Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Finding values: going off the beaten path

One of the common complaints in wine shops across the country is, "Oh, [insert_wine_here] has gotten so expensive, I remember when it cost half as much!"  This often refers to American wines, and generally some Big Name Winery from California.  Think Heitz, Cakebread, Turnbull, Ferrari-Carano etcetra.  There's also a refrain of "Oh, [insert_wine_here] was so much better back before they were popular!"

And, strangely enough, most of that is correct.

The solution, of course, is go off-list.  Just because a winery isn't a Big Name, doesn't mean it's any less good.  In fact, often, the smaller guys can be better.  When a winery is starting out, there's little to no brand identity, so there's less demand.  Correspondingly, the winery can be much more selective with their sources for fruit (be it estate-grown or negociant fruit), as they don't need as much to meet demand.  Price can be lower, as demand drives price significantly in the wine business.  So you've got (often) higher-quality wine at a lower cost.

Then, enter a critic.  Someone in a magazine puts a score on the wine, a 93.  It gets featured as a "best buy," or "critic's choice," or some such.  Demand goes up.  The first thing that happens is the retail price will go up -- the exact thing that happened to Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma 2007 when it was featured on Wine Spectator's Top 100 list (the wine jumped from $20 to $25 overnight) -- and it disappears from shelves as people get convinced they must buy this wine.

Which is weird; I've never known anyone to go to a $8 movie because Leonard Maltin or Gene Shalit say they must, but I do know people who buy $80 wine because Robert Parker or James Laube say they should.

So, now our hypothetical winery now has a brand identity, and some loyal customers following them.  At this point, they've got to do one of two things (or even both) -- make more wine than in previous vintages, to meet their higher demand, or raise prices.  The former will allow the winery to keep up with demand and keep prices steady, but it means that they've got to be just a little less selective with their fruit (premium grapes are a finite resource, after all).  The latter will tend to discourage new customers from purchasing the wine, but truly brand-loyal customers will still pay the premium.

And, now, "oh, it was so much better before it got recognized," and "wow, it's so expensive now!"

So you find value by looking beyond the Big Names... both in appellation and branding.  Just because a Pinot Noir doesn't come from Oregon, doesn't mean it's not potentially worthwhile (in fact, in my humble opinion, Oregon is overpriced right now -- the top-level wines from Oregon are more expensive than the corresponding top-level wines from any premium region save Burgundy... but Burgundy has a tradition of great wine stretching back longer than Oregon has been a state, while Oregon has only been making high-quality wine for a couple of decades.).  Cabernet from Napa carries a premium, while correspondingly good wine from Paso Robles does not.

The same goes for branding.  If you want to buy, say, Cakebread chardonnay... well, if you can find it (Cakebread is allocated in most retail markets, so the supply is artificially limited)... expect to pay a premium for it.

How do you find good wines in oddball places?  Simple.  Ask.  If your wine shop doesn't have a knowledgeable staff, don't shop there.  Taste.  Most places have tastings for free, or at least a minimal fee.  Keep an eye on websites like localwineevents.com, which lists (you guessed it!) local wine events, where you can try new stuff, generally less expensively.

By way of example, within an easy drive from where I live, there are 3 sites of one chain wine and liquor store that holds tastings on a quarterly basis that cost $10, and have around 50 wines to try.  There's another chain that has a single site, where tastings are monthly and $10.  There's two sites of another chain that has free tastings every weekend, occasionally has some during the week when a producer or importer comes by, and has in-depth classes for $25 about once a month.  There's three wine bars with enomatic machines (one with about 15 selections that rotate weekly, another with about 40 changed biweekly, and the final one has about 30 changing weekly), and another by-the pour bar.  Oh, and a grocery store that has a great wine selection (and cheese shop, but that's another matter), that does weekly tastings for free.

Yeah, I'm lucky like that.  But, the odds are, there's more going on near you than you know.  So find out!

With all that wine to taste -- comparatively inexpensively! -- there's bound to be something new, something off the map, and something great.

And then, we can all complain in five or ten years, "Oh, [insert_formerly_obscure_wine_here] was so much better and inexpensive before everyone knew about it!"

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