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Drinking Out Loud

Why I No Longer Buy Expensive Wine

And no, it's not because of the money

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 6, 2011

Recently, I did something that I have done exceedingly rarely in my wine-buying life: I sold some wine. Now for some wine drinkers, buying and selling wine is normal. A lot of Bordeaux buyers engage in this as a matter of course.

But that's never been the way for me. Over decades I've lovingly—and occasionally expensively—built a wine collection that has given me daily satisfaction. Until now, it never occurred to me to sell. Quite the opposite: It always occurred to me to buy. I've always loved buying wine. Selling them was unthinkable. I wanted to marry these wines, not just have a little fling, only to toss them aside for a new fancy.

So why then am I now selling wine? It's not because of the money, although that's always nice to have. Like everyone else, I can always use a little spare change.

I should mention that the wines I sold were among the most expensive in my cellar, rarities that truthfully I could barely afford to buy, but I could not bring myself to resist. They were among the greatest wines in my cellar.

So why did I sell? The answer lies in a single word: surprise.

Perhaps it's a stage in a long wine life, but what I now seek from wine, more than anything else, is the element of surprise. The novelist Henry James captured this perfectly: "There are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition."

Today, more than ever before, I find myself with an almost urgent taste for emotions of surprise. Expensive wines rarely offer that element of surprise for me anymore.

Mind you, I'm not saying that expensive wines aren't great. Or that they're not wonderful. Or that they're not worth the money. But if you've been around the wine block a few times, they rarely surprise. You have a good idea of just what expensive wines are likely to deliver. Can they be thrilling? You bet. Are they intensely enjoyable? No doubt. But are you surprised? I doubt it.

Expensive wines, almost by definition, are known entities. They come from famous places, famous vineyards, famous producers. They are sanctified by tradition and endorsed by generations of wine lovers. They repeat their greatness over many vintages. (I'm speaking here, of course, of true classics, rather than one or another cult wine that skitters into the price stratosphere because of points awarded by one or another wine critic. Revealingly, there's no element of surprise with these wines. They're utterly predictable.)

Expensive wines rarely surprise. But modestly priced wines—the best of them, anyway—are endlessly surprising. Why is this? Largely because we have no expectations from such wines. They are either wholly new to us or they offer new levels of achievement in zones previously unrecognized for anything special.

I'll give you an example. When I was in Melbourne, Australia, last fall I tasted a red wine blend from Australia's Margaret River district. Now, I've been to Margaret River and I know perfectly well that it is a place of great potential and ever-increasing achievement. Still, when I tasted the 2009 Cullen Mangan Vineyard (a blend of mostly Malbec with some Petit Verdot and Merlot) I was bowled over.

This wine was not merely a surprise, it was a revelation. It is an extraordinary red wine by anybody's measure, anywhere. The price? $42 in Australia. I grant you that 42 bucks is not cheap. But by today's high-priced wine standards, $42 is far from outrageous, especially for a wine of soaring quality.

You should know, however, that the wines I'm buying today are much less expensive than that. For example, I recently picked up a case of 2008 Domaine Bruno Dufeu Bourgueil Cuvée Grand Mont, a stunning Loire Valley Cabernet Franc crafted from 50-year-old vines. Cost? $15 a bottle—and that was before the case discount. This wine offered an element of surprise that wines 10 times the cost do not provide.

Two weeks ago I purchased two cases of a Spanish cava that astonishes everyone to whom I serve it. Torre Oria Brut is 100 percent Macabeo, a white grape variety I'd never previously experienced as a sparkling wine until I came across this bottling last year (it was one of my Wines of the Year in 2010). It gratifies everyone—even Champagne fans—with its depth of flavor and lemon-tinged richness. Cost? $8.50 a bottle. The surprise is, as the credit card advertisement puts it, priceless.

