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Drinking Out Loud

How to Really Buy Wine

Rule No. 1: Go to extremes

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 18, 2012

For all the blather applied to wine (and I write this as a professional blatherer), the question everybody has about wine is this: How do I buy the stuff?

Of course, we're not thinking mechanically. We all know how to trot down to the liquor store or supermarket to pick up whatever is on offer. Rather, the unspoken question is: How do I beat the system?

This is the thing about wine. It always seems like somebody—but not you!—gets the deals. Finds the nuggets. Seems to have inside information.

I can't tell you the number of times someone has said to me, "There's this great little Pinot Noir producer who's really slamming it."

I feign a mild interest. (Actually, I'm practically rabid with equal parts greed and annoyance.) "Oh, really? And who might that be?" I ask as casually as I can.

I'm then told about a guy who makes maybe 200 cases and—here's the key—whose grapes come from the vineyard equivalent of a rock outcropping somewhere on the Aleutian island chain.

Let me give you a recent example. Just last week I visited a winegrower named John Cabot. He makes lovely Syrah from—get this—the northernmost vineyards in California. And where is that, you ask? Cabot Vineyards is located deep within the Klamath River gorge in the town of Orleans in Humboldt County. Trust me: It's way out there.

John Cabot, 40, started nearly two decades ago as a grower of specialty organic vegetables. As so often happens, one thing led to another and he started growing Syrah and Viognier in a place about as far removed from conventional California wine culture as you can imagine. Humboldt County is famous for cultivation, but the cash crop isn't wine grapes.

Cabot has the crazed passion that seems to afflict (and ennoble) just about every winegrower I've met who pushes toward an extreme. Do you want Cabot's wines? Sure you do. They're exquisitely original. The vineyards are ungrafted and have never seen a drop of irrigation. The winemaking is plain and simple, with no new oak. (Get the 2009 Syrah, if you can, as it was an exceptional vintage in this marginal fine-wine climate.)

Now, the easiest—and most powerfully effective—way to buy wine is to look at scores. Scores are potent because they compress the greatest amount of intuitively understood information about buying wine into the smallest possible package. Anyone who suggests that scores aren't helpful doesn't live in the real world.

But what if you want to slice the salami differently? What if you want more information, a different angle on wine, than any score can helpfully suggest?

This is why I propose Rule No. 1: Go to extremes. For example:

Geographical Extremes. Now, "going to extremes" isn't just geographical, although it's a good, well, place, to start. You can make a case that some of the world's most interesting wines come from just such extremes, relative to the grape variety. It's easy to forget how extreme Burgundy's Côte d'Or and Germany's Mosel are for their respective grapes.

In California, you've got geographical extremes such as John Cabot growing Rhône grapes in the state’s northernmost vineyards. Or Pinot Noir producers such as Flowers, Hirsch, Marcassin and Peay on the aptly called Extreme Sonoma Coast.

The list extends to numerous locales around the world, such as France's Jura (grape: Trousseau), Italy's Val d'Aosta (Petite Rouge), Ontario's Prince Edward County (Chardonnay), western Australia's Margaret River zone (Cabernet Sauvignon), New Zealand's Central Otago district (Pinot Noir), Spain's Rías Baixas district (Albariño) and hundreds of other such places and grapes.

Extremely Low Yields. Radically low yields are no guarantee of exceptional wines. But I'll say this much: They can be. Very low yields can tilt the odds in your buying favor.

For example, I've liked a number of the 2008 Napa Valley Cabernets in part because the best ones have a terrific midpalate density that comes from the lower-than-normal yields of Napa's 2008 vintage.

Extremely low yields indisputably made a midpalate density difference in Oregon's great 2008 Pinot Noirs, a vintage that is arguably the finest in Oregon's brief fine wine history.

Extreme Elevation. As any mountain climber can tell you, things change profoundly as you go up. Grapes tell us the same thing. Science, for its part, offers us the Normal Lapse Rate: Temperature drops 3.5° F for every 1,000 feet in elevation.

Does that make a difference? You bet it does. For example, you get a more extreme diurnal variation, the swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures.

Also, higher elevations almost always mean less fertile, stonier soils. Such soils make grapevines struggle, which can (not always, of course) mean smaller berries of great character. And lower yields, too.

A perfect example of this trifecta (soil/struggle/low yield) from high elevation are the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines of Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The estate vineyard is at an elevation of 2,000 feet. Yields are 1 to 2 tons an acre, tops. All of Mount Eden's wines are intense and characterful and yet almost always beautifully balanced. The high elevation ensures good acidity.

