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Drinking Out Loud

Rookie Mistakes

We've all made them. What are they?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Too often, Matt Kramer says, rookie wine lovers are lured by power over finesse.

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 18, 2016

If there's anything that wine lovers of experience share—apart from the never-ending search for a good deal—it's the wincing memory of rookie mistakes.

No one is exempt. Anyone who's bought wine for a few years and caught the collecting bug has, over time, looked back and said, "What was I thinking?"

Actually, we all know what we were thinking. We thought that the wine we proclaimed to all within shouting distance was marvelous. We bought it in large quantity. We sometimes paid a high price, stretching our wallets to do so. It was the end of the line. A dream come true. A revelation.

Then, some time later—a year or two or 10—we returned to that wine and wondered, "What the hell was I thinking?" Why did I buy or pay so much? How could I have thought this was so terrific?

If you're kind to yourself, which you should be, you will recognize the folly of wine-youthful error. You will see that it was part of a near-universal learning curve. We all go through this. Rookie mistakes. And I've never met anyone who wasn't a wine rookie at some moment in his or her life.

Even the likes of Lalou Bize-Leroy, the co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leroy, who is possessed of a remarkable palate, once freely confessed to me years ago, to my astonishment and secret delight, "It took me 20 years to see why Romanée-Conti is the greatest vineyard." And she was raised on the stuff!

What are these rookie mistakes? What follows are a few such missteps. Please do chime in with your own submissions as the list is surely far longer than what I'm offering here.

Rookie Mistake No. 1: Power Passes for Beauty. If I've witnessed one rookie mistake more than any other, it's the error of conflating power with beauty.

This rookie mistake is so common because, after all, when you're first starting out with wine, power is right in your face. "Wow!" you say. "Now that's a wine." You can't miss it. And because of that it's gratifying. "Now I get it," you say. This is why it's the most common rookie mistake of all.

It takes a lot of exposure to wine—hours, days, weeks, years at the dinner table—to recognize how much more impactful a wine of nuance and finesse can be compared with a brutish bully.

Of course, there will always be a market for powerful wines, not only because there are always, thankfully, newcomers to wine, but also because some powerful wines are indeed good. Most aren't, but some really are.

Still, in the long arc of wine loving, even the power-wine fanciers become more discriminating, like longtime deep-sea fishermen who recognize that the size of the fish isn't everything. Rather, it's how artfully it pulls you in—and vice versa.

Rookie Mistake No. 2: Too Much of a Not-Very-Good Thing. If I've made one rookie mistake more than any other, it's having bought too much of a not-very-good-thing. I have always loved buying wine in quantity, preferably in case lots of 12 bottles.

My thinking (to this day, really) is that I want to see how a wine evolves over time. I want to see the beauty of a wine from its childhood to adolescence to maturity to old age. I felt this especially strongly when I was first starting out, for obvious reasons I would think.

You can see the problem coming: What if the wine wasn't all that good? What if it didn't deserve such long-term attention, never mind the quantity and the investment? How right you are. An uncomfortably high number of my early too-much-of-a-not-very-good-thing purchases did not stay the course. Far from evolving and transforming, they simply collapsed.

By the way, I've seen a lot of Mistake No. 1 get tangled up into Mistake No. 2. You see it frequently in many auction offerings, as collectors' palates evolve over time, preferring nuance and finesse over raw power. I've never seen a wine lover who after decades of drinking throws over subtlety in wine in exchange for power.

Rookie Mistake No. 3: Confusing (High) Price with Quality. This is a tough one, I admit. I doubt that there's anyone, present company assuredly included, who hasn't assumed that if a wine asks a high price it must, by definition, be better. That it reflects the discipline of a discriminating free market. Big mistake—and not always a rookie one, either.

When any of us first starts out, it does seem to be true that more expensive wines taste better than cheap ones. There's just enough truth to the price/quality correlation to make it seem like a fact. Yet it's not, and never more so than today.

Yes, it's true that a $5 bottle is unlikely to be as good as one selling for $20. Let's stipulate this, as the lawyers say. But once beyond that arbitrary $20 mark, the relationship between price and quality is, as the therapists say, dysfunctional.

