Vine Geek Brian Reeder co-owns AZ Wine Merchants in Scottsdale.
Wine is subjective. Every wine is different. It all depends on your taste. Price doesn't equal quality. It's all the same anyway. Just drink what you like. Blah. Blah. Blah.
We've all heard the nomenclatures. The bullshit lines that every wine geek/snob you've ever encountered will feed you about why you should (or shouldn't) buy certain wines. Some are true, while others just make you want to stab someone with a corkscrew. Because ultimately until you pour yourself a glass, you can't really know whether or not it's good, and whether or not you enjoy it. I'm not looking to tell you what wines to buy -- in fact, quite the opposite. I don't reside inside your brain or know what makes your taste buds jump into a conga line. I want to help you ask the right questions, look for the right qualities, and ultimately continually discover new wines you'll enjoy.
So when you're at the grocery store, liquor store, wine store, or (God forbid) the corner mini mart, here are some ways not to buy wine, and a few better ways to do so.
1. For the love of Dionysus, do not buy a wine because you like the label. "Ooooh, that one is so pretty!!" "This label is dark and expensive looking -- it must be good." "This one looks cheap. Yuck."
We've all bought wine this way. And probably as often as not, we've regretted it. Wineries are aware of the power of the label and will do everything in their power to make it more appealing to their target audience. And typically, the more attractive the label/wine name, the more money was dumped into marketing (and quite possibly less money put into vineyard management and winemaking). So wines like "Mad Housewife," "Bitch," and "Frog's Piss" may sound like interesting and fun wines -- but in all likelihood they were moreso products of a marketing department than a farmer or winemaker.
Instead look for: If you must buy a wine based on label, look for other factors than dazzling colors or catchy pictures. I look at what region the wine is from, the varietals (if listed), the vintage (or year the wine was made), and any tasting notes that may be on the bottle. All these factors will affect the wine, and as you develop your taste, you'll start seeing certain factors that consistently appear in wines you enjoy. Maybe a specific region for a specific varietal, or certain characteristics appear regularly.
2. Don't buy wine just because it's cheap.
"It's a Tuesday. I just need a glass (or three)." "It doesn't matter. It all tastes the same anyway." "I just want to get drunk."
So clearly you're not looking for the best bottle on the shelves. That's great!! Neither am I! If I'm having a "Tuesday" wine, I'm probably looking to relax with a glass or two with a book/movie/TV show in front of me. It's not a special occasion, and therefore doesn't justify a special wine, right? Wrong. Cheap wines can be just that -- cheap. Mass-marketed swill probably had as much care put into its making as a toddler puts into coloring inside the lines. But inexpensive wine can also mean small-scale wineries that don't have enormous distribution, or great value wines that are made on a large scale but with the same care as their more expensive counterparts.
Instead try to find: Great wines that aren't expensive. And there are a lot of them. Just Google the phrase "High-rated cheap wine" (If you care about ratings, that is) and look at all the results! A good rule of thumb is that lesser-known regions typically can't charge as much as better-known regions, while quality can be as good if not better. I look for alternative regions for value, such as Spain, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and Washington State.
3. Don't buy wine just because it's expensive.
"I'm going to a dinner party at my boss' house. What's your most expensive bottle?" "I'm trying to impress ______. What high-end Napa cabernets do you have? "It's our anniversary/birthday/graduation. Do you have Dom Pérignon?"
We get it. You know how to find an expensive Napa/French/Italian/Oregon wine. You also had to refinance your house and sell your first born to pay for it -- and, well done, now it's expected anytime such an occasion arises!!
Instead try to find: Great wine doesn't mean expensive wine. If you're trying to impress, look for wines that over-deliver for the price. I generally will look for a "second label" from well-known producers -- these are wines that typically received as much care and attention as their high-end brothers but didn't make it into the über-exclusive label. This is a good thing. This means the quality is still present, but without the sticker shock. For example, a bottle of legendary Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Ornellaia can retail for $300 to $400, but one of their alternate labels, Le Volte, retails for $20 to $40.
4. Don't avoid a wine expert who's there to help.
Avoiding eye contact with the wine expert because you don't want to look foolish is just that. It may be uncomfortable to admit you don't know what you're looking for, but that's exactly why that person is there.
Instead be friendly: Make friends. Talk to the same person every time and give them feedback on the wines you've tried. And that doesn't mean "I hate it." It means giving them constructive thoughts, like "It wasn't fruity/sweet/dry enough," "I want something more crisp/buttery/acidic," or "I like something bigger/more delicate." This way they can start to learn your palate, and their suggestions will hit the mark much more of the time!
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5. You've had it before.
We're all guilty of this one. You like a bottle, so you go back to it. Again. And again. And again. You enjoy it! So why shouldn't you continue to drink it!!
Instead realize: This is one wine out of a million. There are others you'll enjoy just as much, if not more. And they may be less expensive, or more interesting, or better with food, or all of the above! So buy a case of the wine that you really like (if you can), and break out a bottle on occasion, but mix in some other wines that are from the same region/winery/varietals so you can broaden your horizons.