Thursday, July 20, 2006

Another Wine Blog?

I know what you're thinking - the world needs another "welcome to the wonderful world of wine" blog like I need a hole in the head. You're probably right, but I'm not really excited by what's out there, so I'm going to do it my way. You're more than welcome to join me on this journey... or you can sit back and watch Andrea Immer's Simply Wine on the Food Network. I have to admit, she's a lot better than I am and she has breasts, which I am sadly lacking. But, if you watch Simply Wine, you'll have to sit through her gushing over a $6.99 bottle of Chateau du Poop that's available in her newly branded wine section at Target. I'll never do that to you. I'm going to make you spend at least $24.99 before I start gushing. Why? Because there are just some things in life that you can't get for $6.99. And a great bottle of wine is one of those things. Even at Target.

So why call it "The Aspiring Wino?"

They say "If the shoe fits..." Most people I hang out with want to enjoy wine and enjoy a lot of it. They don't really care about finding the perfect descriptor for what they're tasting - "Well Chet, I do taste that hint of elderberry you mentioned, but I'm also picking up a little taste of pine tar and dinkleberries." They probably know the difference between zinfandel and pinot noir, but if you started talking about the Santa Lucia Highlands, they might think you're getting ready for a single malted scotch. These are the same people that might be impressed by your vertical of Chateau d'Yquem, but they'd be far more impressed if you actually opened one and drank the damn thing. They're just normal people.

That said, most normal people really don't know where to start with wine. And add a bunch of friends to the mix and most people start to get intimidated by wine. You all know someone that is "the wine guy" in your group of friends. It gets to the point where you'd rather drive 20 miles out of the way to buy some cheese or something because you're worried he's going to think you brought a cheap bottle of wine to his house. "Oh you SO bought that at Albertsons. Why don't I open it RIGHT NOW so you can have a glass?" Hopefully, this blog will give you some ideas for that bottle of wine that will blow the wine guy away. At worst, he'll know you didn't buy it at Albertsons.

So, enjoy the blog. I'm not "the wine guy." I'm just an aspiring wino. My wife would drop "aspiring" out of the title, but hey, I like it. The Aspiring Wino.

The Mailing List: Part 1

Most guys would start you off with "How to Order Wine in a Restaurant" or "Tasting Your Way Across Napa." I'm starting with the Winery Mailer, because that's the thing that is going to be the most important to you over the long run...

Why do you even care about winery mailers? Well, ask yourself - How many times have you gone to a party and listened to someone prattle on and on about some magnificent bottle of wine that you'll never get the chance to taste? More likely, have you ever shared a bottle with a friend that knows his wine, written down the name and then searched all over kingdom come to find it, only to come up short? Chances are your friend bought the bottle off a mailer and unless you sign up for it yourself, you're never going to see that bottle again.

I know, it sounds kind of snobbish, but welcome to supply and demand. If a winery puts out a phenom bottle of wine in small quantities, they don't NEED to sell it in stores. In fact, they lose money when they sell bottles to a distributor, who then marks it up and sells it to a store, who marks it up again and sells it to you. The winery ends up making 40% of retail, on a good day. If the demand is high enough, however, the winery can sell it directly to you and cut out the middle man. Enter mailing lists.

The basic concept is simple. Winery X produces 320 cases of a given wine, which retails for $40. His royal highness, the Robert Parker, had a glass and rated it 97, so now everyone wants to buy a case. Winery X needs to keep 20 cases for themselves for promotional purposes, tastings, library bottles, etc. which leaves them with a total of 300 cases (3600 bottles) to sell. Rather than make $16 a bottle by dumping it off through a distributor, Winery X decides to sell to their mailing list, which has now quadrupled in size now that Parker drank it and called it the next Petrus. Your chances of finding it at the local wine store just dropped toslim and none, and on the off chance that you do find it, it's marked up over 3x the mailing list price - welcome to the secondary market.

So how does this affect the mailing list? Well, winery X looks at their list and makes one of the toughest decisions in the business - how many people do I let buy my juice, and how many bottles do I give them the privilege of buying? Then, Winery X realizes "hey, I've got all this other plonk lying around, how many bottles of this other stuff do I make someone buy before I let them buy my 97 rated wine?" So, winery X decides to offer 600 people the opportunity to buy 6 bottles of the good stuff, but require a minimum order of 12 bottles from their mailer. What about the other 2400 people that want to get their hands on the wine? Welcome to the waiting list. That's right. You have to WAIT for the privilige of buying super wine!

