When buying wine, it’s best to do it with someone else’s money. Sadly, that option is not often available. So you want to get good value for your money and enjoy each sip.
There are many different places and ways to buy wine. Specialty wine shops offer broad variety and excellent advice. Nothing beats the local supermarket or corner liquor store for convenience. Warehouse clubs have great pricing. Depending on your state, you may be able to order wines online from shops with huge catalogs. You can pick up special wines at auctions—just don’t let adrenalin overcome your wallet. You can splurge on a special bottle at a nice restaurant. Perhaps the most fun and interesting way to buy is in a winery’s tasting room. No matter where you buy though, there are some basics principles you’ll want to keep in mind. Here are my thoughts on being a good shopper.
Nobody else has your palate
Friends and experts can tell you what is good… to them. Their opinions are probably very sound, but they don’t necessarily know what you like. Something they think is excellent may be too oaky for you, or too mild. Over time, you should try a lot of different wines and learn how to express what you like. Then, when you’re looking for something new to try, you can better guide the store clerk toward wine you will probably like.
Not all critics have the same palate
There are a lot of excellent and well-meaning wine writers assigning points, stars, or golden corks to wine in magazines, newspapers and on the web. Most of these people have a lot of experience and are expert tasters. And many of them disagree with each other’s reviews vehemently. Points systems can be a useful guide to consumers who can’t possibly taste every single wine before they buy it. However, before you put your hard-earned dollars behind somebody else’s points rating, make sure their palate is at least similar to yours. Look at their reviews of wines you’ve tasted and loved, or hated. Do they agree with you?
Variety is one of the most fun things about wine. There are so many different types of grapes, styles of wine and regions from which they come. If there is one thing all wine experts agree on, it’s that consumers should try as many different things as they can. You never know when you might discover a new favorite wine.
Try to taste before buying wine
Many wine shops have regular tastings, allowing you to try a number of wines without actually buying a bottle. Most wineries have tasting rooms too. These are great ways to educate yourself and get a better understanding for what you like. If the tasting is free, it’s nice to buy at least one bottle afterward though it isn’t absolutely essential. If there is a charge for the tasting, then feel free not to buy unless you find something you really want.
Build a relationship with one or more resellers
Find a store, and a clerk, with which you feel comfortable. It should be someplace that encourages you to browse without pressure. Their personnel should be helpful and suggest new things for you to try without pushing their preferences—or slow-moving inventory—on you. Over time, they will get to know your tastes and will be able to make even better recommendations for you. If you’re buying wine from them regularly, you may get special deals, get invitations to great events or get advance notice on availability of a hard-to-find bottles.
Some resellers have specialties. You may find working with a few different shops is necessary.
Quality and price do not always have a direct relationship
It is tempting to think that the more a wine costs, the better it will be. Or that, since you once had a great $7 bottle of wine, all wine at that price may be just as good. Unfortunately, neither of these things is true. A lot of elements go into determining the price of a wine. They include the region the wine comes from, type of grapes used, style of wine, amount made of that wine, weather in the year the grapes were grown, demand for the wine, vineyard and winemaking practices, use of oak barrels, brand and many other things.
It is possible to find very good wine for less than $15. And, occasionally, you might find a bad one for more than $100. Or at least one that you don’t like. In general, making very good wine costs more than making average wine. So, in general, good wines tend to be more expensive than those that are merely acceptable. Your odds of getting something good are better at higher price points, but not enough so for you to make purchase decisions that way. It’s important to understand your palate, try many different wines, and do some research. You’re bound to find wines you love which are reasonably priced. You may also discover a high-end winery which will make you happy with every vintage.
Don’t buy too much
Wine has a limited life span and so do humans. It’s easy to get excited by great wine and wind up with so much you can’t reasonably drink it. Or buy so much of a few wines you have to drink the same thing all the time. Wine club memberships can get out of hand.
Carefully consider how much you drink, what kind of wine storage you have, and the selection you want on hand. Before buying wine “to hold for 10 years,” make sure you’ve tasted aged wines and actually enjoy them. Not everyone does.
And don’t rush to fill a new wine cellar. There’s a lot of great wine out there. Take your time and explore it.
On the other hand, if you are buying wine to age, consider buying multiple bottles of the same thing. For a fine red wine or Riesling, having three or four bottles you can open over a period of time will help you see how the wine changes. That can be very interesting and a lot of fun.
Look for volume discounts
Once you have a good idea what you like and have some favorite wines, you might be able to save a bit of money. Many resellers and wineries offer discounts if you’re buying wine six bottles or a case at a time. Sometimes they give the discount for mixed cases as well. These discounts typically range from 10% to 20%.
Join the club
If a winery makes a number of wines you love, or a wine shop has a club run by someone whose palate is similar to yours, consider joining. You’ll get wine delivered to you on a regular basis. The time between shipments and number of bottles or value of the shipments depends on the club. However, buying wine in this way typically lets you get the wine at a decent discount, sometimes as much as 25%. Just don’t join too many or you will by tripping over bottles before you know it.
Consider large format bottles
If you are buying wine you want to hold for a long time—to celebrate a far-off birthday or anniversary perhaps—having it in a magnum or double magnum will extend its life substantially. And don’t worry that you can’t finish a whole magnum in one sitting.
When you open a large bottle you won’t be finishing, immediately pour half of it (using a funnel) into a regular-size bottle. Put a stopper in that and put it in the fridge. That wine will still be good for at least a couple of days. (This also works for 750 ml bottles. You can pour half into a 375.)
Many wines are now offered in half-bottle sizes. If you want to get something to try soon, but aren’t sure if you’ll like it, see if you can get a half bottle. Buying wine in small bottles is a little bit more expensive by volume than buying a 750 ml bottle. It’s less in actual dollars though. You can try something without thinking you wasted money on a whole bottle of something you didn’t enjoy. Small bottles are also great for picnics, or for opening at the start of a meal before moving on to the main attraction.