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Fighting the Post-Holiday Wine Austerity Blues
By Michael Franz
Feb 7, 2017
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February can be pretty damned grim.  The holidays are officially over, now that even Super Bowl parties are in the rear-view mirror.  The gym is packed with guilt-ridden souls, and everybody knows The Tax Man is approaching.   Austerity is the word of the moment…at least for those not employing profanities.  To avoid slipping into utter despair, those of us who love wine look forward to a nice glass at the end of the day, but at this time of year, that glass needs to offer extremely strong value if we’re to enjoy it fully.  Toward that end, here are some tips for drinking well in this season without breaking the bank:

Zig When They Zag:

One of the key verities for playing the stock market--or any market--is to run counter to its trends, selling when others are buying and buying when others are selling.  That also makes sense when it comes to dealing in a cost-sensitive way with the wine market.

If you buy the wine that everyone else wants to buy, chances are that you are going to get burned--or at least not do as well as you could with a more wily strategy.  To be more specific, if you bought Merlot in the mid-1990s when it was booming in the wake of the famous "French Paradox" segment on "60 Minutes," you'd likely have gotten a watery, wimpy wine.  Wineries could sell anything that said "Merlot" on the label, so naturally they pushed out big crops by excessively irrigating and fertilizing their vineyards, and by rushing immature vines into production.  Merlot is a potentially excellent variety, but no grape is a match for the diluting effects of a true boom in wine fashion.

More recently, the film "Sideways" produced the double effect of pricking the Merlot bubble while inflating demand for Pinot Noir, and the lamentable results of the latter phenomenon continue to be experienced by almost anyone who tries to buy Pinot for less than $15.  I taste lots of inexpensive Pinot every year (hundreds already since the start of 2017), but lately it is only because I get paid to do so as a consultant for 15 restaurants.

What’s the upshot of this?  If you’re persisting in drinking Pinot Noir this February but are trading down to $12 bottles to save money you are almost certainly getting burned

You can do better.  Just don’t get stuck on Pinot.  You’ll get much, much better wine for your $12 - $15 if you buy Barbera or Dolcetto or Sangiovese or Valpolicella or Nero d’Avola from Italy.  Or Garnacha or Tempranillo or Mencia from Spain.  Or Cabernet from Chile or Argentina.  Or almost anything from Portugal.

I could pick a whipping boy other than Pinot, and make similar suggestions on the white side of the equation, but you get the point.

Don’t chase what everyone else is chasing, and don’t get stuck on any particular region of origin (like the United States, for example, which can make very good wines but is arguably the world’s single worst performer in terms of quality-for-value).

Conversely, consider wines that have fallen out of fashion.  Port and Sherry are famous because they are delicious, and have been delicious for centuries, and they remain delicious now even though fashion has turned in other directions.  You can buy a full bottle of Gonzalez Byass “Tio Pepe” Fino Sherry for $15 that is among the greatest aperitifs in the world, and you can keep it in the refrigerator and have a glass for dinner for three weeks without the wine showing any appreciable degradation.  Similarly, you can buy a half bottle of Graham’s “Six Grapes” Port for less than $10 and enjoy something truly delicious…as opposed to a cheap Pinot that tastes like a pale shadow of what you buy when you’re not trying to save money.

One last idea:  Unless you recoil from information regarding international finance like I recoil from calculus, think about exchange rates.  The U.S. Dollar is pretty strong right now, whereas South Africa’s Rand is not, and that makes a huge difference at your wine shop’s cash register.  Chenin Blanc from South Africa is probably the world’s single best value right now, and you can get very, very good examples (fresh ones from the 2016 vintage) from Badenhorst, Nederburg, Simonsig, MAN, Kloof Street, Ken Forrester “Petit” or Raats “Original” for between $12 and $15.  In terms of quality, you could put any of these alongside a comparably priced Chardonnay from California and…well…the Chardonnay will just dissolve into nothingness like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.

Get the Most Out of Every Bottle of Wine You Buy:

If you aren't in the habit of paying close attention to how you prepare and serve your wine, I've got good news for you:  You can buy less expensive wine but still have it taste better than what you've been drinking.  No kidding.

Many wine drinkers are unaware that serving temperature is hugely important to how wines taste.  Good wines can be deeply compromised when served at improper temperatures, whereas decent wines can taste quite good when served optimally.

Millions of bottles are botched in America every year by being served at improper temperatures, which almost always means that whites are too cold and reds too warm.  This is especially galling because the solution is so simple:  Pull your whites from the refrigerator--and place your reds into it--for 20 minutes before serving.  Your whites will offer more aroma and taste less tart, whereas your reds will offer fresher fruit with less overt alcohol.