How long is the wait? Some wineries don't have a wait at all, for any number of reasons. They might just have a wine club that sends a couple of bottles every few months and bill your Visa automatically. Generally, wineries like this don't have super high demand and you're doing them a favor by guaranteeing a shipment once a quarter. Examples include Clos du Bois, Duckhorn, etc. Other wineries operate on the "buy 12 bottles of our second tier stuff NOW and we'll let you buy the great stuff in a couple of years after you prove yourself." Examples of this are Kistler, Martineli and Turley, with the last two having a wait list, to boot. Others just make you wait. And wait. If you're lucky, they'll send you a post card, like Sine Qua Non does, and let you know they're still thinking about you. I've been waiting for six years to get on Rochioli's active list... and it looks like this year will finally be the year. Screaming Eagle? Anyways. I signed up and am hoping to celebrate my 75th wedding anniversary with my first bottle.

So where does that leave you? Waiting for the next post...

The Mailing List: Part 2

The short version of last week's post - "If you want the best wine, you can either pay 2x-4x on the secondary market or get yourself on some serious mailing lists and buy directly from winery." Great. Now where do you start?

My suggestion is to immediately sign up for the mailing lists that take several years to get on. Why? Well, why not? You don't have to buy anything for quite a few years and I'd rather spend 5 minutes now nailing this stuff down and forgetting about it then waiting 5-10 years and thinking gee, wouldn't it have been great if I signed up 10 years ago? Immediate names that come to mind are Sine Qua Non, Marcassin, Rochioli and Colgin. You can always decide NOT to buy in the future.

Short term, though, you need to put together a buying strategy. Here's what I would ask myself:

1) How much money do you want to spend on wine? This is really the most important question. If you don't want to spend more than $300 a year, you're not going to blow your wad on three bottles of $80 Napa cab and spend the other $60 at Safeway. Personally, I think $1000 is about the minimum you want to start with for a nice, balanced list.
2) What kind of wine do you like? I'm a firm believer of the "drink what you like with dinner" camp, as opposed to matching wines with food based on colors, textures, etc. Sure, you'll clash every once in a while - a knockout cab probably isn't the best match for your Trout Almondine, but if you know you're a cab fan, you're probably going to enjoy the wine, regardless. By focusing on a "favorite" varietal, you can spend a little more money and go after higher quality on something you enjoy, while balancing out the rest of your portfolio.
3) Do you like red, white or c) all of the above? If you're a pinot fan, but don't like whites, you're probably going to want to stay away from lists like Kistler or Dehlinger - both great wineries, but you have to buy one to get the other, whereas pure pinot, zinfandel or cab plays let you focus just on the stuff you'll love.
4) Do you like to visit wineries, read about what's going on with your favorite winemaker, read wine boards, etc? For me, this is a big one. I'm guessing I spend around $2500 a year on wine. It's significantly more than most people spend on wine, but still way at the low end of spending once you start to get serious about the hobby. Given I'm going to be able to buy great cab or pinot from a variety of sources, I tend to buy from people that I can either talk to or visit, if I have the choice. A great example is Bob Bressler, of Bressler wine. I originally read his posts at VinoCellar, saw he was putting out good wine and thought he'd be a great guy to support. Now, if I open a bottle of his cabernet, I send him a message and ask about decanting time and for any pairing recommendations. Knowing that my hard earned money is going towards a nice guy that cares about his customers goes a lot farther than sending checks into the void for a case of wine.

My Suggestions
Take this for what it's worth. I'm a big fan of red wines, particularly pinot noir and zinfandel. This generally means fruitier wines with a medium to high level of alcohol. I like west coast wines and don't really deal with Europe, Australia, etc. If you are looking for rieslings, I'm the wrong guy (I'll ask my friend Marshall to write a post on that one). I absolutely love Napa cabernet, but I'm also realistic about my budget. I'd love to drink Shafer Hillside Select, but at $175 or $200 a bottle, I either need to hit the lotto or have some very generous friends. So, for a starter list, I'd consider the following:

Pinot Noir
I'm hooked on pinots right now. Pinots are generally much lighter than other reds and are usually fruity with a cherry flavor. There's usually an underlying "funk" to them that ranges from barely noticeable in the Central Coast fruit bombs to clearly Burgundian (when they say you're tasting "earth", you can loosely translate this as "dirt") in some of the Russian River and especially Oregon pinots.

