I’ve been mulling over the idea of a post like this for quite a while. I then read this article and it gave me the angle I was looking for – so I sort of “nicked” the idea. I love watches and the Hodinkee site is a great one – if you are so inclined, have a browse, warning – the videos are addictive!
So, here’s my “go” at the 12 things people most often get “wrong” when they start buying wine. In just over 18 years in the wine trade I like to think I might have picked up a few of the things to look out for. I see buying wine – professionally or personally – as “an art more than a science”. So here are a few of the “mistakes” that I think it is worth trying to avoid. Much of this could be seen as self-serving but I love buying wine as much as selling it!
1 – Following the ratings/scores – This is the easiest thing to do, but it’ll tend to lead to you chasing your tail in the search for the same wines many people want. It may well end up with you being typecast as a “cherry picker” or “fair weather friend” by merchants. This is something you don’t want. It also means, if you follow one particular critic dis-proportionally, that you may end up with many wines of a similar style or profile. This is not a criticism of the critics just a fact of life. Read producer profiles and tasting notes rather than just the score. If you actually find that your palate is strongly aligned to one writer/critic then I would still encourage experimentation.
2 – Not drinking enough – It is part of the (particularly male) psyche to be keen to get spending and to start building a “collection” or “cellar” (I firmly draw the line when it comes to a “portfolio” – a nonsense phrase if ever there was one) of young wines that one wants to own BUT I would argue that spending money on trying wines is money better spent. Use the places that offer wines via Coravin or the other “by the glass” scenarios. Try as much as you can. Take pics with your phone and make notes and observations (do not have to be long or make much sense). The more you can tell a merchant about what you like and don’t like (and preferably why), the better help you will get and the more you’ll learn. On a related point always try to have wines at home so you can access something great* when you want it, if you don’t have a cellar (that’s most of us) then a Eurocave, fridge, cool dark cupboard can do the job. Do not be afraid of opening younger bottles – a great wine should always be a great wine. *Great and expensive are not the same thing.
3 – Buying only for how your palate is now – This is a very tricky one and obviously only applies to wines you are buying to lay down. Be very wary of buying only the wines you are mad keen on right now. I am not for a minute suggesting that you buy wines now that you don’t like in the hope you’ll like them later, that would be insane. What I am advising is to buy a contrast in styles, if Bordeaux is your thing don’t forget to buy some Burgundy and Rhone. If you love Italy don’t forget Spain etc. A cellar with balance is, in my opinion, far better than a “collection” of depth but no variety. Think of the range of music you end up with on your Ipod, embrace difference.
4 – The more expensive something is the longer you should cellar it (& vice versa) – This is a really common scenario. If I had a penny for every time someone tasted a wine and said “that’s great, I’ll get a couple of cases to put away” then I’d be a moderately wealthy man. You’ve just said it’s great, so drink at least some of it now! There are great value wines that it is very sensible to tuck away – Gigondas, Rioja, Mosel Rieslings, Port etc etc and in the same way there are some expensive wines that are gorgeous for their fruit and will keep but without necessarily improving. Older is very often not better. Along the same lines many wines will seriously repay 2-5years…putting a wine away doesn’t mean 10+years.
5 – Mainly focusing on one or two regions – I have fallen foul of this and it’s a minor “problem”, very much related to point 3. It’s easy to get obsessed with certain regions (Barolo for me!) and end up with a rather unbalanced cellar. As long as you spot this as part of point 10 and possibly do some of point 12 you’ll be fine.
6 – Ignoring sparkling, white, sweet and fortified – So easily done because “serious wine is red isn’t it”? Covering all the angles here is a good idea. Some of the bottles I have most enjoyed have been, often inexpensive, whites (Chablis and Mosel especially) that I cellared for 5-8 years. Think of the cellar as being something you’ll need in order to provide all the wines for dinners etc. You might not be mad about sparkling or sweet right now but you’ll have guests who are, and your tastes may change (point 3).
7 – Not listening to wine merchants – This might sound like a bit of “of course you’d say that” advice but I think it is one of the best points here. Merchants taste a lot and almost all love wine (crazy not to!). If I am after a view then I have not problem asking friends in the trade who I know have tasted and have experience in a certain area. Also, wine merchants are easily flattered and like to be asked their opinion (believe me). It’s the flip-side of the coin from being looked upon as a “cherry picker” or “fair weather friend”. The less mainstream the region, or the wine, the more this rings true. Another way to look at this is don’t be put off certain regions because they are tricky to understand – Burgundy is a classic example – people know they like Pinot Noir, they like the idea of Burgundy, but they feel intimidated by the breadth of it and worried they will buy the wrong thing. Obviously you need to find a good wine merchant who will talk you through it, and ideally drive up and down the route national!
