I learned quite a bit about wine during the 6 wonderful years that I called Santa Barbara, CA home. Wine tasting became a hobby, a social pastime, and during the summer I spent working at a local wine room, it was even my job. As much as I love drinking wine, and as much as I thought I knew, I was completely out of my element visiting the Chianti wine region in Tuscany last summer. As I slurped Chianti along with my fellow American tourists, I was even more intrigued by the philosophy of Old World wine making than I was by the wine itself.
It was a great reminder of just how much good stuff there is going on in the world of wine, which is both exciting and slightly intimidating. Which is why today I am completely over the moon to introduce you to my friend, wine broker, and sommelier-extrodinaire, Zach Turner, who has so kindly agreed to share with us some insider tips on choosing wine, finding deals, and what to avoid.
Q: What factors do you find most helpful in choosing wine that you haven’t previously tried?
A: Truly the most valuable tool for any of us these days is our smart phone, iPad, or laptop. We can snap a photo or punch the name of a wine into a search engine and instantly be reading a blog where multiple people have actually drunk the same wine the night before and have all sorts of opinions on it. While these may not be “expert” assessments, there is a ton we can learn from their reactions to the wine that can help us make our decision on what to buy. I use them to find out if something should be drunk now or later, if it’s decent value for the money or just hype, etc…
Q: How well does the price of a bottle relate to the quality of the wine?
A: Until very recently, with the advent of wine blogs and more educated consumers, this industry was all about asymmetric information. Producers and salespeople could just make things up in hopes of keeping their profit margin as fat as possible. But, it’s much more honest these days since people can just look things up online (ie. what is the wine going for in Napa vs. Bordeaux vs. Pittsburgh? ) What are people who’ve had the wine saying about its value?
Really the price is a function of the production costs, marketing costs, and whatever press or cache the wine/brand has. For example, If a wine was farmed in a relatively flat valley where tractors can easily operate, a place with temperate weather and plenty of resources, one could assume the cost would be fairly low. Whereas if farming in, say, Mosel, Germany, one of the coldest wine growing regions, and steepest (basically vertical) hillsides, where all work must be done by hand, by people literally repelling down the hills in harnesses….it’s easy to see that the cost of producing that type of wine would be much higher. There are also many, many other costs like oak, storage, labeling, bottling, but you get the idea.
As for marketing and cache, assuming we are speaking only of quality wine (not Barefoot, Yellow Tail, etc.), we pay more for more established brands. Silver Oak charges about $10 to $15 more for their Bien Nacido Pinot Noir than Summerland does for the exact same wine, made very similarly. But, they are a much more well-known brand, and their marketing gets them the best ratings and visibility money can buy. From a winery’s perspective, the more money you have, the more you have to put into marketing and paying people (Parker, Laube, etc.) to rate your wines. In this country, ratings and visibility sells wine. Nothing changes in the bottle, we just pay more because our culture still looks to the ‘tastemakers’ and press to tell us what we like . BUT, this is why it helps so much to have even the smallest amount of general wine knowledge – we can know which brands are gouging us for quality or cache.
Q: Is there any information on the label apart from the varietal and appellation that can help you determine the quality of the wine?
A: The vintage and producer can speak volumes, in addition to the varietal and region. If we know that the winemaker at a certain winery uses American oak vs. French oak, or that they like to make a very high alcohol, fruit forward wine vs. one who favors higher acid, lower alcohol, and earth over fruit, we can choose based upon what we like to drink. Also, some years are simply better than others. Some years are very much worse than others. Some years are great in one region and terrible for another. Yet most producers make wine from each vintage. Therefore it’s important to know (or at least look up) how the vintage was in the particular region for a wine you are considering. Excellent producers all have bad vintages.
Q: Are there any varietals or regions that you think are underpriced or overpriced right now?
A: HELL YES. Really has to do with a lot I have said above…knowing the region, vintage, winemaking style, and then looking stuff up. For instance I know that Americans don’t really understand Spanish wine yet. So pretty much everywhere I go, I know that I will be able to find quality Spanish wine, but it will be priced lower because it’s harder to sell in this country. Same goes for almost all regions I mentioned in the “Underpriced Regions” paragraph below.
Overpriced Regions: Napa, Bordeaux, Piedmont, Burgundy, Champagne. I could go on for hours about this, but the bottom line is people can’t afford to pay their premiums (relics of the days of trying to have the largest margins as possible). People are also becoming more educated and realizing there are so many other products they like just as well or better out there. Consumers also are rarely, if ever, aging their wines, and they are tiring of huge, oaky wines (Napa, Bordeaux).
Overpriced Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir. Cab has been shoved down peoples throats in the media forever (Bordeaux and Napa), and we screwed the world of Pinot lovers by making the movie, Sideways. Now the exact same wine by the same producers has doubled and tripled in price.
Underpriced Regions (Read: Regions to Buy!): SPAIN: Ribera del Duero, Rias Baixas, Penedes. US: Central Coast of California, Washington, Idaho, New York (Fingerlakes). FR: Languedoc/Rousillon, Loire, Rhone, Provence, Alsace. IT: Gavi, Sardinia, Veneto. Greece: anywhere. Portugal: anywhere. Chile: anywhere. Slovenia: anywhere. Argentina, South Africa: almost anywhere . Australia: great value for the price, so just look up anything you see – the region is vast.
Underpriced Varietals: Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Gamay, Cabernet Franc (except from the east coast of the US!), Pinot Meunier, Riesling (except from the Mosel!), Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Rousanne, Marsanne, Albarino.
Q: Has working in the wine industry affected the way you choose wine?
A: In general, I knew nothing about wine before I got into the wine business. In that sense it has completely affected the way I choose wine. Being inside the business, you know the trends, who and what is hot, and actually deserves the reputation amid all the hype. You also know more about what you like since you taste so many wine from so many different places and producers. I am fortunate to be able to consistently select wine that works well for each occasion. That is probably the best way the industry has had an effect on me…I no longer think, “What is the best wine?” I think, “What is the best wine for this particular set of circumstances?” …and it’s usually Cava! haha
Q: How do you feel about boxed wines?
A: They used to be abhorrent, now many excellent producers are putting wine into bladders and boxes. The reason is that winemaking technology and equipment has advanced so much, even in just the last ten years, that we are able to make quality wine quite cheaply. It is not going to be a wine that lasts long, or has oak or many layers of depth. But it will be fruity and fresh and light and delicious. It has its place. Like tabel wine France or Spain.
Q: Are there different strategies for choosing wine at a restaurant as opposed to buying a bottle at a store?
A: Again, knowledge of producer, region and vintage will be the best tools for you so you know can know just how high a restaurant’s mark-up is, and where to look for value. Usually wines are 50% to 100% above retail at restaurants. That’s quite a range, so also knowing a bit about the restaurant is helpful. You will see that certain restaurants tend toward a lower mark-up to encourage more consumption by the bottle, and other restaurants may have a higher mark-up, but great by-the-glass pricing to encourage that program.
ALSO, on that topic just quickly – beware of by-the-glass options if you have doubts about the restaurant staff. They are the ones caring for those wines at the end of the night, and it’s more often than not you are paying $12 or $15 for a glass of wine that has been open for a couple days. I have no shame in asking them when they opened the bottle. If they say “I don’t know,” order beer.
Q: Do you have a favorite place to buy wine? What do you look for in a wine shop?
A: My favorite place is always the small, local, Ma & Pop type shop. I am all for the great deals you can get at Costco or Whole Foods and such, but I really love the smaller shops whose staff really cares. None of them make much money, and they really do it out of love, and I just want to do my little part to make sure they get to keep doing what they love.
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