Friday, March 16, 2007

On Wine Recommendations and Merchants

Unless you own a wine shop and know your stock and customers well, recommending a specific bottle of wine can be a perilous exercise. How many individual bottles of wine are out there? I would guess tens of millions, and every one of them is different; in some cases dramatically so, in others subtly so. The French have a saying to the effect that there are no great wines, only great bottles. What they are alluding to is what is called “bottle variance.” Were we to sample three bottles of 1990 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, one from a restaurant in Japan, another from a wine shop in San Francisco, and a third from a private cellar in Houston, Texas, we would discover they do not taste the same. This is because the quality of the wine within a given bottle depends to a large extent on the way in which that bottle has been handled, i.e., how it was transported, how it was stored, and how it is served.

Another variable is when exactly the wine was put in the bottle. Most winemakers do not bottle all their stock of a particular wine at once, so some of the wine can spend additional weeks or months in barrel before bottling. This can make for a discernible difference in taste. Moreover, although wine makers try to establish a consistency of taste with regards to a particular wine from a particular vintage, the fact is wine making is a “batch” process and not all batches come out tasting alike.

Achieving consistency of taste is especially challenging when it comes to blended wines, like Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja. Bordeaux is a blend of individual wines made from up to five different varieties of grapes -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec -- while Chianti is permitted by law to employ up to thirteen different types of grapes . Each of these separate wines is itself made in batches, put in barrels, and then blended together at some point. This blending process, what the French call the assemblage, is as much art as science. I have watched winemakers doing it, and it struck me that at this point in the wine-making process they were a lot like perfume makers, adding a bit of this for color, a bit of that for acidity, a touch of something else to heighten aroma. These multiple variables makes it very hard to ensure one batch of wine tastes exactly like another, or that the wine you taste today will be like the one you had last month.

So how does one master it all? You don’t. What you do is find yourself a good wine merchant and trust him or her to point you towards bottles of wine you might enjoy.

But this begs the question: just what makes for a good wine shop or merchant?

First, they must be familiar with their stock, having tasted most of it themselves. Just reading what Robert Parker or The Wine Enthusiast has to say, useful as it might be, is not enough. A good wine merchant will sample his or her goods on a regular basis.

Second, they should purchase their wines only from importers or vendors who use climate controlled shipping containers and storage facilities. Being subjected to temperature extremes or fluctuations is perhaps the single most damaging thing a wine can undergo. So ask your wine merchant how his or her suppliers receive and handle their wines.

Third, bottles of wine should be handled properly within the wine shop. They should be stored on their sides so wine remains in contact with the cork, keeping it for drying out. When a cork dries out it shrinks and air can get to the wine and spoil it. This “sideways” storage is particularly important in areas where air conditioning is common, because a/c dries out the air in the process of cooling it. Sideways storage is expensive and can result in a less efficient use of space, so many merchants don’t employ it. More than once I’ve been told the “turn over” of their wine inventory is such that sideways storage isn’t necessary. In most cases I don’t believe this is true, particularly when it comes to expensive bottles that do not sell that often. So look for a merchant who stores bottles on their sides.

Forth, a good merchant will be willing to take back bad bottles of wine, no questions asked. By “bad” I mean defective. The fact you don’t like the taste of a particular grape or style of wine is not sufficient reason to expect a refund or exchange. But if the bottle shows evidence of being bad, or if it tastes oxidized (like dry Sherry) or like vinegar, then either don’t open it, or re-cork it if you have, and return it. Don’t drink it all, or pour it down the sink, and then expect the merchant to honor your claim it was a bad bottle. The merchant can in most cases return the wine to his or her supplier and get credit.

So, how can you look at a bottle of wine before opening it and get some idea if it’s bad?

First, check the capsule, the metal band around the neck. If there is any evidence of leakage, tears of wine running out from it, or a bulge in the capsule caused by a small pool of wine, or a protrusion of the cork, then this is a sign the wine may be bad.

Next, look at what is called the “ullage,” that little air space between the wine inside the bottle and the cork. This can safely vary, but in general the smaller the space the more likely the wine has not suffered from bad handling or storage. If the ullage is more than an inch, or certainly if it extends down into the shoulder of the bottle, then I would pass on that particular bottle. If there are other bottles of the same wine available, look through them until you find one with an acceptable ullage.

Does all this guarantee the wine will be without defects, or that it will please you? No, unfortunately not. There are myriad things that can do harm to a bottle of wine and, as I’ve emphasized before, the pleasure you take in a wine is a matter of personal taste. The good news is that more dependable wine is made today than ever in history. This is the Golden Age of Wine. The chances of running into a bad bottle of wine, or a badly made wine, are quite low.

Of course we consumers have a responsibility as well. What we need to do is discover through experience what pleases us, analyze why that is, and then communicate our preferences to a good wine merchant. He or she will then be able to direct us towards wines we are likely to enjoy. If you don’t like the merchant’s recommendations, if the wines he or she touted were not what you expected, or wanted, be sure to tell them the next time you visit. But come prepared to try and explain, in whatever words you are comfortable with, why the wine did not please you. This will give the merchant a better idea of what you prefer and, over time, he or she will be better able to help you find what you like.

A good wine merchant will also try ever so gently to expand your taste for, and appreciation of, wines with which you are not familiar. If you are open-minded and adventurous, you can discover some great things. Some wines or styles of wine are definitely an acquired taste and you will not cotton to all of them (try a Vin Jaune from the Jura district of France someday, or a Greek Retsina, and see what you think). There is no sin involved in disliking a given wine, but there’s something sinful about never giving it a chance.

So, to wrap things up -- know what you like and why you like it, find a good wine merchant, communicate honestly with them over time, and chances are you will be consistently rewarded with wines that please you.


Susan said...


I am finally caught up on the latest blogs! They are all great and very informative. Your knowledge of wine (all aspects of it) continues to amaze me. I am so glad that word is spreading about this blog and that you are getting comments on the site. Thanks again for keeping this up!


Anonymous said...


I've been away from my computer and now just back in time to read this wonderful issue of your blog. You have captured the challenges we somewhat inexperienced buyers have. This is a great guide. Thanks very much for helping. I'm recommending your blog to all my friends. I wish some wine shops would post links to this.