Obviously, a low price alone isn't enough. The real surprise lies in finding remarkable quality—and then looking at the low price. Of course neither of these surprises happens with expensive wines, where too often the only surprise is, "Is that all there is?" This is not the surprise you're seeking.

Today's wine world is radically different from the one I entered 35 years ago, when I began writing about wine. Few surprises were then available, as most wines of quality came from long-established and highly regarded districts.

Today it's the reverse. The majority of the world's most interesting wines now come from "unknown," or at least unheralded, locales. Collectively, their numbers far outstrip the relatively small pool of famous zones commanding high prices. To call this a revolution understates it considerably.

My goal now is to have a cellar filled with surprises. Ironically, that means selling my expensive wines so that I can "afford" today's really great cheap wines. Now that's a surprise, wouldn't you say?

Alexander Velto
Upland, —  September 6, 2011 1:01pm ET
I agree 100%, once you have been around wine for some time you realize there are many gems for far less than some of these overpriced so-called cult wines! I prefer to leave those to individuals that usually have more money than taste!
Latham Oates
Germantown, TN —  September 6, 2011 1:10pm ET
What's really a surprise, Matt, is that you got your column through the editorial staff. I hope everybody at the magazine reads it. For the vast majority of our customers, experimentation is one of the fun things about wine.
Brian Blades
Valencia —  September 6, 2011 1:34pm ET
So you're only buying wine so that you can be ultimately surprised by how good it can be for the price? You make it sound like you drink so many high end bottles so often that you're actually bored with them. Would rather burn through hundreds of mediocre bottles to find a few that "surprise" you, all while choking down the ones in between? I'll be keeping my good stuff knowing that the real surprise is drinking something that is surprisingly good.
Douglas Levin
Tempe, AZ —  September 6, 2011 2:03pm ET
It is fantastic to find down-to-earth people left in the wine business who are not caught-up in the marketing hype and snobbery that too often dominates. As so often is the case, it is the journey and not the end that defines the experience. I like to think of wine as surrounded by a culture of its own, not a business. Very few experiences in life can match enjoying a wonderful reasonably priced wine, friendly people and beautiful scenery while visiting a winery... it is the entire experience. When I open one of these bottles at home, it always brings me back the original tasting. I feel sorry for you wine critics, too often you miss the best part!
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  September 6, 2011 2:54pm ET
our wine group is always looking for that unusual wine to surprise everyone, especially if it's a bargain. That's why brown bag tasting is the best. No preconceived opinions.
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  September 6, 2011 3:55pm ET
there's also something to be said for the anticipation of drinking those gems. kind of like the anticipation of staying at the ritz carlton if that's a splurge for you, or dining at a highly regarded and ridiculously expensive restaurant. if you expect the stars, although the stars will be beautiful, you will not be surprised but will surely be satisfied. for me, associating a landmark event in my life with a "trophy" wine is wonderfully satisfying, and i would argue more satisfying than looking back on that event and recalling consuming a wonderful bottle of $10 chilean carmenere.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  September 6, 2011 3:56pm ET
I tend to agree with Brian, how many bottles do you have to go thru to find that one special bottle? Ten, twenty, more??? If you have great wines in your cellar, why not drink them? I can't fathom trying 20 unknown wines/bottles (at $10 - $40/bottle) to find that one that does click - would rather drink what I know I like, will let you tell me about those special ones and then go buy it! Isn't that what critics are for?
Scott Politte
des moines —  September 6, 2011 5:11pm ET
This is a reason to try different wines at less expensive price points, not sell the collection of excellent wines bought at irreplaceable prices.
John Burman
Jupiter, Fl —  September 6, 2011 6:02pm ET
I am doing the exact opposite of Matt. I am buying and drinking less but higher quality. I dont have the desire to taste twenty five or fifty $15 bottles to find one I really like. I find it much more enjoyable to sit down once a week with a great bottle of wine that I know what I am going to get.
David Oakley
Carlsbad, CA —  September 6, 2011 7:28pm ET
I'm doing a little of both. There are those moments in your life that you want to mark with a nice punctuation point (50th birthday, 25th anniversary, etc.) and I look to a "sure thing" in the wine. So I have those "go to" options in the cellar. I don't have those bottles as my table wine or casual wine, so their quality remains both predictable and special. The downside is when one doesn't bring it home. Again, I'm not drinking these that often that I won't just pop another and save the day.

