1WD reader Matt (that’s all your getting, as I don’t have permission to print the person’s full name here) recently wrote to me via an email with a title so intriguing, it sparked the first-ever “reader mailbag” style post on this site in its seven-some-odd-year history:
“Trying New Wine Is A Pain In The Ass”
There’s much juiciness to be squeezed from Matt’s email, so I’ll first reprint it here before addressing Matt’s questions in detail:
“Let me rephrase that… Trying new *quality* wine is a pain in the ass, literally in the wallet. Its all a gamble really and I’d bet that the average person, let alone the active wine drinker wants to bet on a $50 bottle. We are not all in your position where nice wines may be shipped to us for tasting purposes in hopes that you blog about it.
So… My reason for contact is this. Today I read the article, ‘Wine execs are scared of the craft beer and spirits growth.’ You probably read it since its well circulated. Following the gambling terminology, beer and spirits have a relatively low buy-in. If that bet pays off and I like it, then I can opt for the higher price points. Quality wine, on the other hand, does not have this low cost of buy-in. It’s all or nothing and if you get burned once, then you will likely never go all-in on a 50+ bottle again.
I’m curious, do you have any opinions on opportunities of low buy-in options for higher priced wines? The tasting room is the only opportunity I can think of and that is not exactly mass market. When exactly does the average person opt for that $50 bottle cab? marketing fluff? friends advice? impressing the boss? Do wine drinkers randomly buy expensive wines that they have never had before? If not, when are they exposed to them that creates a buying opportunity? I’d love to hear your comments and what your readers may think. I’ve never met a wine I didn’t like… to try. Thanks Joe! Matt.”
Talk about food (or drink?) for thought! And Matt seems to want to hear your responses to all of this as well, so it’s giving us a nice opportunity to argue in the best internecine fashion that is the hallmark of modern wine discourse!
Well, Matt, following are my responses. I hope you don’t mind the delay, I just wanted to share the dialog with a (much) wider audience!…
You’ve basically summed up why anyone turns to experts in the first place. Particularly for fine wine, which isn’t cheap. The reason is that we’re looking for validation; we don’t want to get burned (by purchasing something that we won’t like).
This is where quality ratings (most especially numeric wine scores) fail us miserably. I can taste and rate a wine an “A” BUT… if it’s a Shiraz laden with blueberry fruitiness, and you hate blueberry fruitiness in your Shiraz, then that “A” means precisely f*ck-all to you. The wine may be resplendent, and an incredible example of the place, grape, and style; and if you dislike wines from that grape, that place, or in that style, well, then, you just wasted some Benjamins.
Lots of otherwise rational and smart people freak out in the wine aisle, while those same people would never reach the same level of freak-out when trying to buy beer (as you noted), or mustard; at only a few bucks a pop even for some of the better stuff, the stakes between stone ground, yellow, and spicy brown are just way lower.
[ Editor’s note: As per the article that you cited, wine really ought to be afraid of beer. And coffee. Both are trying to steal wine’s customers, given how strong the potential cross-overs are. Case in point: there were some big beer sponsors at Taste Washington in Seattle this year. Why? It’s a cheap way for them to try to grab customers away from wine, right under the wine business’ roof! Beer might even have more desperation right now, combined with deep pockets, which is a combination that often makes for a formidable marketing foe. ]
The best thing (the royal) you can do in terms of wine, in my opinion, is taste as much as you can, learn your own taste preferences, and then maybe find a critic or two who seem to share your sensibilities and follow their recommendations. There are some apps out there that can help, but most of them aren’t dealing in the high end wines arena (yet).
But you already knew all of that, so here are some thoughts to directly answer your questions:
- While not inexpensive, one way to get to taste a lot of juice is by taking one of the WSET certifications that incorporate wine tastings as part of the exam. The chances that you will get bad wine to taste as part of these classes are just about zero, so it’s a good way to get exposed to broader categories that might tickle your palate fancy.
- Meet up with like-minded wine geeks and create a tasting group. I cannot recommend this avenue highly enough, in terms of getting yourself exposed to new, interesting, different, and high-quality juice. I did this with sommeliers, restaurateurs, and wine biz folks in southeastern PA, to great personal effect.
- Set a new wine budget and stick to it every month. Use that budget specifically to try new things. At the risk of sounding facetious, it helps if you focus on making enough money that you don’t care too much (within reasonable limits for you) about the price tags of the wines. I recognize that’s a long shot for most people, but I did it myself to some extent, so I know it’s possible.
A call to the 1WD peanut gallery: what advice would you give to Matt?
For a recap, here are Matt’s specific questions on which he wanted your input:
Do you have any opinions on opportunities of low buy-in options for higher priced wines?
When exactly does the average person opt for that $50 bottle cab? marketing fluff? friends advice? impressing the boss?
Do wine drinkers randomly buy expensive wines that they have never had before? If not, when are they exposed to them that creates a buying opportunity?
Shout it out in the comments!
37 thoughts on “Reader Mailbag: Trying New Wine Is A Pain In The Ass”
Spot on Joe. I think the key point, among many good points in your response to Matt is about 'validation.' Many of us seek permission from a review or a recommendation, whether through your palate, WS, WA or the local wine shop geek to validate the cash outlay.
Albert – thanks. We don’t want to get burned, but our standards for that are subjective, and only apparent after the fact.
1) Find a region and/or producer you *like* at the $10-20 level. Chances are you'll love it at $50.
2) Hit up a local wine bar with an argon sampling system. You can try a splash of a $100 wine for under ten bucks, and it will be something that is available in your state's distribution system.
3) Look for special event wine dinners at local restaurants. Sure, you'll pay $75, but you'll get a nice five-course meal and try five different expensive wines at each course. And there's generally a representative who can answer questions for you.
4) Don't shell out money just because something is expensive. Barolo is amazing but tends to be good at the 10 year mark and amazing between 15-20 years of aging. If you give someone a young Barolo and they drink it now, it will be a very unpleasant experience.
This post is so timely -I was just talking to one of our customers about this yesterday. There is a certain level of trust that one needs to establish with whomever is recommending the wine, be it friend, sommelier, retailer, or expert.
Awesome suggestions, Benito! I would also respectfully add
1) Good retailers can also have sampling stations, not just wine bars. Good ones will also have weekly tastings with higher end selections, as well as grand tastings.
2) I would also recommend food and wine festivals as a good source for trying new wines, in addition to those wine dinners. Taking notes is key to remember which were the winners and which were the losers. There are a few wine apps out there that make this process easier. I work for one of them, so of course I am biased.
3) Know your palate. If you know that you find earthy, high acidity wines too austere, then don't go for that Barolo. If you love big old fruit bombs, then don't fear that Aussie Shiraz. Once you know this, look to the producers that have a history of producing consistently delicious wines.
4) Ease the sting of high prices, by looking for quality retailers that offer discounts on bulk purchases (15% off of a mixed case for example). It also does not hurt to keep an eye out for sales.
Great Article, Joe.
I'm going to second Amy's point – find a good wine shop or two. They will do regular tastings, usually mixing price points. They also tend to stick to themes, which will open your eyes to new regions or varietals. And once the sales people get to know your palate, they can recommend a wine that you will probably like.
Good points, Amy! (And great post Joe). I'd also throw in: join or start a local tasting group. Get together with friends and everyone bring a bottle (or more!). Do themes or don't do themes, but do get some food for pairing and taste through as many wines as people as possible. I can't tell you how many producers I've discovered this way that I probably never would've bought on my own. If everyone shares the coast by bringing a bottle, you get to taste expensive wines for far less money, and you get to spend time with friends, so it's good all around.
apologize for the typos.
My question for Matt is why the heck do you want to spend $50 on a bottle? As Benito states, there are tons of wine at less than half the price that are outstanding. If you are hesitant to spend $50 on wine because you are not sure if you would “like it” tells me that you are probably not ready for $50 wines. I know that sounds pretentious, but it is not meant to be that way at all. Experiment with wine a lot before shelling out $50/bottle. There is a lot to learn about the subtle nuances of wine that can be achieved well below $50. As Joe says, in order to learn about wine, you need to drink a lot of wine, but (and this part he did not say) you do not need to spend a lot. I have a ton of wine in my cellar (1500+ bottles) and very, very little of it is north of $50/bottle.
Now if you are looking to impress someone (a boss, potential spouse, a father-in-law), that is a bit of a different story…
DC, I don’t want to focus too much on the mention of that $50 price point (though all of your points are sharp, unlike your sabering ;-)
Well, I think it is an important part of the question. I think we would agree that at $20-25 a bottle (or even $15), one is not going to get a “bad” bottle of wine—you might not *like* it, but it won’t be *bad*. It is the same with beer—there are some beers out there that are not technically *bad* but I think taste a bit like what horse piss must taste like. I get it that beer has a lower entry point and less risk, but let’s at least talk about similar scenarios. If I am just getting into beer and getting used to my “surroundings” I am not going to plop down $50 for a four pack of Westvleteren 12. There are just so many beers out there at lower price points (and availability to try first). Once I get my bearings, I might then plop down the coin to try what many call the best beer in the world—it just should not be the place I start….
And my sabering skills are plenty sharp, my friend (not that you have ever witnessed them first hand…).
DC – Fundamentally, I agree with you. We just need to keep in mind that $50 is expensive to some, but not to others. What's expensive is nearly as subjective as what is good/bad.
I have to echo Benito's suggestions, with special focus on the wine dinner or taste pairing when the local distributor is involved and the importer or producer is in tow. The resto is usually doing it for promotional purposes, and for the opportunity to do something different. The food and wines are usually offered at less than normal cost when wrapped into the package. I've always found these events to be a great value both in dollars and knowledge.
VT – yeah, also a great way to get questions aired with folks who are deeply knowledgeable about those wines.
All good recs above, and I hope this is another.
Find a "personal" critic. That is, taste some of the cheaper wines recommended by a few bloggers/wine writers until you find one with whom you share a palate (2 easy ones here would be 1WD and drunken cyclist). Then move on to their more expensive picks and – if you really do share some taste traits – they should be good wines for you.
winingarchaeologist – or visit a kick-ass wine tasting bar! ;-)
There are some terrific suggestions for Matt and if incorporated he could become well versed in many regions by the end of the year. When I owned a bricks and mortar wine shop we had a complimentary tasting every Thursday from 6-8p with a minimum of four wines poured. There were other shops within 2 miles (downtown Chicago) also providing similar opportunities. With a little research Matt could easily taste 10-15 wines per week free of charge.
Professional advice: From time to time purchase a bottle from said wine shop. Consider it your tip for the owner's knowledge, wisdom share and to prove you're not a douche.
Local Wine Events.com will also have numerous events for a nominal fee. It's all about finding a location and source you can trust who will help your journey. Good luck!
Martin – thanks for bringing up LWE. I've got a conflict there, since they hire me to write their newsletter quiz entries (and Eric just bought me lunch today!), so I hadn't listed it, but am glad you highlighted that.
+1 on Benito's post.
Plus, as you mentioned Joe, find a critic who's tastes at least somewhat mirror you own, There's a reason I follow this blog and it's not just the great writing, Joe's feel for wine tends to follow my own. I also follow Lettie Teague and Eric Asimov as I find I tend to agree with their reviews when I taste the wine.
Another thing, don't start at the top or at the bottom. If you want to try a Cab Franc, buy a decent mid priced one, see if you like and then work your way up.
Find a few friends that are of the same mind as you and have little tasting parties. Not to many people 3-4 at the most. Have a couple of mid-price 'discovery' wines and one bottle of $50+ keep trying it over the course of 2-3 hours. Really savour it and then decide if it's worth the money. What's the worst that could happen, you still had a nice evening with friends and your not relying on just your opinion as to how the wine tastes.
I've always said that for 95% of the wine drinking public the difference between a $50 and $150 would be tough to distinguish. If you drink a lot of wine you can tell, but you need the experience and the wallet to drink that kind of wine (Or, in Joe's case, the blogging chops so they wineries send it free:-) ).
I tell the story to friends of visiting Opus 1 on our first trip to Napa and spending $30 for a 1.5oz pour, it was was an extraordinary wine, but in no way worth $175 a bottle. There is just better wine to be had at a more reasonable price point.
pbilling13 – it's interesting, isn't it, that for wine many people seem to start out the wrong way around, looking for wines that got high ratings and then hoping they'll like them, rather than formulating their own personal tastes first. It's tough to think of many other products for which that's the case (though I suspect for luxury goods it's more common).
I'm also going to give this suggestion. If you're looking for a gift, or something to impress, a good story beats a high price tag. For instance, Brooks in Oregon. The winemaker died young and unexpectedly before harvest. Nearby winemakers volunteered and came in without asking to make sure that all of the grapes got picked and processed properly. Many of them didn't sleep for days. They even helped set up a trust so that the proceeds from the vintage would benefit the widow and her young son. That's not a story that gets told on the back of a label, but can turn a simple uncorking from a routine experience into a magical one.
Benito – you're on a roll. After all, that's how somms sell wines on the restaurant floor.
All – got this via email today in response to this post, and it provides a potentially interesting twist:
"I work in retail. $50 & over buys are rare. I think they are influenced more by word of mouth from someone a buyer knows than writers. The second influencer is apps. My store does about $1.7m"
I'd no idea apps would rank that high for suggestions, particularly in the luxury price category!
Depends on the app. As a CellarTracker member and user it's usually the very first place I look for a recommendation or review. But just as with the pro reviewers, you've got to know that what they like is what you like.
As far getting it backwards, oh man, wine is nothing. I used to build high end vacation "cottages" if there was a high end finish or gimmick they saw in a magazine or in someones home, they had to have it. I can't tell you the number of $100k kitchens we installed and the only appliances used were the microwave, refrigerator and dishwasher, It was enough to make you cry.
Constantly. Apps that read bar codes or labels plus tradtional fill-in the blank look-ups. Perhaps they are illegal in Pa. seeing as how the government owns the store.
I totally agree with the Drunken Cyclist about there being outstanding wines at far less than $50 per bottle. As well, there are classes of spirits, including single malt Scotch whisky and Cognac that are also quite pricey to just pick up for experimentation. Here is some general advice, and then numbered below will be my responses to the questions:
Before you drop whatever you consider a significant amount of money on a wine, I highly recommend researching the wine. Learn about the grapes used in it, the climate of the region, the style it's made in, and get to know what makes that particular wine special, and also get an idea of why that wine is that price–is it from a particular region, hand-harvested over several tries by Nepalese fishermen, for example? Also learn about wines in a similar style, in a similar climate, and/or using the same grapes (and perhaps picked by Mongolian fishermen) and try these alternatives (if they're cheaper) first. By doing the research, I often get excited to actually try the wine when I do eventually buy it. However, personally, when I open the expensive bottle, I never expect it to be earth-shattering. I expect it to be free of faults, for sure, and if it isn't, then I'd bring it back, but I don't expect it to be something I necessarily would like for my own consumption. I hope more to get an understanding of the story behind the wine when I get to actually taste it. About three-quarters of the pleasure of wine for me, personally, is the learning. Now to answer the questions:
1) With enough patience and luck, you can sometimes find fantastic discounts at liquor stores, even on expensive wines. I managed to get 3 Vintage Ports this year that normally go for $60 for $45. Also try forming tasting groups with friends, so the cost of drinking the wines is split. Attend competitions and shows if you can, as well.
2) From the perspective of someone who works in a restaurant, I've noticed that often, the people who tend to buy the most expensive bottles in our restaurant tend to be more wine savvy, and have already tried these wines at some point, or were going to anyway. The second most common purchaser of the expensive wines is the guest who is simply trying to impress a date at the table, to flaunt his or her wealth and/or to try to look like he hor she knows what he or she is talking about. The purchaser I love the most of our expensive wines, though, is the person who already knows our palates and trusts our recommendations, and happens to be looking for something that fits the description of the expensive wine perfectly. When that happens, and the person likes it, I feel spectacular. That's one of the parts of my job that I love.
3) I do buy expensive wines I've never had before. I'm currently studying the WSET IV, and I feel that I need to know many of the characteristics of these wines before I go into my blind tastings. Lately, since I've been studying sparkling and fortified wines, I've been making purchases of those, including some pricier options like Champagne. Now, that doesn't mean I purchase them on a whim–it takes money away from other wines I could be tasting, too. It's more that I view it as a necessity for my studies.
<p dir=”ltr”>Thanks, MG!
I'll cast another vote for your local wine shop. If you can find a very knowledgeable owner or sales person, who actually cares about wanting to get to know what you like, then you're all set. You have to feel comfortable telling the owner that you loved or hated a particular bottle you purchased last week, and hopefully why you loved/hated it. It does come down to trust.
Thanks, Jon – if only that option were truly available in PA! :)
I was thinking about Matt's questions and concerns as I walked away from my local Starbucks. The Grande Redeye in my hand just cost me $3.10 plus tip. Compare that to the bottomless cup of hot black water next door at the Waffle House for which you pay about a buck and a quarter.
It was a treat to have that Starbucks as I headed off to work at a remote location with no coffee machine. Most days, my wife and I share a pot at home that averages out at about 40 cents per cup — and it's really good hot black water.
Wine to me is the same: we find everyday at the supermarket, after trying and trying, the wine that fits our tastes and our budgets. For a treat, I like to do my research. I subscribe to wine blogs like Joe's here. I subscribe to two wine mags. I listen to audiobooks on the subject; but, what has done right for me every time is to go to one of several reputable wine shops in town when they are tasting "the better stuff." I've discovered $30 gems. I've discovered $50 flops. Mostly, I've discovered what I tend to like and gravitate toward those general characteristics and ask proprietors about those wines I've never tried.
I also like the idea of gathering with a few friends and splitting the cost on a couple of higher-dollar wines that your local shop suggests. Less exposure. Less chance of over-consumption. More fun.
That's my take.
Thanks for posting my email and I'm glad it was well received. To clarify, the comments are correct in saying $50 represents your personal expensive price point, whatever it may be.
Maybe its my region of the US but we do not have the wine tasting groups mentioned above (most stick to the sweet stuff or barefoot) so I have been hosting wine tasting parties with my family and friends a few times a year. Everyone brings a bottle and I plan a specific blind tasting or comparison tasting for those who want a deeper understanding. It has been a huge hit. We have also tried a 5 bottle vs a 30 bottle and its interesting to see everyday wine drinkers try to describe the differences.
Thanks everyone for the comments, I think I read all of them twice.
Joe, I was hoping that title grabbed your attention!
Matt – mission accomplished! :)
Great Article, Joe.
I'm going to second Amy's point
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