Devising a buying strategy can be as simple as choosing a few brands you like and sticking with them, or as complex as collecting verticals (different vintages from the same producer) of the world's greatest wines or buying wine futures.
For many wine drinkers, maintaining brand loyalty is a tried-and-true way to keep a cellar stocked with reliable wines that suit their taste and budget. More daring collectors expand their hobby of wine collecting into a more sophisticated enterprise: They keep tabs on new wines and vintages from old-guard producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italy, Spain or Germany, and a watchful eye on up-and-coming producers from the New World, such as California, Oregon, Washington, Australia, New Zealand and Chile.
Regardless of your level of interest in wine, you're in for some fun and challenges. Wine is a living thing and is constantly changing. Every year you'll be presented with a seemingly endless stream of new wines, producers, appellations and vintages. Even if you find a winery or style of wine that now appeals to you, your taste will likely change over time and you'll discover new horizons. The combination of possibilities is endless.
Rule No. 1 of buying wine is to trust your own taste. No one knows your taste preferences better than you, so it's important to be comfortable deciding which wines appeal to you and which don't. The best advice is to taste a wine by buying a single bottle before you commit to several bottles or a case. The importance of this rule is further magnified when it comes to expensive wines. It makes no sense to pay $20, $30 or $40 for something you've never tried and might not like. You'll be far happier with your buying decisions if you taste a wine and decide you like it before committing to more bottles. There's a big wine world to choose from, with literally thousands of different possibilities. Even if your friends or wine critics rave about a wine, there's no guarantee that you'll like it.
Gaining experience with the world's fine wines takes time, but it is a fascinating journey. You're likely to learn as much from your buying mistakes as you will from your triumphs. Part of the fun of wine is learning where and how it's grown and vinified, which food types match well with different wines, and which wine types and vintages improve with cellaring and bottle age.
Before you start buying wine, it's a good idea to assess your needs. How much wine do you drink and on what occasions? Do you want to cellar young wines for drinking in a few years? You may also decide to budget money for your wine hobby so you can determine how much you can realistically afford to spend on wine. For some people it's easy to identify their wine needs. For others it's wiser to plan a strategy before heading to the wine shop. Remember, it's easier to buy a case of wine than it is to drink it.
It's also easy to buy more wine than you realistically need. Buying wine on a whim can be fun, particularly when you spot a special bottle you've been looking for. But fanciful buying also increases the odds that you'll end up with a wine you may not need for which you may have paid too much. Planning ahead allows you to set aside a specific amount of money for buying wine by the case. Many retailers and wineries offer a 10 percent discount for case purchases. Discount stores, however, usually pass along the 10 percent discount on all purchases.
Once you've outlined your needs, you'll need a place to shop. Years ago, about the only source to buy fine wine was the traditional fine-wine merchant. Today your options abound. You see fine wine in scores of discount chain stores and upscale supermarkets, some of which present a dazzling selection. Retailers have also become more aggressive with sales promotions, selling wine through e-mail newsletters and targeted customer e-mails based on your buying patterns. A growing number of retailers list their updated inventories on their websites, to supplement or replace their published catalogs that offer hundreds of wines and special gift packages. Despite continuing restrictions in some states on direct shipments of wine to consumers, there are even wine-of-the-month clubs. Once you join, the club selects wines for you and ships them to your home for you to sample. Most of the time, though, you'll be purchasing wine at a retail store, so it helps to get to know your local wine stores and merchants, including what kinds of wines they stock and their pricing strategies.
A well-informed retailer is an excellent source of sound buying advice and tips about what's new and interesting in his store. Retailers can also help find special wines that may be hard to find. Some retail stores even do the shopping for their customers. When a special wine comes in, they set aside a few bottles or a case and bill the customer, holding the wine until it's picked up.
While you're visiting wine shops, take special notice of how the wines are stored and if the temperature is cool. Light and heat are enemies of wine. Wine shops that are warm or hot in summer months may not be the best place to buy your wines. It's also wise to examine wine bottles to make sure the fill level is good—up to the neck of the bottle—and that wine hasn't leaked through the cork. If wine leaks out, that means air is getting into the bottle and oxidizing the wine. Avoid bottles with low fills or leaks.
As wine gets costlier, it makes greater sense to develop a buying strategy. One fun way to defray costs and taste a broad selection of wines is to join a club or group that tastes wines regularly. This way you can spread out some of the costs and taste expensive wines such as Château Lafite Rothschild, Romanée-Conti, Gaja or Château d'Yquem. Each member brings a bottle of wine to the tasting and shares it among six, eight or 12 people. Some wine syndicates even order cases of wines together, which is another way to cut costs (with a 10 percent discount) and broaden your exposure to the world of fine wines.
For those who like to take risks, buying wine futures, where you pay a discounted price in advance of a wine's delivery, is one way to obtain hard-to-get wines, presumably at reduced prices. Buying futures works like this: Young, unbottled wines are sold at discounted prices through retailers or wineries. Once the wine is bottled and ready for sale, it is delivered to the consumer. Most of the time, consumers pay less for futures, and futures can be a good way to obtain hard-to-get wines.
Others buy wine futures for speculation purposes. They hope that the price they pay for futures is sufficiently lower than the price will be when the wine is released. If that's true, they can resell the wine at a profit. But there are risks in buying futures. The major danger is that you're buying a wine you haven't tried. Unless you're intimately familiar with the producer, vintage or style of wine, you're gambling. You could also pay more for a wine than is necessary. If the economy sours, the price on release may be far less than anticipated, reducing the savings you hoped to achieve. Finally, in buying futures you may tie up your money with one or two producers and miss out on some of the other bargains once that vintage is released. There's also the possibility that your retailer may go out of business before the wine is released, making your wine and your money difficult to recover.
When you're on the road touring wine country, you'll also discover that many wineries have specialty wines or older vintages no longer on the market that they sell only at the winery. Be on the lookout for some of those rarities, but don't necessarily expect to find great bargains. Most wineries give a 10 percent discount on sales, but they mark their wines up to full retail price. You can often find them less expensive at your local retail outlet.
Tips to Better Wine Buying
1. Always taste before you buy. Don't get trapped buying what your friends or critics call the best. Trust your own palate. Taste a bottle before you buy six bottles or a case.
2. Diversify your collection. You may have passions for one kind of wine or another, but variety is the spice of life with wine, so shop around for different styles of wine.
3. Shop for values. Go out of your way to look for best buys to get the most mileage out of your wine dollar.
4. Drink your wines before they get too old. Even the most age-worthy reds from Bordeaux or California reach drinkability in 10 years. You've paid good money for your wines; don't let them slide over the hill.
5. Keep costs in perspective. A few fine wines are expensive, but far too many well-made, reasonably priced wines are ignored because they lack the image and prestige of higher-priced wines.
6. Buy wine by the case. Most retailers give you a 10 percent discount, or one bottle free.
7. Beware of last year's superstar. Last year's hero could be this year's goat.
8. Stockpile wine you like so that you don't run out or hesitate to open the last bottle.
9. Investing in futures can be risky business.
10. Assemble your wines with rhyme and reason. Think about your needs before parting with your cash.
—Excerpted from James Laube's book, California Wine.