omni homo primum bonum vinum ponit et cum inebriati fuerint tunc id quod deterius est tu servasti bonum vinum usque adhuc
There are two types of people who write about wine: those who put forth the image of expertise and those who start by saying, "I'm no expert. I'm just someone who loves wine." In an attempt to elucidate my point I shall employ an analogy. When I was in college, there was a girl I tried to date once who was a fan of the music of Tori Amos. I too enjoyed the work of Tori Amos, but the experience taught me something. There are two types of fans of Tori Amos: those who love Tori Amos, and those who love Tori Amos and many other things in life as well. Being a latter at the time, it was immediately evident to both of us that an impassable chasm lay between the two mindsets.
While I do accept the designation of oenophile, I am strictly an amateur. I am never going to be one who gets paid to devote their life to wine. Given my vow of poverty, I'm never going to be one of those people who get to buy a case of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux and properly store it in a wine cellar for upwards of 20 years. But this does not mean that I am doomed to a life of bad wine. I do know a few things that may help the perplexed and thought it might be helpful to some hypothetical out there to craft a blog post on the topic. It is the next in my new series of "bon vivre sans crainte" posts.
You may have heard it said that a good, or even great, bottle of wine is not necessarily the most expensive. I will say right up front that this post is not intending to be a full course of the subject of wine, teaching you about all aspects on the subject, transforming you into a fountain of wit and fascination at your next cocktail party. This post is meant to fill a void that I see in wine discussions for the novice, which is simple direction on getting a good bottle of wine into your hands in a market flooded with variety, especially focusing on the audience who may have budget dictated restrictions. This is my contribution to the question "How do I even get started?"
Where to buy:
Ideally you will want to find a wine merchant. Depending where you're located this may be a small wine shop or one of those grand, lush (as it were) places with a bar made from the wood of a tree that Beowulf used to worship and a sommelier in a new and freshly pressed Monterey Jazz Festival t-shirt. If you're in Northern California like me or in other famous wine-making regions, there are vintners at your very backyard waiting to give you tours, tastings, and exits through the gift shop.
Also ideally, a wealthy eccentric has picked your name at random from a phone book, willed their multi-billion dollar estate to you, and died, leaving you to a life of leisure, beauty, philanthropy, and solving mysteries. In other words, the ideals above are the sort of thing that give the appearance of good wine being cost prohibitive. I will touch on the "investment wines" briefly, but we are mainly concerned with the daily glass, maybe the weekend dinner party glass, in this article. Above are the sort of places one can indulge in when one is on vacation or has a sudden windfall. But what about those of us who toil and labor for our happiness?
General rule of thumb: if you could, not saying you would, but if it is possible to go to make your purchase and buy a Snickers bar along with your bottle of wine, you are in the wrong place. A local organic food co-op is a good place to try. The sort places you go to avoid other supermarkets and wish you could just buy everything there (e.g. Trader Joe's, World Market, Whole Foods) are also decent places for our purposes.
A few words on the largest wine distributor in America:
Inevitably in these conversations, someone trying to be helpful will mention America's largest wine distributor. The largest wine distributor in America is Costco. For those of you unfamiliar with Costco, it is to Walmart what basic cable is to regular television. You pay a yearly subscription and can then purchase bulk items at the illusion of bulk item prices. For effect I shall indulge myself in the hyperbolic and state that my experience shopping there is to Dante's Gluttony circle of Hell (complete with three heads guarding the threshold) what Begotten is to the Book of Genesis. Yes, you can find a decent wine at Costco, but first of all, remember the candy purchasing tip. Second, the purpose of this entire endeavor is to improve the quality of our lives. While I cringe at those who apply the axiom broadly to all of life, I do feel that in the case of luxury items, the concept "If it's not fun, don't do it" is applicable. Granted, I suppose for the more adventurous out there a trip to an emergent lugubrious region re-enactment society in order to bring home a prize could be fulfilling in a Greco-Roman heroic sort of way. I cannot personally recommend this course of action.
What To Buy:
First and foremost, ask questions of people who know more than you. You may want to bear in mind that the person you're talking to may have recently had a meeting where their supervisor instructed them to push a certain wine, but that isn't always necessarily a bad thing. Just something to keep in mind. As Socrates said, "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing." Never be shy to learn. Ignorance is an opportunity to be seized. If there is a meaning to existence, I imagine it probably falls close to the whole "we are the process of physics appreciating itself" theory.