Kosta Browne These guys are just HOT right now. After getting RAVE reviews from Wine Spectator, their waiting list is growing faster than Britney Spears backside. I've had to hold myself back from drinking everything in site at a couple Kosta Browne tastings and I still haven't had a bad one yet. I'd sign up for this one soon...
A.P. Vin Another pinot producer with great wines, Andrew is just a down to earth guy. His list started backing up after hitting 90+ on all of his wines his first two years out of the gate. The thing about A.P. Vin I like the most? The guy posts on all of the main wine boards, genuinely loves what he is doing and pays for shipping. And he responds to emails!
Siduri, Loring, DainAgain, great wine, great guys, and primarily pinot. Trying to keep this list down, or I'd go into detail on all of them...

Zinfandels are generally full-bodied, incredibly fruity and have a higher alcohol content. Most importantly, zinfandel is nowhere near as expensive as pinot or cab, so you'll frequently find great bottles of zin in the $25-$40 range. Zin was one of my starter wines (I'm a bbq nut and zin + tri-tip = a happy AspiringWino) and I've never looked back!

Turley I absolutely love Turley. When I checked last, there was an 18 month wait, but worth it. This is one of those lists where you get allocated a few bottles of the lower end stuff and have to earn your way up the list, although they have been good about offering a bottle of their Hayne (flag ship) after an order. The nice thing about Turley is they have some great values in the "less than $30" range - Juvenile comes in at $20, Old Vines at $25, which make them a great cost-effective list. One note - Turley is known for higher octane, very sweet and sometimes even syrupy zins. I like this style A LOT, some do not.
Outpost Wines When I finally get out of school, I am so jumping on this list. I don't think I've had an Outpost zin I haven't liked and the prices are reasonable, given the quality of wine you're getting.

If you can afford to order the big name cabernets ($125+) in bulk, you're probably not reading this blog, so I'm not going to waste my time with you. Cabernet Sauvignon is the cadillac of grapes in California, and you pay dearly for it. While some of the zin and pinot lists have typical order sizes of 12-24 bottles, you'll see botique cabernet producers running in lots of 3 and 6, with a magnum or two. These are special occassion wines for me, primarily because I find myself eating a big steak in a restaurant (the perfect pair) and I don't feel quite as guilty about bringing a $80 bottle of wine in with me for dinner.

Bressler Love the stuff. Very reasonably priced Napa Valley cabernet and Bob is a great guy. In terms of the purchasing experience, the best I've seen yet. Log on, buy your stuff, log off and it shows up right away.
Match Vineyards Another very reasonably priced Napa Cab that I LOVE. Plus, Randy is another one of those winemakers that blogs, answers emails and posts on the wine boards. I kept his list active as long as I could, but this was my last back to school financial aid victim. As soon as the money starts rolling in again, I'm going to WineBid and filling the library up faster than you can drink it.
Karl Lawrence Cellars A list I've never been on, but man have I enjoyed these cabs. Pricing is VERY reasonable and the quality is outstanding. Definitely worth looking at.

Martinelli Martinelli can be a tad on the pricey side, with their wines starting at $40 and going up from there, but their wines are really good! Again, 12-18 month wait, and you need to hang around for a LONG time to get at their top of the line stuff (Jackass and Blue Slide Ridge), but I'd say that you pay for what you get with these guys. Full disclosure - I've seen a couple issues about shipping on boards in the past, but they appear to have things cleaned up.

Rafanelli Zin and cab, with the occasional merlot. By mixed, I mean all red, which is my preference. More of a wait than the rest of the lists here, but the wines range from $30-$40, with the exception of their limited production Terrace Select cabs. Year in, year out, I have yet to find a better value for your money. The term QPR (Quality : Price Ratio) must have been created for these guys.

Pride Mountain Vineyards Best known for their reserves, Pride is a great wine producer. When you think of the most played out line in wine movie history, "I'm not drinking any f*cking merlot," the first response should be "You've never tried Pride merlot." Make sure to get on BOTH lists.

Another strong mention is DeLille Cellars, in Washington. I met Greg through a former colleague, and I have to tell you, he is another one of those guys that you can sit down and talk to for an hour and you want to go out an buy his wines because you genuinely like the guy, as opposed to the fact that Robert Parker has been giving him ratings in the stratosphere.

I hope this is a good start. If you're reading this and have any comments/ideas or other wineries you think would be good starters, feel free to leave a comment. See you next week!