And with young reds, you get a little more aroma and flavor out of many if you decant them for 15 minutes or so before digging in.  This doesn't require any elaborate technique (as when decanting old wines off of their sediment); just dump them in.  And it doesn't require some expensive, prissy-ass decanter.  Pull a lemonade pitcher out of the cupboard, or hit an antique store and buy an old milk bottle.  These work just fine, are inexpensive, and can be dropped from great heights without breaking.

Don't Get Suckered Into Thinking You Need a Wine Cellar:

The longstanding notion that wine must be kept at 55 degrees or consumed immediately is nonsense--and destructive nonsense at that, with elitist consequences.  It deters many less-than-wealthy newcomers from experiencing the pleasures of collecting a stash of special wines (and the savings made possible by stocking up during sales).

Although those buying fancy Bordeaux or vintage Port for long ageing really do need special storage conditions, those who drink their wines with food within a couple of years after purchase will do just fine keeping them in a closet or a corner of the basement

If you can keep the temperature in the low 70s and avoid serious temperature fluctuations, your red wines will develop very nicely over the course of a few years.  They will develop a bit more quickly than if they were stored at 55 degrees, but this is no disadvantage for near-term drinking.  And since 99% of white wines decline rather than develop over time, you should be drinking these up quickly regardless of your storage conditions.  Those who use insulated closets can spend more on wine and less on peripheral accessories, and actually avoid the fluctuation damage suffered by owners of refrigerators and temperature controlled cellars during power outages.

Never Miss a Chance to Taste for Free:
 
Cheap is good, but free is unbeatable, and you'd perhaps be amazed at how much you can taste and learn for free.  Depending on the laws in your particular jurisdiction, it may be possible to taste dozens of wines every month simply by cruising to a number of retail shops for free in-store tastings.  I did this for a couple of years in Washington, D.C. when I was broke but freshly bitten by the wine bug, and it enabled me to build up a big inventory of tasting experiences without spending a dime.

That inventory of experiences--and the knowledge imparted to me by those pouring the wines--is what enabled me to develop my own wine aesthetic and start writing about the stuff.  I learned a great deal from talking to guys like Bobby Kacher and Terry Theise, who became superstar importers and remain good friends.  There is a new generation of young counterparts who are scouring the world for up-and-coming producers, and you should let them teach you and pour for you next weekend.

Think About the Economics of Your Wines--Including the Bottles:

Reflecting on economics can really help you to get more value out of your wine budget.  For instance, the explanation for the excellence of simple wines made by big bodegas in Rioja comes straight out of Econ 101.  A producer making lots and lots of wine can drive better bargains on production inputs (from tractors and tanks to bottles and corks), making it possible to run a generally more efficient and less costly process.  Moreover, a producer with lots of wine to sell can take less profit from each individual bottle, making competitive pricing possible.

Many economic ideas are matters of common sense that can be understood without delving into complex equations.  However, certain aspects of the wine trade aren't immediately apparent to all consumers, making it difficult to engage your common sense.

One example is provided by the bottle in which your wine comes to you.  If that bottle is conspicuously large and heavy, with thick glass and a deep punt and a raised crest on the shoulder with a particular producer's seal, you can bet that it was something like twice as costly as a simple, light bottle with a flat bottom.

The difference between the two bottles and the difference between their cost is obvious, but what may be less obvious is that the costs imposed by that heavy bottle aren't finished once the producer has purchased it.  This is because each agent in the commercial pipeline that brings the wine to your table will take a markup along the way, and that markup will be calculated in percentage terms.

As a result, it is not only the juice but also the bottle that is marked up as the wine is purchased by a broker in, say, Tuscany, passing then to an exporter based in Italy or an importer from Chicago who also tacks on 33%, who then sells it to a distributor in Missouri after tacking on 33%, who sells it to a retailer in St. Louis who marks it up another 50% before selling it to you.

If the heavy bottle initially cost 1 Euro more than a lighter, simpler alternative used by a competing winery across the road in Tuscany, and that 1 Euro gets marked up as it shifts to Dollars and gets marked up again and again before you buy the wine, it will represent a sum much higher than the equivalent of 1 euro as a percentage of the selling price of the wine in a retail store

So you should ask yourself:  Do I really want to pay an additional $3.50 to get my wine in a big bottle, as opposed to getting essentially the same wine that was made across the road for $3.50 less?

I understand, of course, that a wine may look more impressive in a big bottle, and maybe that really matters to you.  If so, write to me and I'll steer you toward a couple of producers that sell passable wines in really nice bottles.  But again, you should ask yourself:  Are you as ready to pay for a really nice bottle as you were in December?  If you are now buying wines in the $12 - $15 range, that big bottle may represent a shockingly large proportion of the selling price, making it wise for you to ask yourself one last question:  Would I rather have a passable wine in a really nice bottle, or a really nice wine in a passable bottle?

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I hope these suggestions will help you to continue to enjoy excellent wine while your finances recover from the holidays and prepare for tax season.  If you've got questions or other ideas for keeping quality up while holding prices down, please write to me at michael@franzwine.com