Today’s guest author is Walt Ballenberger, founder of Beaux Voyages, which provides active tours in France including bike tours, wine tours, and Tour de France bike tours. He has lived and worked in France and speaks the language fluently.
Some years ago in a book by Lee Iacocca, who was President of Ford Motor Co. prior to taking over Chrysler Corp. and leading them out of bankruptcy, I read that Mr. Iacocca’s boss, Henry Ford II, drank two bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild every day. Two bottles per day is an awful lot and wouldn’t be advisable, but I did like the thought of drinking fine wine every day. Today, depending on the vintage, two bottles of Chateau Lafite can cost upwards of $1,000 or even more. If your name is Henry Ford you can no doubt afford this, but most of us have to settle for something a little less prestigious for our nightly dinner pairing.
The point of this article is simple: one can drink good, sometimes even excellent wines, at very reasonable prices.
The easiest way to do this is to wait for your local liquor store to have their periodic sales. For example, about once a month a large liquor store nearby our home, which carries a reasonably good selection of wines from around the world, has a sale for 15% off for those on their “family plan”. So that’s obviously the time to stock up.
The next question is which wines to choose. Unless you already know some good producers and have your favorites, the best guides are the little tags which give wine ratings by wine critics such as Robert Parker of “The Wine Advocate,” the “Wine Spectator,” and The Wine Enthusiast,” among others. Most good liquor stores make a point to display these tags for the wines that the critics have tasted. As an example of wine ratings, here are the criteria used by Robert Parker, considered by many to be the foremost of wine critics:
96-100 An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.
90-95 An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.
80-89 A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.
70-79 An average wine with little distinction except that it is soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
60-69 A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.
50-59 A wine deemed to be unacceptable.
To be sure, you will not find fine wines rated at 96 or above on the cheap, 15% off or not! However, it is entirely possible to find wines rated in the upper 80′s (very good) or even low 90′s (low outstanding range) for good prices, often $10 or less on sale! If your wine or liquor store does not display the ratings tags, suggest that they do so, or if necessary find another store that does.
The main advantage of the above strategy is that you are basing your purchases on some opinion. If you simply choose a wine without knowing anything about it, you might still find a pleasurable bottle, but the chances of success are considerably diminished.
Another resource for choosing fine wines is a good local wine specialty shop. In our town we have a shop run by a young man who is extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of wine, from vineyard practices to production to tasting, and he is truly passionate about the subject. I have learned to trust his judgment, and when he recommends a wine, I can count on it being a good choice. Of course he needs to charge more than the large volume liquor stores for his wines, but his knowledgeable inputs more than make up for the extra cost. So I routinely make a point to pick up some bottles at this shop in addition to stocking up as described above.
If you can afford to purchase and cellar great fine wines, then by all means go for it. But if your wine budget is a little more down to earth, try the procedure outlined above. I have found the wines recommended by the critics are almost always good, (nothing is foolproof, however, as evidenced by a solidly mediocre Tuscan wine we tried last week), but you’ll be pleased most of the time. Personally I like the choices of Robert Parker as well as those of The Wine Spectator. Also, I like to learn what I can about the wine, the grapes used, and also production methods used such as oak aging, malolactic fermentation, etc. This is easily accomplished using the LaRousse Encyclopedia of Wine or other reference books. The more you learn about wine the more you will enjoy the experience, and you’ll also learn more about how fine wines make food taste better. And as the old adage goes, “life is too short to drink bad wine”.