a bottle of wine. And although few of these circles will necessitate you knowing the best vintages from the Loire Valley or an ability to deliberate the benefits of aging in oak versus stainless steel, it’s smart to have a working knowledge of the basics.

But if you don’t know Chateau Montelena from Charles Shaw, don’t panic. This quick guide to the essentials will have you looking—and drinking—like a pro.

1. What Kind Do I Serve?

There are literally hundreds of types of wine. So how on earth do you know which to choose? Here’s the primer: champagne and sparkling wine are good gathering wines—the effervescence of sparkling wine goes perfectly with appetizers and lighter fare and, of course, the tradition of toasting makes having a glass of champagne in hand a classy touch.

White wine tends to have a lower alcohol content than red and pairs well with small plates and salads. It is usually served just a bit warmer than refrigerator temperature (pull it out  of the fridge about 20 minutes before serving).

Red wine typically pairs nicely with bigger, heartier entrees and is usually served just a bit cooler than room temperature (stick it in the fridge 20 minutes before serving).

2. How Much Should I Spend?

As with many things in wine, there is no correct answer. The definition of a “good” bottle of wine ranges from what tastes great to you and your guests to what pairs perfectly with your menu items to even the time of year. With so many variables, it’s tricky to narrow down exactly what you should expect to pay.

With that said, more money does not necessarily mean better wine. Sure, there are some high-dollar options that will do a mighty tasty job—California Cabernet Sauvignons are superb, but you’ll likely pay a pretty penny. Don’t forget that part of the fun is trying new wines to see what you like and finding gems for less than $10 or $20.

Often, wines from unexpected places (South Africa, Argentina, even Croatia!) will give you more bang for your buck. Find a Traminette from Kansas and you’re in for a wonderful (and remarkably Sauvignon Blanc-like) surprise!

3. Do I Smell the Cork?

If you’re in a restaurant, the server opens the bottle for you and hands you the cork. What for? Are you supposed to smell it? Um, no.

Unless you’re a bloodhound, corks the world over smell the same: like cork. Historically, the practice was done because corks were stamped and bottles were unlabeled, so it was a way for a restaurant to prove it was serving what was ordered.

On the rare occasion that the wine is bad (i.e., “corked”), having the cork may help you out: you’ll see wine all the way up the cork, meaning air will have gotten into the bottle and caused the wine to take on a musty or wet cardboard smell and taste (which isn’t harmful to you but sure is icky to drink). But 99% of the time, just ignore it.

4. How do I Serve?

If you’re hostessing, only pour wine glasses about halfway full (or even a little less), which  leaves room in the glass to give the wine a good swirl. Why swirl? A bottle of wine has been closed up for at least a few months, so let that puppy breathe! Swirling will aerate the wine and allow the full aromas to unfurl. Then, take a good sniff. As the wine is allowed some air, its “nose” (or scent) gets more complex and its flavor more intense.

When you take that first sip, go slowly. Enjoy. And give yourself at least three sips before you form an opinion. If you’ve been sipping another wine or noshing on something strong or spicy, the flavors of the new wine will need to build on your tongue before you can truly appreciate what’s going on in the glass.

There’s plenty more wine knowledge out there, of course, but the best way to learn about wine is to drink it! (Twist your arm, I know.) So experiment with new wineries, regions, and grape varieties. Note what you like (or don’t) about each, and have fun learning. Happy sipping!

Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan.