Wine Buying Tips

Stephen Hansel pouring

It’s one thing to be able to taste a wine at a tasting room, restaurant or wine shop.  But if you are not able to taste a wine before buying it, here are some tips to keep in mind whether you are a collector, casual imbiber, or just getting started.  These tips are intended for domestic wines primarily, although some can be applied to international wines as well.

There is no substitute for tasting, tasting, and more tasting to find out what type and style of wines you like best.  It is an ongoing adventure that one should enjoy over many years, providing countless memorable moments.

1. Vintage vs. Producer

Pay attention to the growing season of a particular vintage.  Just as important, if not more so, is knowing the producer or winemaker.  Remarkable vintages such as 1994 or 2007 are essentially “no-brainers” where you can be fairly certain that the wines will be good to outstanding.

But what to do when the growing season and vintage is questionable?  This is where it is critical to know the producer (winemaker), their track record, and their willingness to deal with adverse growing conditions.  The best winemakers will work closely with vineyard managers and growers to do whatever it takes to produce the best wines possible.  This often entails dropping fruit and making less wine.  That’s a tough decision as it directly affects the winery’s bottom line.  By taking these extreme measures, the best producers will ensure that they make the best wines possible from the vintage.

Tip #1 – Know the Vintage and the Producer

2. Vineyard Source

Paul Sloan at Small Vines Estate

Paul Sloan at Small Vines Winery and Viticulture

Where do the grapes come from and who is farming them?  Although this information is not always readily available, it’s an important question to ask.  Appellation designations such as Russian River Valley, Napa Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, etc., will give you additional insights, especially if you are familiar with the types of grapes that grow best in a particular appellation.

Knowing if the source of the grapes comes from a particular vineyard, or vineyards, provides you with additional information as to the quality of the wine.  Vineyard designations on a bottle of wine will often indicate a higher level of control over the growing process, and as a result, a better quality wine, although not always.  The downside is that vineyard designated wines usually come with a higher price tag.

Tip #2 – Find Out the Source of the Grapes (Which Vineyards, Appellations)

3. Proprietary Wines and Labels

Orin Swift The Prisoner Red WineSometimes wines are bottled and labeled with “Proprietary Names” such as Phelps “Insignia” or Orin Swift’s “The Prisoner”. These wines are often blends of different varieties, or may be single varietal bottlings.

In the case of wines with proprietary names, it is important to know what varieties are included in the blend, and in what proportion.  For example, a Bordeaux-style blend that contains 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc can have a substantially different aroma and flavor profile than a blend of 90% Cab, 7% Merlot and 5% Cab Franc.  Although you may not know the difference off hand, you will start to develop preferences for different varietals, and blends.  This just comes with trying different wines over time and making note of the varietals and their proportions.

It’s important to keep in mind that the proportions of blends can change from vintage to vintage depending on the profile the winemaker is trying to accomplish.  The growing season and availability of grapes also play an important role in the blends.

Tip #3 – Find Out the Varieties and Their Proportions in Proprietary Blends

4. Known vs. Unknown Labels

Wine brands such as Mondavi, Silver Oak, and Kendall-Jackson are recognized by virtually everyone who has walked down the wine isle.  If you have been in the wine game for a while, you undoubtedly recognize many more labels – DuMOL, Gamba, Revana, Caymus, and the like.

Stonewood 08 Pinot Noir Sonoma CoastBut what do you do when you hear about an unfamiliar brand that sounds really interesting; labels like Cartograph, L’Objet Noir, Whetstone, Jericho Canyon, and Stonewood, to name a few?  New wine labels are coming on to the scene faster than a Justin Bieber hit single (bad reference, I know, sorry).

This is where an adventurous spirit, a quest for finding your next favorite wine, and a trusted wine consultant come into play.  A trusted consultant can often tell you about wines such as the Stonewood lineup of wines that come from very reputable and highly acclaimed wineries, but that are available for a fraction of the wines under the original winery labels.

Part of the joy of wine is making new discoveries, to expand and hone your palate by trying new labels, varieties and producers you haven’t tried before.  Having a trusted source that can keep you informed of new wine discoveries, as well as the back-story behind the wines, will prove invaluable to you in your wine journey.

Please don’t be afraid to try something new simply because you have not heard of the wine or read about it in your favorite wine publication.  Although you may not bat 100% (no one does), by not experimenting you will deprive yourself of some of the most memorable wine finds and  experiences you will ever have. Of course, you will want to find out as much about the wine as you can, but, once again, that’s where a trusted source and wine adviser can be very helpful.

