Shopping for WineFebruary 1, 2012

John St. Mark
"Where should I shop for wine?" "How can I be sure I’m getting a good deal?"

I get questions like these a lot, and I sometimes catch myself giving really unhelpful answers. As someone who works with wine, my priorities can be a little distorted, so I thought it might be interesting to pass the question on to a few old friends. They represent different generations and different economic circumstances, but they share a sincere appreciation for good wine. Where do they get it?

Roxanne and Duane live in a small, modern loft near the center of town. They both enjoy cooking and Duane, an avid fisherman, frequently has fresh seafood on hand. I noticed a small wine rack in their kitchen with some interesting labels: Alsatian pinot blanc, albariño from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, classic Bordeaux and Rhône reds… "Those were gifts, mostly;" Roxanne tells me "we open those on special occasions."

What about everyday?

"We don’t drink wine everyday, but we usually have something from the supermarket handy. I would feel guilty opening up a fancy bottle just for myself. I actually like this just fine." Duane shows me a magnum of sauvignon blanc from one of California’s best-known wineries. It’s available across the country at a modest price.


"We do splurge every now and then" Roxanne adds. "I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I often pick a bottle just because of the label. A beautiful bottle can be very appealing. It contributes to the aesthetic experience of a good meal."

So, where do you buy it?

Duane tells me: "The same place we shop for food. They have a reputation for high quality and discounted prices. It wouldn’t be worth it to us to spend a lot of time looking around for a better deal. Time is precious."

Alan and Maribel always have wine with dinner, but "we’re not willing to pay what they’re asking for the wines we like. When we lived in Europe wine was just another grocery purchase, not a luxury. There were places that sold really good bulk wine at prices comparable to what you would pay for bottled water. In the U.S., most wine is distributed through a three-tiered system, meaning that not only the producer and the retailer are making a buck, but also the guy in the middle who is responsible for distribution. It adds up to high prices for the consumer."

As Alan tells me this, we are sipping a very nice torrontés. Where did he find it?

"You know those discount grocery stores that sell overstock? They carry merchandise that is already close to the expiration date, right? I wouldn’t go there to buy milk or fruit, but there is one near here that has a big wine section. I’m guessing that they get it from distributors who need to clean out their warehouses. It’s wine that didn’t sell initially, so mostly it is older vintages of lesser-known stuff, but if you don’t mind taking a chance you can get great deals. It takes some getting used to -standing in line with the folks buying hotdogs with food stamps – and you have to know what styles suit your taste and what is likely to age well. It’s fun though, because the selection is constantly changing. There is some awful stuff, but you can find excellent wines, like the one we’re drinking now, at a small fraction of the price you would expect to pay. It’s the distributor who’s taking the hit; he bet on selling the wine at a higher price, and lost."

Martin has been enjoying California wine since the 1950s, and he still takes an occasional trip through the Northern California wine country for "provisions."

"We used to just drive around Napa and Sonoma, and stop wherever we could find someone who’d open the door for us. They’d let you taste whatever you wanted back then, and we’d always buy a bottle, at least, just to be polite. If we really liked something we’d pick up a case or two and split it among ourselves. We’d bring along some food and stop for a picnic at some point. It was just a great way to spend a day with friends… Lately I don’t try to visit so many places. I don’t like the crowds, and I don’t like all the fancy silliness. We visit maybe three or four places, mostly well off the beaten track, then have lunch at a restaurant and head home."

Do you save much, buying direct from the wineries?

"I think we used to, but not any more. Prices are in line with what you find in stores. They have those clubs, which send you wine, but I’m not interested. I like making the trip up and choosing my own wine. I like seeing the land, and talking to the guys who work there. That’s why I stay away from the most popular places; I don’t go there to get a sales pitch from some kid with a marketing degree."

Duncan grew up around good wine. His parents entertained often, and kept plenty of wine on hand; Duncan has enjoyed a successful professional career and carries on that tradition. He and his wife live in a spacious house where he has established an extensive wine cellar in the basement.

Where does he get his wine?

"When we first moved here I was still buying one bottle at a time. I would just pick something up at the liquor store near my office; they have a small selection but it includes some good French wines and some of the better California producers. Once I got the cellar set up, I went back to the wine shop where my father used to go. They work directly with importers and small wineries, and they are very knowledgeable. They know what I like, and their recommendations are reliable."

But are you getting a good deal?

"I buy by the case, so I get a discount, but that isn’t the reason I go there. They have the best wine available and they inform me in advance of opportunities to acquire rare and exceptional wine. I feel as though they are taking care of my cellar for me. I also like the idea of carrying on the relationship my Dad established with them. He became friends with the owner, who still talks about him a lot. I inherited my Dad’s wine when he passed away; some of it is really old, but this guy remembers every bottle."

Do you think, just maybe, you may have more wine than you need?

"Well… I may not end up drinking it all, if that’s what you mean. Still, I like knowing it’s there. If people are over, or if we have something to celebrate, I know I can always pull up something special. When I go to bed at night, I have all this great wine down stairs… It’s a very satisfying feeling."

From the Editor: To sum up, everyone can and should enjoy wine. It doesn’t matter if you’re a connoisseur or just a casual imbiber. Wine should be enjoyable and affordable … and it is.

If you’re educated on wine, have a highly refined palate, and a fat budget to boot, then there’s nothing wrong with acquiring a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1945 for $30,000.

On the other hand, the Red Diamond 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon that I bought 6 bottles of for $7.99 each, on sale from $9.99 are excellent. The wine rates anywhere from an 86 to an 89, and I agree with the 89 rating.

Don’t be afraid to dive right in, experimenting not only with trying different wines, but with buying them at different places as well.

Remember this simple fact – If you’re enjoying it, you’re doing it right.

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