There are, however, a few guidelines I would offer.
Eschew the novelty wines. You may get a chuckle when you bring out the bottle of Scraping the Barrel or Cardinal Zin (and I hasten to add that these may be just fine. I wouldn't know and don't plan on finding out), but so often the memorability of those bottles does not extend beyond the label. Another rule of thumb: ask yourself What Would Jeeves Do? (you may even be able to procure a bracelet with that acronym) and then steer toward the more conservative labels.
This is your chance to explore and learn, try new things, and discover for yourself what you like and don't like. I would also steer you away from Pinot Noir as it is not a varietal generally associated with the word "budget."
I look for a red wine with a fairly deep punt (the indentation in the bottom of the bottle) about two finger-knuckles deep:
"Why?" Well, there are a lot of views of the punt out there. I was taught that it has to do with the distribution of the sediments at the bottom of the bottle and/or, more specifically, that the wine-maker cares about such things. If you are purchasing a nicer bottle of red, you will want to store it for several years and, when you do, things like sediment become important.
On the label you want to look for the word "Reserva" or some linguistic variation thereof. Briefly, it is generally the best of the batch.
But the key to buying better wine on a budget is knowing your regions. It's a bit reductionist to say that a particular region generally is known for doing something specific better than others, however "reductionism" is also today's secret word! Here's a quick chart which you can clip and keep in your wallet, culled largely from The Winemaker Cooks: Menus, Parties, and Pairings
Northern California- sparkling and white. Think "like the weather". Zinfandels and Shiraz to be sure but any good wine cellar/rack is going to have Sonoma Coast Chardonnays. It is also, for us deep red fans, the place for Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of wines, and Merlot, the archbishop.
Oregon's Willamette Valley- Pinot Gris
New Zealand- Sauvignon Blanc
France- Cabs, champagne. All those clarets from the Bordeaux region.
Italy- Falanghina, Soave, Aglianico, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabs
Australia- sparkling, Rieslings, Chardonnays, Semillons.
Spain- Andalusian sherry, Tempranillo, Macabeo, Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, Garnacha, Verdejo.
India- Ah, my beloved India! Cabs, Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zins.
Portugal-Port and Madeira
Chile- Cabernet and Merlot especially. Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Carmenere.
Switzerland- Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon
Argentina- Malbec, Cabs, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Torrontes.
There are more, but there's a good start. If this is for a dinner party, Chardonnay for chicken and fish, Cabs for beef. Leave pork pairings to the infidels. You're on your own with cheese and dessert. That is far to intricate a topic for our purposes here. Although I would take a moment to say that the dessert wines should be sweeter than the dessert and, therefore, should be poured with restraint.
A quick word on stoppers: In days gone by, a good wine was corked. This is no longer accepted wisdom and you can find really great wine with screwtops and those weird polymer corks. The days of recoiling from non-corked bottles are over.
When To Drink:
This is where a person in the know is indispensable in the purchasing of wine. Some wines are fine to drink as soon as you get in the door. Heck, in the car on the way home if you want! Some wines you want to let age slowly. Ideally you will have a place to store your wine out of direct light, cool, even a bit humid if you can swing it, stored on their side and turned every month or so.
How To Drink:
There's a reason why people keep wine in cellars. You want your reds cool and your whites cold.
Use all of your senses. Look, smell, taste. Um... listen, I guess. Remember that a great deal of your taste mechanism is ties up with your sense of smell. Historically, the practice of giving a sample at the table at a restaurant and the host of the table smelling, then tasting, is vestigial from by-gone days when one was more likely to encounter a bad bottle of wine.
Personally, I highly highly recommend a wine aerator. They are not that expensive and I will testify under oath that they work with red wines (largely useless for white wines.) They will make a great wine better, and a not so great wine better (we run a lot of Two Buck Chuck through ours.) Occasionally you will encounter someone who calls them a gimmick, but it is from the same type of person who would say that an electric mixer is a waste of time because you can whip egg whites by hand. Sure you can. Sure you can.
There is so much more that could be said, but I think I've provided a skeleton. Have fun and explore. Enjoy!