The same, by the way, is true of Ridge Vineyard's Cabernet and Chardonnay from its famed Monte Bello vineyard, which is between 1,300 and 2,700 feet in elevation.

Famously, the winner at high-elevation wines is Argentina. Malbec is grown at an average of 3,000 feet in Mendoza, along the Andes mountains. In the Salta province in northwestern Argentina, vineyards around the town of Cafayate are at 5,000 feet, with wineries such as Bodega Tacuil and Colomé, hours away from Cafayate, topping out at an astounding 8,000 feet or even higher.

Do such elevations make a discernible difference? Sure they do. How could they not?

Extreme Winemaking. Here we get into controversy. Extreme winemaking varies depending upon who's doing the defining. For some, it means little or no sulfur. For others it means no added anything—cultivated yeasts, enzymes, added nutrients, sulfur, you name it. Variations abound.

For yet others, extreme winemaking means practices in the vineyard and winery consistent with philosophies such as that informing biodynamics or, in the cases of Cabot Vineyards and the tiny, wonderful Tuscan producer called Massa Vecchia, following the precepts of the late Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. Still other producers, such as Clos Saron in the Sierra Foothills, cite no explicit philosophy but adhere to a Mies van der Rohe "less is more" approach.

Here again, does it make a difference? Sure it does. Is that difference invariably beneficial? Ah, there's the Shakespearean rub.

Bottom line: If you want to buy really interesting, really characterful, truly insider fine wine, I say you have to go to extremes. For what it's worth, this actually is how I buy.

But maybe you say differently. Or maybe you would cite different extremes. What markers help you find your wine-buying bliss?

John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  September 18, 2012 6:49pm ET
Matt, your observations are insightful. However I find that you if you are curious and patient (and don't listen to the hype) you never know where or when you will find outstanding wines. That includes flatlands, valleys and moutains. Just have an open mind and put your nose in the glass. Pleasant surprises abound from all over. John Vlahos
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  September 18, 2012 8:43pm ET
I tend to agree with the assertion that wine scores are a good barometer. I have a difficult time convincing friends and "employer" of this fact. Need some advice.
D Fredman
Malibu, CA, USA —  September 20, 2012 1:29pm ET
I'm with Matt on this one. The sure signs that I'm going to be interested in a new-to-me wine are:

1. If I can't pronounce the wine's name,
2. If I've never heard of the grape variety,
3, If I'm unfamiliar with the wine's appellation, or
4, If it's made using archaic winemaking techniques thought lost many centuries ago.

I love (and taste) all sorts of classically-styled wines on a regular basis, but my curiosity is such that when I see something different in a wine shop, I want to know what it tastes like and why. Even better is to track down local recipes so the wine can be experienced the way it was intended.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  September 21, 2012 11:21am ET
I find it interesting that price was not a factor in your article on How to Really BUY Wine?
Mark Mcdonald
Nebraska —  September 23, 2012 10:23am ET

Your comments about scoring are promotional for your profession. I'm astounded at the high scores received by some of the wineries who advertise a great deal with wine publications. They are often much higher scores than the wine deserves.

When I see a 90 pt wine that is mass produced and costs $10.00 at the garden variety grocery store, the scorer loses credibility on a $50.00 with impressive and descriptive tasting notes. I've alway's tasted those "90 point gems" and they have never been accurate.

Wine rating is subjective, but that subjectivity is less credible when producers are buying ad space in certain publication. I'm sure the winery you just wrote about just sold his entire production for the year. The wineries you promote do make money.

Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  September 28, 2012 1:55pm ET
"Wine rating is subjective". Mark, all thought is subjective, including your impressions of the wines you drink. Is there a philosophical reason why a $10 bottle can "never" be worthy of 90 points?

I share your skepticism, but about scoring in general. I think numerical scores may be useful for the general public trying to make choices in a crowded marketplace. Once a person has been into wine for a while they generally figure out what sort of things they are likely to enjoy and take the numbers with a grain of salt. From your remarks, you seem like an experienced wine guy and you obviously are taking scores with more than a grain of salt!

Matt's comments above seem to be directed toward those motivated and curious souls who have moved on from the numbers. Nicht war?

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Drew Robinson
Colorado Springs,CO —  September 30, 2012 2:09pm ET
This is not in response to this editorial, but rather your more recent instructions to readers to "run" from "Reserve" labelled wines from California. Pardon me, but didn't the Wine Spectator name Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay it's Wine of the Year in 1996? And didn't the Wine Spectator name Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet it's Wine of the Year in 1990?

Can't have it both ways.

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