8 – If it’s not sold out it is not worth having – People, and especially those who seem to love fine wine, like to have what they can’t have…it’s human nature. Often in wine the great buys are hard to get and the top wines come in tiny quantities but there are lots of examples of good and great wines made in large amounts – Lopez de Heredia, Produttori di Barbaresco, Chateau Musar, Dom Perignon, Guigal, Jaboulet, oh and massive amounts of Bordeaux to name but a few. Don’t be put off because something is available.
9 – Provenance – Until you fall foul of bad storage, or even fake wine, it is easy to think that the cheapest case of a wine (often on the web) is the one to go for. I don’t want to scaremonger but if you can buy a wine from the merchant who imported the particular wine then you should. Do your due diligence on those you buy from, especially if buying En Primeur. Ask (experienced) friends who you should be dealing with and check they are in it for the long haul. You should then keep the wine professionally stored (for optimum condition and insurance) and keep it IN BOND (you never get the duty and vat back otherwise). This topic is a post (many posts) all of it’s own but as is so often the case “if it looks too good to be true it probably is”…
10 – Overthinking it – Those that get into wine and want to build a cellar/collection etc are often in the position to do so because they are good at their job and have therefore achieved a good level of income. The analysis needed to achieve this can mean people approach wine from an angle that, in my opinion, makes it (much) less fun. Those in finance need to be particularly careful. I’ve seen many people get into drinking wine via investing in wine (and many disappear too). They start out treating it as an “asset”, as that is what they feel safe with, but they find at least 50% of the rewarding interest is in finding out more about wine. It would save time to realise this in the first place! The piece of advice I hear myself giving more and more is “buy on emotion and review it each year”. I don’t advise this so that people get blase with their buying (that can be fun too!) but much more because wine isn’t a consistent entity, wines age, moods and fashions change etc. The other overthinking error is to “trying to work out the requirements” that someone will need in their cellar. In time over-analysing wine, and especially the buying of it, just takes away the fun – RELAX.
11 – Buying the vintage not the producer – This is probably one of the hardest pointers to grasp as a newer buyer. It is both more fun and, dare I say it, more cost effective to find producers you love and follow them year in year out. I am not for a minute saying that you shouldn’t buy more in better vintages or that the vintage is not a very relevant part of wine (it seriously IS). I just don’t think it is as important as it is easy to assume it can be. A great producer in a lesser year is a lovely recipe. “Expectation” is the biggest wine killer and “great” vintages always come loaded with expectation!
12 – Thinking you’ll never sell a wine – This may seem an odd statement given that I am firmly in the “wines are for drinking” camp but a lot of people come into wine saying “I’ll never sell a bottle” and I greatly admire this sentiment (and it is so preferable to conversations about returns/investment etc…eyes glazing over…) but it’s actually often not practical. Many of the reasons for this are listed in the points above but in general – tastes change as do the amount we drink and like cars or watches people can find they want to trade in one wine and get another. A wine cellar should be an evolving “beast”…if you find yourself over stocked on one thing sell some and buy something else.
One last plea if I can – Don’t just see wine as something to be consumed in a bottle – visit wine regions, go to tastings, read around it…get “involved”…you get out what you put in!
I am sure I have missed masses but I would love it if this post sparked a few comments…let me know your views and your tips!
Special thanks must go to ABS, Guido and Tree for their input and comments…
Great post William – wholeheartedly concur with all. If I could go back 10 years I would most definitely have bought much more of what I really enjoy drinking and much less on the basis of hype/scores/reviews.
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Firstly: thank you for all your posts. It is always very rewarding reading these in a very informal manor. Great!
Secondly, this post: I entered this business just a few years ago, and boy: it has been some interesting years. Off course my own taste in wine has been “fine tuned” (drinking much more white and sparkling than before…), but what I don´t understand is, that people in the trade tend to drink the same wine all the time. You got it: Burgundy, Champagne and Bordeaux with a dash of Rhone and Piedmont. Spanish MUST be Vega Sicilia and the likes….
Actually I have realized that these people don´t want to try anything new, which I find very strange.
Never the less: thank you for emphasizing always to be on the look for new and exciting stuff, never to look at ratings etc. Very solid rules in order to navigate in the sea of wine.
Point 10, buy with your heart (and should I add, with your palate), instead of a calculator is so true. I often feel the financial appreciation has taken over the gut feeling in buying wines, in the last 10~15 years.
Point 13- I have enough wine, I’ll stop buying because I won’t drink it all: related to many of your other points, taste evolves so there will always be something new to get. Then that collection can be passed on to the next generation. One should never stop buying wine. One day a collector, all your life a collector!