Tip #4 – Be Adventurous and Try New Wines

5. Price

man buying winePrice is not always indicative of the quality of the wine. We have all been there, spent more than we wanted to on a bottle of wine that was recommended and been disappointed.  With that said, and like anything else in the world, better wines will usually have a higher price tag than “lesser” wines.

But with the economic environment of the past few years, availability of quality wines at very reasonable prices has never been more abundant, especially if you are willing to to try the “yet-to-be-discovered” or unknown wines (see Tip #4).

If you are happy with the $6.99 bottle from “Trader Bob’s Bottle Emporium”, more power to you.  After all, it’s about what YOU like, and not what someone else likes.  But these days you can find top quality wines that were $50 per bottle 2-3 years ago and are 15-20% less today, possibly more.

Tip #5 – Price Is Not Always Indicative of the Quality of the Wine – There Are Great Values, But For the Most Part, the Old Adage Holds True – You Get What You Pay For

6. Wine Consultant and Adviser

Whether it’s your local fine wine shop, grocery store, or someone you met while visiting wine country, a knowledgeable wine consultant and adviser can be a great resource.  A good consultant will get to know your palate, and make recommendations that you may not have thought of on your own.  They can also keep you informed as to new wines that come on the market before they hit the wine publications.


Pinot On The River Tasting

How do you find a good wine consultant?  Although there are no sure-fire methods, it’s a good idea to ask the prospective wine consultant questions as to their experience, length of time in the industry, what their personal wine preferences are, and even ask for references.  If possible, find a consultant who has feet on the ground in wine country, tastes a lot of new wines, and has relationships with wineries, winemakers and growers.

The ultimate test will be tasting the wines recommended to you and see if they hold up to your scrutiny of what the consultant recommended.  Trial and error, unfortunately, is the best way to find a good wine source.

Tip #6 – Find and Use a Reliable Wine Source, Consultant or Adviser

7. Wine Reviews and Periodicals

It’s a good idea to read the various wine periodicals such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, and others.  They are a great resource for what is going on in the wine  industry.  Some other lesser known periodicals such as Burghound, Pinot Report, California Grapevine, and Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wines are also excellent resources.

In addition, with the advent of internet blogs, there is no shortage of opinions regarding wines.  My recommendation is to scout around and find the ones that look interesting to you and align with your objectives regarding your interests in wine.

A word about Reviews and Rating systems: Although rating systems can prove valuable in giving you an idea of the quality of the wine, solely relying on ratings may cause you to miss some wines that are under the radar, or have not been rated highly for reasons not related to the quality of the wine.  Let’s face it, these are opinions of the tasters, albeit informed ones (one would hope).  Wine ratings are like movie ratings; it doesn’t mean you are going to like a movie simply because Roger Ebert gives it “two thumbs up”, are you?

So read the reviews and ratings with a grain of salt.  Many are very good with excellent information.  Chances are that if a wine gets very high ratings, it will have already been sold out, or the price has gone through the roof.  That’s where a reliable wine consultant can come in and clue you into some of these highly rated wines before they hit the the publications.

At the end of the day, it’s your opinion that matters.  Do you like the wine?  What do you like about it?  One of the best pieces of advice I received early on in my wine career is to LEARN TO TRUST YOUR PALATE.  There is no right or wrong when tasting wine.  If you like it, you like it, that’s it.  Yes there are many nuances and levels you can take your assessment of a wine, but it all boils down to how the wine looks, smells, tastes, and finishes for you.  And the only way to discover your wine “likes” and “dislikes” is by trying lots of wines over years.  That’s the fun part!

Tip #7 – Read Reviews and Ratings as a Guideline, and Learn to Trust Your Palate

8.  Bottom Line – Have Fun With Your Wine Journey!

Man Drinking Red WineTo sum it all up, we enjoy wines for many different reasons and on many different occasions. But at the end of the day, we enjoy it because it adds pleasure to our lives.  Wine enhances the mood of a romantic dinner, or the lively conversations with friends and family, or helps us unwind with a good book.

Wine is not a destination, but a journey that reveals new and exciting experiences at every turn.  It is a quest to find the pinnacle of all wines in the world, while secretly hoping we will never find it.  Because with every cork that we pop and sip that we take, it’s those moments during our journey that we will remember for years to come.

Tip #8 – Wine is a journey, it’s not an event – Enjoy Every Minute!

Here’s hoping that you never find the perfect wine!




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