Wine and food can be a magical combination. Maybe wine is the only subject friends in your social circle talk about. As you climb the corporate ladder, maybe you discovered most members of senior management are wine fans. Wine has become your passion.
But what an expensive passion! True, you can buy a bottle of Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon from California for about $6. It contains about 25 ounces. A bottle of Bryant Family Vineyard cabernet also contains 25 ounces, but it sells for $794 a bottle. Silver, the precious metal, sold for $15.60 an ounce as of the beginning of this year. Ounce for ounce, the Bryant Family Vineyard wine is roughly twice the price of silver! Wine is meant to be enjoyed over dinner with friends. How can you buy and serve fine wine that has “snob appeal” without breaking the bank?
Here are 10 ways to go about it.
» Buy great names from average years. Wines with the ultimate in snob appeal come from France. The big names in Burgundy and Bordeaux are the stars of the international auction market. In both places “Grand Cru” are the magic words. In Bordeaux, there are 62 wines tracing back to the 1855 classification. (St. Emilion, a region within Bordeaux, uses the same words, but they have a different meaning.)
Technological advances have largely eliminated poor years, yet the industry differentiates between “great years” and everything else. Chateau Lynch Bages, an excellent red from the Paulliac region, averages $161 a bottle in the 2016 vintage. The critics score is 94 out of 100 points. Lynch Bages from the 2013 vintage averages about $101 per bottle. It gets 90 out of 100 from the critics.
» Second labels. Wine prices are high because of supply and demand. The Bordeaux chateau owners are smart. They also release “second” wines from younger vines. Same land. Same talented winemakers. Using Lynch Bages as an example again, Echo de Lynch Bages (clever name, yes?) sells for about $47 a bottle in the 2016 vintage. It scores 90 out of 100. It’s a cost-effective way to buy wines from really great properties in really great vintages.
» Follow the winemaker. Heidi Barrett is an example of a famous California winemaker. She was synonymous with Screaming Eagle, the ultimate cult California cabernet in the 1990s. It sells for about $3,000 a bottle. Among the properties where she consults is Paradigm, whose 2014 cabernet averages about $84 a bottle. Same winemaking know-how. Cabernet grapes. Napa Valley. The prestige follows the winemaker.
» Follow the owner. Domaine de la Romanee Conti is the most famous Burgundy estate in the world. Romanee Conti is the top DRC wine. The vineyard is only four acres, producing about 3,500 bottles. Amazingly, the wine sells for about $23,904 per bottle in the 2015 vintage! Who runs the place? Aubert de Villaine, the co-director. Does he own other vineyards elsewhere? Yes. He also owns Domaine A&P Villaine in the Bouzeron, a Burgundy sub-region. This excellent white wine, made from the aligoté grape, runs about $35 per bottle. A good wine shop should be able to order it for you.
» Follow the chateau. The Bordeaux chateau owners have a problem. They own all the good land. To get more, they need to buy out a neighbor. People aren’t selling, except at astronomical prices. One solution is for the famous families to look elsewhere in France or around the world, buy land, plant grapes, send their staff and oversee the whole operation.
Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) do this quite well. Chateau d’Aussieres in Corbieres and, further afield, Bodegas Caro in Argentina are good examples. Prices on a recent vintage average $27 and $65 per bottle, respectively. The most famous name in Bordeaux isn’t going to attach its name to a low-quality operation.
» Closeouts. Now to more practical stuff. Wine is heavy, bulky and fragile. In the United States, it’s mostly sold through distributors who maintain warehouses. The wines at the top of the collectability pyramid sell on allocation, they disappear quickly.
Less popular Grand Cru wines further down the list may be sitting in the warehouse collecting dust. Maybe there wasn’t that much demand for that vintage. The distributors need to free up storage space for the incoming vintage. It’s like car dealers announcing “We’ve got to clear out the 2018 models to make way for the 2019s!” They often do significant price cuts quietly to move inventory. Find a wine merchant that gets these kinds of deals.
» Find a good wine merchant. Buying wine isn’t like buying something online. It’s like having a financial advisor who knows you well. Develop a relationship, let them know what you like, buy what they suggest and give feedback. These closeouts are often just a couple of cases here and there. You get a discreet email or phone call asking if you are interested. This gets you into the running for wines on allocation. Those wines never make it to the shelves.
» Learn about rosé wine. It’s hot. It’s also comparatively inexpensive. Provence, France, is considered the traditional home of rosé wines. If a top Bordeaux might run several hundred dollars a bottle and a top Burgundy over a thousand, a French rosé with pedigree might cost you $50 a bottle. Here’s an example. Domaine de Triennes in Provence was formed by Aubert de Villaine and Jacques Seysses, two of Burgundy’s most famous names. Obviously, they are going to put care into the wines they produce. This rosé runs about $17 a bottle.
» Discover Chablis. It’s a white wine from Burgundy made from the chardonnay grape. It’s farther north. The soil is chalk-based. Unlike other famous Burgundies, they don’t usually age wine in oak barrels. Stainless steel is more common. It has a characteristically flinty, mineral taste. You can pick it out in a lineup. It’s also comparatively inexpensive. Grand Cru and Premier Cru are two top levels. A Grand Cru example from a good producer will set you back about $70-$80 a bottle. Premier Cru, the next level down, might run about $40 a bottle. Premier Cru white Burgundy from Puligny Montrachet, farther south, might set you back $388 a bottle.
» Champagne. It has great brand awareness. Many people are Champagne snobs. The top-of-the-line bottles are household names. Dom Pérignon is the flagship of the Moët Champagne brand. A current vintage should run about $164 a bottle. It’s available almost everywhere. The major Champagne houses each have their own Tête du cuvée or “top of the line” names. Vintage Champagne is a notch down, but still considered serious by fellow wine fans. If Dom is about $164 a bottle and Moët & Chandon non-vintage is about $45 a bottle, the Moët 2009 averages about $73 a bottle.
Other Ways To Buy Wine
You want to run with the big dogs. Hold your own with wine fans, yet not break the bank. There are plenty of other ways to buy tasty wine cheaply, but they lack snob appeal. Costco sells excellent wine, even French Champagne, under its Kirkland label. Trader Joe’s sells good wine at reasonable prices. Bottom line: There are lots of good deals out there.
Where Do These Prices Come From?
Technology makes researching wine prices easy. Wine-searcher.com is a site that allows you to enter a wine name and find who sells it and at what price in your state, across the country or around the world. Your primary point of contact is your local wine merchant, but this site provides a general range.