High price today is far more a function of supply and demand, fashion, location and celebrity than it is quality. This wasn't always so, of course. Back in the bad old days, when both wines and people were either peasants or aristocrats, cheap wines really were bad, and only expensive wines were well-made. Those days, however, are long gone.

So how can a wine rookie learn the lesson of this mistake? Ah, that's the tough part. Regrettably, you have to pay the tuition (or if you’re lucky, have someone else pay it). We all have to taste expensive wines to be able to see just how close (or not) less expensive wines come to high-priced ones. Many do, although some don't, to be sure.

It's not a rookie mistake to pay a high price for a truly great wine. The rookie mistake is assuming that the price guarantees that.

One final note: Are these mistakes inevitable? Is there any way for a newbie to sidestep them? And do we continue to make them when we're rookies once again in a new-to-us wine category?

Not least among such questions: What rookie mistakes have you made over the years? Who knows, maybe someone, somewhere, can be "saved" by our collective missteps.

Guy Brouillette
Erie, Co —  October 18, 2016 12:42pm ET
Great list of the top 3 rookie mistakes. There are many others as we know but I have to agree that the three discussed here are probably the most common and lord knows we have all made them at some point. I would like to think I am making them less these days... Even after years of buying, evaluating and pouring wines some of these can sneak back into our lives so it pays to double check this list before buying in any type of quantity.

Thanks for sharing Matt!
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  October 18, 2016 11:15pm ET
Matt, I work at a large upscale wine store. We gave customers who come in asking for those high priced mediocre wines from famous wine regions or wineries. I try to help them not waste their money by pointing out a Chardonnay or Cab that is as good as that $40 to $75 bottle of big-name wine. Some cheerfully agree to try my suggestion (which is based on WS reviews usually). Some can not grasp the concept that a $15 or $20 wine can be as good as their showpiece label. They would laugh if you paid $30k for a car worth $10k but don't realize they are doing the equivalent. I have come to realize it is usually just a desire to show off their affluence at the restaurant or with their friends at dinner. That is they don't really care if the wine is good or worth the money.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 19, 2016 9:04am ET
My biggest rookie mistake -
Virtually ignoring Italian wine for quite a long time.

I've more than atoned for that "original sin", as Italian reds now make up almost 40% of my cellar!
Matthew Lo
Switzerland —  October 19, 2016 10:49am ET
Totally agree with your observations. I think I made the "mistake no. 1" the most and followed by "no. 2". In addition, I was a "points chaser". I could offer many explanations for these mistakes. However, I really do not believe that one could avoid these mistakes. It is part of the "growth and development" process as a wine lover at least in my case.
John R Slater
Canton Ohio —  October 25, 2016 8:01am ET
Matt - here's my veteran's or old-timer's mistake. Buying wine to age for 20-30 years, when I'm 60-70 years old. Don't love my kids that much.
Wimberly Miree
Birmingham, AL, USA —  October 25, 2016 6:23pm ET
Matt, thank you for one of your best of so many great articles. Unquestionably, my biggest mistake was the first one you listed. In self defense, there was a limited market for world-wide wines in the area I lived until the 1980's, and I started collecting in the early 70's. Also, most of the wine producers and growers from many areas of the world had not taken advantage of the vast technological improvements that were made in the last quarter of the 20th century. Most of the wines I started out collecting were indeed very good, but I bought way too much of each vintage. This would have been alright but for two changes I did not anticipate: (1) my taste preferences changed after about 10 years when great wines from other countries became available to me, and (2) wine producers all over the world began to utilize the new techniques being discovered and taught in the handful of great vinification schools in the world. The bottom line is that by the end of the 80's, I had acquired a much broader interest in a much greater range of wines, yet I had this mammoth collection of really good wines that had become a very small portion of the wines I preferred to drink.

The good news is that charitable wine auctions started becoming ubiquitous, and provided a great and rewarding outlet for these wines in which I had lost interest. As I said earlier, these wines were still considered great examples of the era and geographic area, so they had doubled and tripled in value. So the tax deduction for the charitable donations covered most of my cost, the charities got the full benefit of the increased value, and the wine contributions made room in my cellar for the wines I now wanted to drink, and I learned a great lesson about avoiding too high a concentration of any specific type of wine. A win situation for all!

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