buy wine I like

Because I’ve been asked, by three of the four people who actually read this blog, and because those three or four people occasionally have me for dinner, (and so it’s in my interest to influence their taste)—for these reasons, I’ve written this primer for buying wine. It’s biased, but it’s all true.

1. Buying wine without knowledge of the individual producer is gambling. You read the label as best you can for clues as to what kind of wine it’s going to be and whether you’re going to like it, and then you bet the bottle-price that you’re right. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win big. The more you know, the better your odds.

2. There are tricks that help narrow the odds fast, like knowing the rules of a card game. It is good to know the rules of poker before you put money down, say.

3. The first rule is that place of origin trumps grape. This is less a factor of climate than of culture: Californians tend to make one style of wine, Burgundians another. However, it is also true that most non-Europeans tend to make similar wines. This is because they have no tradition, and so follow fashion: they make what sells.

4. The fashion currently is for big, viscous, jammy, fruity, high-alcohol, often vanilla-flavored (oaky) wines, which are made to be drunk like cocktails and usually detract from a meal. These wines are friendly to palates used to syrupy soft drinks, and to people who need to be smacked to be impressed enough by a wine to spend money on it. Rule: non-European wine from an unknown producer will usually be made in this style.

5. European wine is vastly more interesting, more varied, more difficult, and more likely to improve and improve with the taste of good food. Every region makes several wines in styles altogether distinct from every neighboring region. Many people find this intimidating, and try to cling to grape varieties, which are used to roughly designate style in New-World wines. This method is doomed. Rule one again: place of origin trumps grape.

6. You don’t have to be familiar with (it’s a cliché) every hamlet in France to consistently buy good wine at a good price. There are tricks.

    Trick #1: Choose a region (a country will do) and only drink wines from that region until you get a sense of it. Then, choose another.

    Trick #2: Forget regions, buy by importer.

7. A bottle’s importer is usually listed on its back label. Some importers are huge, follow fashion, and are only out to make a buck. Others are boutique operations with two employees who only sell wine they believe in, aesthetically, politically, spiritually. Each importer has its own palate and its own politics, and may or may not have distribution where you live. The trick for you is to find a few you agree with. Once you do, you’re golden: buy everything they import that you can afford; they will rarely lead you astray.

Appendix I—Miscellaneous advice that didn’t fit anywhere else: Wines from famous places are usually overpriced. Wines with over 13.5% alcohol tend to be more viscous and less versatile with food than lighter ones. Beyond this fact, don’t sweat food-pairings. Forget any prejudice you may have against pink wine, or red or white for that matter. It’s silly. Don’t sweat whether a wine is “good” or not. It’s a drink, after all, not a class marker. That said, one in maybe ten bottles sealed with natural cork is “corked,” and will taste a little like mildew or wet cardboard. A reasonable wine-seller will refund you for these, with a receipt.


7 Comments on “buy wine I like”

  1. Earl Hartman says:

    Will:

    I guess you just aren’t a snob. For most people, wine, like pretty much everything else IS a class marker. They drink it to impress their friends or to defer to the opinions of people by whom they are intimidated so they can fit in with the crowd, and to display their supposed sophistication to their betters (and to people they feel are lower on the social ladder than they are). As Bertie Wooster said, it is sometimes impossible to resist the fatal urge to swank.

    I agree with you on the ridiculous trend on the part of winemakers in California to produce these “monster Cabs” or whatever they call them. Perhaps such wine has its place, but I prefer something a little less “LOOK AT ME!! POWERFUL ENOUGH FOR YA!??!? to go with my food. It just seems so typically American to go for the “big” thing.

    I disagree on your pairing advice, though. I agree that this subject gives people much too much of an opportunity to display their inner pedant (or snob), but a Pinot Grigio goes much better with a sole meuniere than a Zinfandel does. I think that in general (depending on the preparation, of course) the “red wine with red meat and white wine with chicken and fish” holds up fairly well, as a general rule of thumb, or a point of departure. You just have the self-confidence to experiment and not follow such rules blindly just because someone said they’re the rules.

  2. Ed Pluchar says:

    Will – Great tips.

    I have to confess that I typically enjoy Cabs, although I hate to think there’s a link there to sugary, syrupy drinks. Either way, I’m glad to learn more about grape vs. region vs. importer. I had no idea the importer was such a factor, though it makes perfect sense.

    Also, I suppose that you now have 5 readers.

  3. Will Huenink says:

    Earl, we don’t really disagree. I am very keen on pairing. But it’s a good first lesson, I think, just to consider that big cabs and zins might actually detract from a meal. And not to worry. There is so much worrying about wine. As for class and wine, of course it’s a fascinating subject, but it shouldn’t weigh on the mind of someone trying to wring a little pleasure out of fermented grape juice. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Ed, don’t mind me. Good to have you aboard.

  4. Earl Hartman says:

    Big cabs and zins don’t really go with anything. They can be fine drunk alone, and I suppose some of them might be quite good if you like that sort of thing, but something with an 17-18% alcohol content is going to overpower pretty much any kind of food.

  5. Isamu Hartman says:

    I will definitely start paying attention to the identity of the importer. Never even thought about it.

  6. Will says:

    Earl, that’s what I mean about their being made to be drunk like cocktails, but I don’t think it’s limited to the 17%+ set. I find if I think about them like Port we get along better.

    Isamu, yeah, importer is big. Probably single biggest thing that sells me a bottle, but I have a very limited selection usually. Joe Dressner, Terry Theise, Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, a few of my favorites worth looking up if you’re curious about the concept.

  7. Earl Hartman says:

    Not sure how the importer thing works with kosher wine, Isamu.

    Howver, you can be pretty sure that whatever Carmel imports is going to be pretty much undrinkable.


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