Three Things They Don't Want You to Know

Who's "they," you ask? It's restaurants, retailers, wineries and, yes, wine writers
May 15, 2012

1. They Don't Want You to Know About Wines by the Glass. Let me be blunt: If you go to a restaurant and buy a wine by the glass, you're a chump. Oh sure, maybe at one or another exceptional restaurant it's a good thing to do because the place offers unusual or rare wines by the glass.

But for most restaurants, most of the time, the wine-by-the-glass formula makes highway robbery look like a misdemeanor.

You know what the current formula is for many wine-by-the-glass programs? It's this: The first pour pays for the bottle. In other words, you are charged as much for one glass as the entire bottle costs the restaurateur.

Remember, the restaurant is paying wholesale for its wine, not retail. So when you fork over $10 for that glass of bland, commercial Pinot Grigio, that's what the bottle cost the restaurant, give or take a buck or two.

Of course, nobody in the trade wants you to think too hard about this. Restaurateurs will rush to defend themselves, citing service, glasses (broken or otherwise), employee costs and so forth. And there's a lot of pious talk about how by-the-glass selections have improved in quality. Maybe so, but have you noticed that the prices have gone up commensurately?

Restaurants see one helluva margin on wines by the glass. And if you really want to see a breathtaking markup, try ordering a "sangria" at your favorite tapas place. (Do you think all those bulk wines from Central Valley only wind up in trailer parks?)

The smart restaurant customer buys a bottle, not a glass. That way, you are not only better able to ensure that the wine you drink will be superior to anything offered by the glass, but even at restaurant prices you'll be getting a far better deal.

2. They Don't Want You to Know About "Premox." What's "premox"? It's shorthand for premature oxidation. And it's plaguing white Burgundies to such an extent that Burgundy’s wine producers really don't want you to think too much about it.

The short version of the story is this: As is well-known, Burgundy's greatest Chardonnays both deserve and reward extended cellaring, upwards of 20 years or more. These great white Burgundies, from vineyards designated premier and grand cru, actually require long-term cellaring in order for their virtues to be revealed. To drink a grand cru white Burgundy without at least five to seven years of aging from the vintage date is to waste your money.

Burgundy lovers know this. And they willingly plunk down sometimes hundreds of dollars a bottle when the wines are first released, only to sequester them in their cellars for the better part of a decade for a better tomorrow.

Here's the kicker: Starting with the 1995 vintage, that "better tomorrow" often didn't arrive. White Burgundies that should have been gloriously fresh-tasting, vibrant and dimensional five or seven years after the vintage proved to be nothing of the sort. In fact, they were dead, victims of what has come to be called premature oxidation. Affected wines have a dark yellow hue (where they should be a vibrant lemon-yellow); the scent is oxidized, almost Sherry-like; and the flavor is flat, devoid of fruitiness, essentially shot. This for wines that should just be beginning to become mature.

Why did this seem to begin with 1995? Nobody knows. But what is known is that it got even worse with Burgundy's 1996 vintage, which Burgundy lovers everywhere felt at the time was one of the greatest white Burgundy vintages of modern times. The young wines were simply glorious. The white Burgundies from the Chablis zone were truly magnificent. Let me put it bluntly: Most of these wines are now dead from premox. Not all, but most. Personally, I've poured more than a dozen cases of 1996 premier cru and grand cru white Burgundies down the drain, all dead from premox. A few somehow dodged the plague, but most did not.

At first, the Burgundians were in denial. Then, as the evidence mounted vintage after vintage, they acknowledged that something clearly was amiss. But what? Here the mystery deepens.

After spending a substantial amount of money and investigating seemingly every imaginable cause—corks, sulfur, lees contact, pressing techniques, barrel aging, oxygen exposure, vineyard yields and much more—nobody has established a definitive reason for the premature oxidation of Burgundy's great white wines. (It's not a problem for the reds because red wines have more built-in protection against oxidation, such as tannins and other compounds commonly found in red wines but not in whites.)

What about the latest vintages, you ask? Who knows? Typically it takes three to five years for the symptoms to emerge. And since nobody can definitively say that the problem has been identified and solved—believe me, the Burgundians would be shouting from the rooftops if they had—nobody can say that the problem is behind us. Certainly, every vintage of white Burgundy since 1995 has shown signs of premox to varying degrees.

The maddening thing is that if you buy a case of the same wine, you find that not every bottle exhibits this premox thing. Maybe half the case does, maybe more. And some producers' wines didn't or don't seem to suffer from premox anywhere near as much as others.

Now, this plague of premature oxidation is hardly a secret. It's been the talk—and tale of woe—of Burgundy lovers everywhere. But outside of Burgundy enthusiast circles, you don't hear much about it. Why? Well, it's not good business. Why would retailers—or importers or distributors—point it out to you? Best to keep mum.

And you can't blame the Burgundy producers for keeping it low profile. After all, they're victims too. They really don't know what, if anything, they're doing wrong.

As for us wine writers, here again it's a tricky bit of business. Buying white Burgundies is hardly a universal practice among one's readers. It's only a tiny slice of the market. And besides, do you want to be the one to say, "Don't buy white Burgundy"? That's pretty harsh. People’s livelihoods are involved. Besides, premox doesn't happen to every white Burgundy, every time. And most buyers tend to drink the wines very young anyway.

I'll say this much: If you buy white Burgundies today, you're well-advised to drink 'em young, probably within five years, at most, of the vintage.

Make no mistake: Premox is real. And there's no evidence that the problem has been resolved. Given the high prices commanded by white Burgundies today, if you're buying these wines to age, as was once the right and proper thing to do, you'd better take a look at the odds.

3. They Don't Want You to Know That You Should Shop Around for the Best Price. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I assure you that—if my experience is anything to go by—most wine buyers assume that wine prices are the same everywhere. Big mistake.

Now, if your wine buying consists of picking up a single bottle at a time, then shopping around makes no sense for you. Find a store convenient to your home and look for a sympathetic clerk.

But if you're somebody who's willing to buy six bottles or more at a time of high-priced wines, then as the song says, you better shop around. This becomes ever more true the higher the price per bottle.

Now, when I say "shop around" I'm not talking about just looking in your locality. I'm talking about spreading the net nationwide. Today, an increasing number of states legally allow direct-to-consumer wine purchases.

According to Wine Institute, a trade group, 40 states now allow consumers to have wines shipped to them from out of state. The regulations vary, but this outline alone shows a dramatically changed landscape. (And it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. Congress will soon allow the Postal Service to serve as a carrier for wine shipments, which it currently is prohibited from doing.)

Today, all sorts of websites offer information about the availability of wines from retailers worldwide. If you're buying expensive wines, especially in any sort of quantity, you'd be crazy not to check out the competition. For example, a number of retailers in Oregon will sell you a full case of a single wine at their wholesale cost plus 10 percent. Shipping cross-country might add four bucks a bottle to the tab, if that. And it's half that cost if the distance is shorter.

As you might imagine, nearly everybody in the wine business would rather you didn't know how variable prices can be nationwide. Some markets are unusually competitive (Washington, D.C., Los Angeles). Yet others support highly specialized merchants that go to elaborate lengths to secure and offer wines rarely seen elsewhere or that specialize in small, local producers (New York, San Francisco, Portland, Ore.).

Bottom line: Importers, distributors and, especially, retailers would like you to believe that you can't do better elsewhere. But often you can—especially at the high end.


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