On a more frequent basis, the hunt for new, value, and exciting wines is special in its own way too. I don't think one approach is right and the other wrong, they both have their place for all of us who enjoy wine.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  September 6, 2011 9:28pm ET
Matt, if you are interested in finding surprises read the WS reviews for the good cheap wines.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  September 6, 2011 9:36pm ET
I beg to differ here, Matt. I can see your point about surprise but surely there is more to wine than just surprise. I mean, there is something rather reassuring and pleasant about a long, complex, beautifully crafted wine that one has come to know and appreciate. Consider also that even the great wines we know well don't always taste exactly the same. They show differently on different days and at different times and mature from year to year.
Like most wine lovers I am best pleased when I do find a surprising value but surely there is more to it than that? I think after a few months you might regret selling old favourites.
Ed Lehrman
Sausalito, CA USA —  September 7, 2011 12:50am ET
I'm confused--why buy 12 or 24 bottles of the same wine if you are looking for surprises? I usually go for 1 or 2 bottles, depending on my confidence/research. Also depends on whether I am willing to have a great surprise and leave it at that, or whether I can't live with myself if I am happily surprised by the first one. Price (too high) factors in as well. There are a lot of wines out there to discover, so I am not sure I see the point of the case purchase unless one entertains a lot and has friends who like surprises too.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  September 7, 2011 10:37am ET
I enjoy positive surprises, especially when they come at a low price. However, at this point in my life and with my current budget I find myself going for pleasure over surprise. The cost of finding "surprises" is actually much higher for me because so few "surprise" wines have turned out to be a positive experience for me over the years. I can spend $100 on 3 or 4 unknowns and be nonplussed by all of them. Or I can plunk that $100 down on something I know gives me pleasure. Guess what wins? The only economical way I've discovered to find those "surprise" wines is by going to large tastings. Visit a K&L Champagne tasting three years in a row and you'll find all kinds of surprise wines at great values. My wife and I have probably tasted 200 Champagnes that way and calibrated our palates at a cost of about $600 versus the $12,000 it would have cost to try a bottle of each.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  September 7, 2011 11:10am ET
Matt, weren't you the one who recently wrote about not wishing to share higher end bottles with fellow party-goers? I'm sensing a pattern here, that of frugality. There's nothing wrong with being parsimonious. But these elaborate justifications you provide for your choices don't convince otherwise. Embrace the bargain, by all means, if that's what makes you happiest.
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  September 7, 2011 11:46am ET
To All: Many thanks for your many comments. Allow me to amplify, if I may.

While I certainly understand how it can look like all I do is drink high-end wines, I'm afraid that it's not true. Rather, my interest in wines that "surprise" is rooted in something structural.

This is to say that the great majority of expensive wines today are confined to narrow taste and style parameters. Typically, that means oak (a little or a lot); a relative handful of well-known and much-pursued grape varieties (you know which ones as well as I do) from usually equally well-known and much-pursued locations (ditto). These wines are, in a word, predictable.

Take my example of Torre Oria Brut cava. Can a sparkling wine command a price premium if made from anything other than the classical--which is to say, predictable--French Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? I'm pretty sure that any wine marketer will tell you the answer is somewhere between "unlikely" and "impossible".

The Torre Oria sparkler is made entirely from the Macabeo grape. It will likely never command a price premium because it lacks "familiarity".

This is, for me, the key point about why I'm no longer buying expensive wines. There's a freedom to be different available to lower-priced wines that's largely unavailable to wines seeking a high price.

