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Drink Better Wine Despite Post-Holiday Austerity
By Michael Franz
Jan 14, 2014
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The holidays are over.  Belts have been loosened, but the masses are heading to the gym in droves.  By contrast, wine lovers are generally tightening their belts in terms of spending, as budgets were battered by end-of-year gifts and entertaining.  Nevertheless, there's no way in hell that we're going to stop enjoying our favorite drink, so here are some tips about how to continue enjoying wine while spending less money:

Cool Climates Above $30, but Warm Ones Below $10:

One of the most important truths in wine is that grape varieties produce the greatest wines in places where the vines are near the margin of the climate's ability to ripen the fruit.  A cool, marginal climate translates into a longer growing season, which tends to produce more complex aromas and flavors in grapes and a more coherent structure in the resulting wines.  If you want complex, coherent Pinot Noir, look to a relatively cool climate in Oregon rather than in California's Central Valley.

The only problem here is that a really good bottle of Pinot from Oregon is almost certain to cost $40 or more.  This is not simply the result of Oregon Pinot being in fashion at the moment.  The fact is that a vintner can only get grapes ripe in a cool climate by not asking the vines to ripen too many of them.  Fully ripening grapes requires crop thinning, and reducing crop yields increase per-bottle costs and require a higher selling price for the wine.

So, if you are really bent on keeping your expenditures down by buying less expensive wines, you'd do well to look at warmer parts of the wine world for those relatively inexpensive bottles.  For starters, you'd have a pretty tough time finding an Oregon Pinot for under $10, and if you were to find one, chances are strong that the fruit behind it wouldn't be fully ripe, or that it would be over-extracted or juked up with cheap oak chips.  You'd do far better with your money by looking for a $10 wine from Argentina or Australia or south-central Spain, where vintners can ripen fairly large crops fully, making wines from Malbec or Shiraz or Monastrell that are extremely satisfying for their price level.

Zig When They Zag:

One of the key verities for playing the stock market--or any market--is to run counter to its trends, selling when others are buying and buying when others are selling.  That also makes sense when it comes to dealing in a cost-sensitive way with the wine market.

If you buy the wine that everyone else wants to buy, chances are that you are going to get burned--or at least not do as well as you could with a more wily strategy.  To be more specific, if you bought Merlot in the mid-1990s when it was booming in the wake of the famous "French Paradox" segment on "60 Minutes," you'd likely have gotten a watery, wimpy wine.  Wineries could sell anything that said "Merlot" on the label, so naturally they pushed out big crops by excessively irrigating and fertilizing their vineyards, and by rushing immature vines into production.  Merlot is a potentially excellent variety, but no grape is a match for the diluting effects of a true boom in wine fashion.

More recently, the film "Sideways" produced the double effect of pricking the Merlot bubble while inflating demand for Pinot Noir, and the lamentable results of the latter phenomenon continue to be experienced by almost anyone who tries to buy Pinot for less than $15.  I taste lots of inexpensive Pinot every year, but lately it is only because I am professionally obliged to do so, and I now keep an airsickness bag next to my spit bucket.

It follows logically that the smart money looks not for wines that are booming but for ones that are undervalued at present.  Which wines fit that description?  Sherry is definitely one of them, and all types of Sherry are remarkably under-priced in light of the time and expense involved in making them, as well as the durability of the wines once they are opened (many hold up significantly better than table wines if refrigerated between pours, though you should really work through them within a week).

Port offers another important example.  Although it is vintage ports from years like 2011 that draw the lion's share of print in the wine press, more affordable port categories are full of delicious wines at very attractive prices.  Reserve ports, 10 year-old tawnies, and late bottled vintage ports are unbelievably complex and satisfying for the money, and like sherries, their power and durability makes them enjoyable far longer than most table wines.

Additionally, if you venture beyond Portugal to try other port-style wines, you can find some amazing bargains from countries like Australia and South Africa.  The fact that all wines in this entire category are out of fashion tilts the market in your favor, and perhaps you share my opinion that their un-fashionableness is actually endearing in its own right.  I love an underdog, and I hate being a lemming, so I find it very agreeable to follow the zig-when-they-zag approach.

Maybe fortified wines like sherry and port just aren't your thing, which is fine.  If you want to run counter to the market while hunting for high-value table wines, you'd be wise to look for grapes, countries and regions that are relatively unknown but now on the rise.  Of course, since these countries and regions are not well known, many consumers will need to do some reading to learn about them.  That shouldn't be a big problem, though, since many consumers now have more time and brains than money.  Lots of information on developing wine regions is available free of charge, and a modest investment in a wine review resource can pay big dividends in terms of quality and savings.

Since the masses haven't gotten the word on wines like Carmenère from Chile, Jumilla from Spain, or Nero d'Avola from Sicily, producers and importers can't inflate their prices.  There are plenty of other examples available from New World countries as well as Old World ones like Italy, and we profile them frequently here on WRO.

Finally, there are other wines that are no longer obscure, but that continue to offer excellent value due to special circumstances.  For example, Malbec from Argentina continues to over-achieve on price, thanks to low production costs in the country and a wonderful synergy between grape and place in the dry, sunny heights of Mendoza.  As a second example, Rioja is quite well known around the wine world, but its big bodegas work with great economies of scale that enable them to sell wines of impressive complexity and delicacy for $12 or less.

Get the Most Out of Every Bottle of Wine You Buy:

If you aren't in the habit of paying close attention to how you prepare and serve your wine, I've got good news for you:  You can buy less expensive wine but still have it taste better than what you've been drinking.  No kidding.

