Beginner’s Guide to Wine Buying

wine-hot-tub1If it is possible to have too much of a good thing, then the retail wine market could be a nominee for this dubious distinction.   Walk into a wine store or, worse, browse an online wine sellers’ website and you’ll be overwhelmed by the choices available to wine purchasers.   Its not red wine that causes headaches, its red wine buying!   After almost two decades of wine buying, I’ve concluded that it’s REALLY hard — especially if you are a value-shopper, like us.

Our goal in wine shopping is to find $10-$15 bottles that taste like the wines for which some people pay $40-$50.   And because wine quality is so subjective,  pricing does not necessary equate to quality.  We can’t tell you how many times I’ve drank “expensive” ($50-$100) and been underwhelmed by the price/quality ratio.   Bottom line:  you don’t need to spend $30-$50 on a bottle of wine in order to experience a smooth, sensual and interesting wine tasting experience.

For those of you out there who have found your favorite wineries and stay loyal to those brands,  you probably don’t need to read on.   But so many wine buyers are looking for reasonably priced, good quality wine — what I call “value wines” — that will enhance a meal or amplify the communal ambiance in a gathering of friends.   Sharing a good bottle of wine is like a warm embrace; it says “welcome and glad to have you join me” in a juicy language.   Or, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote:  “Wine is bottled poetry.”   If we have to endure poetry, we don’t mind so long as it comes in a wine glass.

The problem:  wine buying is just too damn confusing and the “ratings” system that the industry has created has its problems.  (see our blog about the Wine Ratings Ruse).  And it takes way too much time to become anything close to an expert on wine…..I mean, we all have busy lives and can’t afford to attend sommelier school.    So we recommend that you not try to become an wine expert.

We strongly suggested strategy for value wine buying hinges on one concept:  rely upon the experts.   There are two expert wine buyers/sellers in most every city in the U.S.    Your local wine discount wine shop and Costco.    Costco is amongst the largest wine buyer on the planet  and certainly the largest in the U.S— it buys massive amounts of wines.    Their prices are highly competitive, usually ranging between 10%-20% lower than any other wine discounter.    According to the ReverseWineSnob,  Costco’s average margin (per their financial filings) is about 12%. Costco has stated that the highest margin they will take on a non-Costco brand is 13% and they strive to keep it closer to 10%. On private label (Kirkland Signature) items they will go up to 15% margin but of course the price is still lower than other brands because they cut out the middle man.

The other advantage offered by Costco is that its buyers know their wine.    Amongst their best values are the Kirkland-brand Signature wines.   With these wines, Kirkland has negotiated with a quality wine maker for excellent quality varietals using the Kirkland label.   We’ve found their Cabernets and Bordeaux-style wines to be excellent values.   Consumer Reports rated the Kirkland Sonoma Chardonnay a Best Buy.   And even better, there’s a wonderful wine blog that focuses entirely on rating wines sold at Costco.   It is a gem of a site and I highly recommend it.   (disclosure: we are a contributing reviewer on the CostoWineBlog site)  Review this site before heading off to Costco (or download the mobile app on your phone) and you are fully prepared for a great value wine hunt in Costco’s spacious aisles.    Just recently we found a 2010 Château Petit-Freylon Cuvée Sarah bordeaux at Costco selling for about $6 per bottle.  It is a good basic Bordeaux offering good fruit, some complexity, terroir and relaxed tannins that would complement just about any dinner.   Grab it if you find it.

The other expert upon whom you can rely is a local wine discount shop.   In San Diego, we found and rely upon the San Diego Wine Co.    They have weekly tastings where, for about $10,  I can try their wines and figure out which ones resonate with my particular palate.   Further, they have some very knowledgeable owners who have developed their inventory based upon their own wine evaluation skills and knowing what their customers like.    More often than not, if we describe to them what we like, they’ll point mus in the right direction.   Most every urban area has similar stores.   Wine Exchange in Orange County is particularly good.   We like Los Angeles’ Winehouse store on Cotner Ave for its tastings and selection.   The Bay Area has K&L Wines and JJ Buckley,  both of which are very good purveyors.   Spending some time getting to know the owners and/or salesfolk at these establishments will make value wine hunting so much more rewarding and successful.

These discount wine stores also give you access to wine closeouts.   In the crazily-priced upper-tier wine markets,  the wineries often can’t sell their stock at the lofty price point they’d hoped for.    So they will often dump excess inventory through the wine discounters — selling their $40 bottles at a fraction of that original price.  I’ve landed some very nicely crafted wines through these “inventory dumps” or through “wine divorces” which are when a winery and wine distributor terminate their business relationship  (usually because the wine isn’t selling at the price that the winery demands) and the distributor dumps this “breakup” wine onto the market to reduce their warehouse inventories.    The downside is that these are one-time buys that will likely not be available in the future.    But still,  it’s a nice way to add some higher priced wines to your collection while staying true to your 10-15 buck cut-off.

And for those of you who want to cut to the chase and just want a list of good wines worth trying……….well, I have to warn you that everyone’s taste buds are different.   we like red Bordeaux-style blends, Australian-style shiraz and oak-bombed California chardonnays.    Some of the best values that I’ve found in the $8-$13 price category are:

– Louis Martini Sonoma Cabernet

– Milbrandt Traditions Cabernet or Merlot

– Benziger Family Merlot

– Kirkland Signature Series Cabernet Mountain Cuvee or Stags Leap  (slight more expensive, but a great splurge)

– Concha y Toro Carmenere

– H3 Merlot and most Columbia Crest Grand Estate varietals

– Marques de Caceres Rioja

– Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay

– Carmenet Reserve Chardonnay

There are a number of French Bordeaux and Burgundy wines that are decent values — especially the table wines.  While French wines have gotten overpriced in the last decade, they are still exporting some decent food-pairing wines at reasonable prices.  Similarly, Spain is currently producing a number of excellent value wines, largely tempranillo-based.   However, we’ve not found any reliably good values that we can recommend, year in, year out.   Still, if you have the time and interest, the French and Spanish wines are currently worth exploring.

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