Is there an element of frugality involved? Oh, I suppose so. After all, our economic times cannot help but seep into one's consciousness. But to be honest, if anything is affecting my current view it's a certain longevity.

Like many of you, I've been at this wine thing for a while now. And I've had the very great privilege of repeatedly tasting many of the world's most notable wines. So the siren call of those "pinnacle wines" isn't quite what it once was. And, boy, was there ever a siren call! Back in the day, I'd have crawled across broken glass to taste a La Tâche--and I ain't pushing it away now, either.

But now it's a matter of a different appetite. For example, I once absolutely loved dining in three-star restaurants in France. We spent more money than we could afford on such experiences. And I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. But today I'd rather eat in a really great trattoria or bistro. And I'll bet that more than a few of you now feel this way too.

Because of my travels, I've grown acutely aware of just what's out there in today's wine world. And of how good many unheralded (and consequently, lower-priced) wines can be. I really love just how original--dare I say surprising?--these wines can be.

Obviously, one category of wine doesn't preclude another. My cellar still has a respectable number of expensive wines that, yes, I drink and enjoy. So I'm having my (wine) cake and eating it too.

Anyway, those are some additional thoughts, for what they're worth. Thank you all for your terrific, insightful comments.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA, USA —  September 7, 2011 1:03pm ET
Matt, I am in total accord with you on this one. For me the most exciting factor in drinking wine these days is exactly that element of pleasant surprise. Most times with higher-end wines there is limited surprise potential and if there is a surprise, it is likely to be negative (weak vintage, corked, cooked, oxidized, over-the-hill, etc.). It seems to boil down to whether one has a preference for the comfort and security of the known versus the thrill and risk of the unknown. At this point in a long journey in buying and collecting, I’m all for a bit of wine bungee jumping.

Troy (above) makes a very good point about attending large tastings as a good way to discover those “surprises”. Several times a year my local wine shop conducts tastings with 60-80 different wines open at all price ranges. These tastings are a gold mine for finding terrific wines that you will not see on most retailer’s shelves.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  September 7, 2011 3:13pm ET
I doubt that any of us can compare our drinking experiences to yours, as you have been doing this professionally for a long long time, and have probably tasted/drunk 30X the number of wines I have over the past 25 years - so I understand where your coming from. Those of us that just like a bottle of wine with dinner value the thought that we know what were getting, not that we also don't go outside the box when the time/wines permit. I have a developed a good grasp of Bordeaux, California Cabernet and Syrah, the Southern Rhone and Alsace over the past 25 years, my next goal is Burgundy...and it may be my last as wines purchased today have to develop appropriately for them to fully appreciate (at least 10 more years). So planning my next target area is important in understanding the great wine regions of the world, its the way I have approaced it and a lot of people I know have done the same. As they say, your tastes do change over time, mine have, I suspect yours have too. Happy hunting Matt, and let us know when you find those magical wines.
Trevor Morris
Laguna Hills, CA —  September 7, 2011 7:22pm ET
With you all the way, Matt. Part of my enjoyment with wine as a hobby is the fun of selecting wines from regions and varietals from all over the world. My (long) trips to the wine store typically involve buying three dozen different wines I've never tasted before (and some that I can't even find reviews on) - drives my wife crazy! While there have been some disappointments, this is far outweighed by the anticipation and delights as to what awaited in the bottle. With thousands of affordable new wines and vintages coming to market each year, I'm like a kid in a candy store. As consumers and wine lovers, there's no better time to expand your palate and make wine an adventure. For those other times when predictability is required, well, I just have to dip into my (rapidly diminishing) cellar.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  September 8, 2011 2:17pm ET
Speaking of surprising wines from diverse locales, one of Decanter magazine's "World Wine Award" winners for 2011 is from China - for a Bordeaux-style red. Another, for a sweet wine, from Slovenia.
Reggie Mcconnell
Indiana —  September 8, 2011 4:33pm ET
Let's face it: once you reach above $40 for, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, the law of diminishing returns imposes a harsh reality on both your wallet and your expectations.
Daniel Tranberg
E. Lansing, MI USA —  September 8, 2011 11:39pm ET
I think David's comments from Akron resonated with me. I consider myself a beginner in developing my taste in wine and in cellaring wines. I have dabbled with Bordeaux, Rhone, a little bit of Burgundy, and with several Italian varietals, but there is just so much to learn, understand, and enjoy in the world of wine. So, I am now concentrating on building a cellar of California reds while I also enjoy some of the local Michigan products. By the way, some Michigan Cabernet Francs have won tasting tests up against some Chinon's from France. I save the weekends for tasting and drinking my best wines, with friends and family whenever possible, over a great meal. During the week, I also dabble with the art of "surprise," trying to find that truly great $10.00 bottle of wine. My experience has been the "surprise" tends to wear off after a couple of bottles and I have decided it is not worth it to buy a case at a time of these wines. So, I also agree very much with Troy's point of view.
Richard V Folga
Anacortes, WA —  September 9, 2011 2:21am ET
Great article! Yes, for us the case purchase is reserved for that nice suprise at a great price. No one says you have to drink all twelve in a row! Revisit those bottles when you are down to six and when you have friends over and it's under ten bucks:30, bust out that gem and please the well lubricated palletes. Happiness is a diverse, well stocked cellar that any bottle is fair game anytime. OK maybe any weekend. We stay $20-35 range for most weekend reds, seeking the best vales at that range is always the goal and a fun one at that. Washington is home to many exceedingly good wines like Matt describes. A great wine shop (like ours) provides ample taste before you buy experience. I will not touch that range without tasting first unless my shop owner carefully selects that bottle. Nothing beats the winery experience or at least tasting with the winemakers at the wine shop. I prefer the suprise before I swipe the credit card. However, I really like Spectator's value picks and hope to do more 'gambling' with some expert insight on values from regions like Argetina, Portugal and Spain.
Steve Shelton
Yuba City, Ca. —  September 11, 2011 1:40am ET
What a crock! You pundits have been pimping the last fifteen years for the highest priced wines, now you are looking for bargains. You bragging about selling off your over priced wines doesn't pass the smell test. A lot of us have spent a lot of money over the years because of your recommendations and now we have to read an article like this.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  September 11, 2011 3:46pm ET
Steve - the first real, guttural reaction. Bravo to your sincerity.

Jim Kern
Holiday Wine Cellar
Escondido, CA
Steve Shelton
Yuba City, Ca. —  September 12, 2011 12:43am ET
Gutteral reaction has nothing to do with it! We have been influenced by these guys for years to stock these wines for customers that can't afford to buy them. Thank you...now I have the pleasure to drink them myself, because they are too expensive for anyone to buy. Keep digging a deep grave.... we are all going to need it!
Jeffrey Matchen
New Jersey —  September 12, 2011 1:38pm ET
I came to wine collecting a little later in life, and recognize I still have a lot to learn. Truth be told, it is not difficult to find a really good Napa cab for $100 -- finding one for $25 is quite a bit more difficult. At this point, I don't like to waste the time or calories searching for great, inexpensive wines so I often take the easy way out. I guess this makes me one of those "individuals that usually have more money than taste!" Hopefully, the latter will improve before the former runs out!
Craig Underhill
Australia —  September 18, 2011 3:31am ET
Good article. After living in Bordeaux in 2009, we decided there were some astonishingly good value wines in Bordeaux and the south-west that were never seen in Australia. Theses were often small independant producers or second labels of well known "named" producers. So we started to company DiscoverVin to import them!
Michael Henderson
Martinez, CA —  October 6, 2011 11:17pm ET
"would rather drink what I like" How does one know what he likes best if he doesn't try drinking what is unkown to him?

That's why Napa stays in business at their ridiculously high prices.

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