Vail Wine Ink column: Getting the most from your wine-buying experience
FOLLOW THE IMPORTERS
There are a number of specialty importers from various regions of the wine world that you can depend upon. You may not always like their wines, but you can be sure they will always be wines of quality. Simply look on the back label of the bottle to find the name of the importer.
• Australia: Old Bridge Cellars
• South America: Vine Connections
• France: Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant or Robert Kacher Selections
• Germany: Terry Theise Estate Selections or imported by Michael Skurnik Wines
• Italy: Leonardo LoCascio Selections or imported by The WineBow Group
• Spain: Jorge Ordóñez & Co.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Rombauer Vineyards 2014 Carneros Chardonnay — A decade ago, I had the privilege of working iconic football announcer Keith Jackson’s final game, the 2006 Rose Bowl between the University of Southern California and Texas. Following the epic matchup, we all toasted with a bottle of Rombauer. This 2014 vintage garnered a spot in the Wine Spectator Top 100 wines list this past year. If I had a bottle, I would drink a toast to Keith. Whoa Nellie.
In years gone by, to buy a book you went to an independent bookstore. You actually talked with the folks who worked there, walked the aisles, opened a few books and turned some pages. Perhaps you bought the book you came for, and maybe you made a new discovery and walked out with something different. Or both. Regardless, the experience was rich and full of wonder.
Today, mega-stores and Amazon have changed that dramatically. Book buyers may have gained convenience and bargains, but the experience has lost that wonder and richness.
The same is true with buying wine. Warehouse stores such as Costco (America’s largest wine retailer) and online retailers have made the process simple and perhaps a bit more affordable. But have they improved the wine-buying experience?
I think not.
For my money, still, the best place to buy wine is in a local, independent wine shop. People who have made the commitment and investment to run a wine shop come to the business with both a passion for and an understanding of wine.
So the first way to get the most out of your wine buying experience is to find a great wine shop and frequent it. This may require a little legwork at first, but you’ll be better for the exercise. Check out some shops, peruse the selections and ask some questions. Don’t be afraid to show your ignorance or lack thereof. If the wine pros are nice, knowledgeable and helpful, you have found your place. Frequent it. Spend your money there. Over time, a wine shop will become a part of your life as much as, say, your hairdresser or barbershop.
While the chains and onliners may have good prices on what they want to sell, the key is getting good prices on what you want to buy. There are a few ways to do just that.
First, buy by the case. Almost all wine shops give discounts to bulk buyers, and if you can purchase boxes instead of bottles, you can likely save up to 15 percent on your wines. What I like to do is buy, say, three or four bottles per case of special wines that may cost more and then mix my case with more affordable, everyday drinking wines. That way you get the case discount on those higher priced specialty bottles. Also, be sure to ask if the retailer can give you a better price for cash instead of a credit card purchase. The savings may be worth it for both of you.
Next, be aware of the specials the store offers. There are different times of the year when a wine shop may discount certain wines and you can really save a bundle. For example, just before New Year’s is a great time to buy Champagne, as the stores are flooded and major brands will be marked down considerably. Late in the spring, a shop may stock up on rose for summer and drop the price. A price cut combined with a case discount can mean big savings.
Conversely, keep an eye out for wines that are in the odd bins or that have been discontinued. Maybe the shop has not reordered a wine and they have given the space to something else. You may get clearance prices on great wines that, for whatever reason, don’t fit into the retailer’s future plans.
Getting good wine for less
Of course, the most important thing about buying wine, even more than the price, is getting wines you like. If you save a few dollars and don’t like the wine, then essentially you have wasted not just the savings but the actual purchase price, as well.
So how do you get the good wines for less? Here are a few tips:
Do a little homework. We live in an age where there is gobs of information and ratings on wines. Read the top 100 lists. Check out a few websites; Google the grapes you like. Have an idea before you go about what wines you may want to purchase and what their price points might be. It’s not that hard, and serendipitously, you’ll be expanding your wine education as you go.
Also, look for wines in value regions. Love Bordeaux? Then try wines using the same grapes from California. Or save even more by checking out Bordeaux blends from places such as Chile and Argentina. If you are drinking wines in the $20 to $30 range, there are more choices than ever before, and wines in that range from around the world have never been better. Also, keep an eye on exchange rates. A strong dollar ratio to other countries can mean savings.
Do you know what a second label is? In Bordeaux, First Growth producers began the tradition by using the juice that they did not put in their flagship wines to create other wines, second label wines, for additional bottlings. Chateau Latour, for example, has a second label called Les Forts De Latour, which uses fruit from the estate but is not anywhere near the price of the Chateau First Growth wine. Think around $200 versus upward (considerably upward) of a grand per bottle. And it’s not just the wines of Bordeaux. Makers around the wine world do second labels, as well.
Look for great wine companies and explore their less expensive offerings.
Finally, look on the back of the bottles of imports for the best importers (see “Follow the Importers”). Bay Area-based Kermit Lynch may be the most famous of the boutique importers, but these are people who understand the regions of the wine world and who only bring quality wines into the United States. If you can find an importer from a region that sells wines you like, stay with them.
Finally, and most importantly, look at buying wines as part of the overall wine experience. It’s all part of the process of discovery. Discovery of new grapes, new regions, new winemakers.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.