Many wine drinkers are unaware that serving temperature is hugely important to how wines taste.  Good wines can be deeply compromised when served at improper temperatures, whereas decent wines can taste quite good when served optimally.

Millions of bottles are botched in America every year by being served at improper temperatures, which almost always means that whites are too cold and reds too warm.  This is especially galling because the solution is so simple:  Pull your whites from the refrigerator--and place your reds into it--for 20 minutes before serving.  Your whites will offer more aroma and taste less tart, whereas your reds will offer fresher fruit with less overt alcohol.

And with young reds, you get a little more aroma and flavor out of many if you decant them for 15 minutes or so before digging in.  This doesn't require any elaborate technique (as when decanting old wines off of their sediment); just dump them in.  And it doesn't require some expensive, prissy-ass decanter.  Pull a lemonade pitcher out of the cupboard, or hit an antique store and buy an old milk bottle.  These work just fine, are inexpensive, and can be dropped from great heights without breaking.

Don't Get Suckered Into Thinking You Need a Wine Cellar:

The longstanding notion that wine must be kept at 55 degrees or consumed immediately is nonsense--and destructive nonsense at that, with elitist consequences.  It deters many less-than-wealthy newcomers from experiencing the pleasures of collecting a stash of special wines (and the savings made possible by stocking up during sales).

Although those buying fancy Bordeaux or vintage Port for long ageing really do need special storage conditions, those who drink their wines with food within a couple of years after purchase will do just fine keeping them in a closet or a corner of the basement

If you can keep the temperature in the low 70s and avoid serious temperature fluctuations, your red wines will develop very nicely over the course of a few years.  They will develop a bit more quickly than if they were stored at 55 degrees, but this is no disadvantage for near-term drinking.  And since 99% of white wines decline rather than develop over time, you should be drinking these up quickly regardless of your storage conditions.  Those who use insulated closets can spend more on wine and less on peripheral accessories, and actually avoid the fluctuation damage suffered by owners of refrigerators and temperature controlled cellars during power outages.

Never Miss a Chance to Taste for Free:
Cheap is good, but free is unbeatable, and you'd perhaps be amazed at how much you can taste and learn for free.  Depending on the laws in your particular jurisdiction, it may be possible to taste dozens of wines every month simply by cruising to a number of retail shops for free in-store tastings.  I did this for a couple of years in Washington, D.C. when I was broke but freshly bitten by the wine bug, and it enabled me to build up a big inventory of tasting experiences without spending a dime.

That inventory of experiences--and the knowledge imparted to me by those pouring the wines--is what enabled me to develop my own wine aesthetic and start writing about the stuff.  I learned a great deal from talking to guys like Bobby Kacher and Terry Theise, who became superstar importers and remain good friends.  There is a new generation of young counterparts who are scouring the world for up-and-coming producers, and you should let them teach you and pour for you next weekend.

Think About the Economics of Your Wines--Including the Bottles:

Given the current climate, you might be as strongly inclined to choke an economist as a stock advisor, but the fact is that reflecting on economics can really help you to get more value out of your wine budget.  For instance, the Rioja example just addressed is straight out of Econ 101.  A producer making lots and lots of wine can drive better bargains on production inputs (from tractors and tanks to bottles and corks), making it possible to run a generally more efficient and less costly process.  Moreover, a producer with lots of wine to sell can take less profit from each individual bottle, making competitive pricing possible.

Many economic ideas are matters of common sense that can be understood without delving into complex equations.  However, certain aspects of the wine trade aren't immediately apparent to all consumers, making it difficult to engage your common sense.

One example is provided by the bottle in which your wine comes to you.  If that bottle is conspicuously large and heavy, with thick glass and a deep punt and a raised crest on the shoulder with a particular producer's seal, you can bet that it was something like twice as costly as a simple, light bottle with a flat bottom.

The difference between the two bottles and the difference between their cost is obvious, but what may be less obvious is that the costs imposed by that heavy bottle aren't finished once the producer has purchased it.  This is because each agent in the commercial pipeline that brings the wine to your table will take a markup along the way, and that markup will be calculated in percentage terms.

As a result, it is not only the juice but also the bottle that is marked up as the wine is purchased by a broker in, say, Tuscany, passing then to an exporter based in Italy or an importer from Chicago who also tacks on 33%, who then sells it to a distributor in Missouri after tacking on 33%, who sells it to a retailer in St. Louis who marks it up another 50% before selling it to you.

If the heavy bottle initially cost 1 euro more than a lighter, simpler alternative used by a competing winery across the road in Tuscany, and that 1 euro gets marked up as it shifts to dollars and gets marked up again and again before you buy the wine, it will represent a sum much higher than the equivalent of 1 euro as a percentage of the selling price of the wine in a retail store

So you should ask yourself:  Do I really want to pay an additional $3.50 to get my wine in a big bottle, as opposed to getting essentially the same wine that was made across the road for $3.50 less?

I understand, of course, that a wine may look more impressive in a big bottle, and maybe that really matters to you.  If so, write to me and I'll steer you toward a couple of producers that sell passable wines in really nice bottles.  But again, you should ask yourself:  Are you as ready to pay for a really nice bottle as you were in December?  If you are now buying wines in the $12 - $15 range, that big bottle may represent a shockingly large proportion of the selling price, making it wise for you to ask yourself one last question:  Would I rather have a passable wine in a really nice bottle, or a really nice wine in a passable bottle?

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I hope that these suggestions will help you to continue to enjoy excellent wine while your finances recover from the holidays.  If you've got questions or other ideas for keeping quality up while holding prices down, please write to me at michael@franzwine.com