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Wine-Buying Common Sense

James Laube
Posted: November 20, 2001

Financial guru Jane Bryant Quinn is giving up her weekly syndicated newspaper column. After 27 years of dispatching monetary wisdom, she is cutting back her duties to writing for two magazines.

My relationship with Quinn is similar to that shared by many writers and their readers. Advice is given and dispensed at a good arm's length. Over the years, I've followed Quinn's counsel -- to a point. I didn't get rich (not her mission) but gained perspective and insight on matters related to money and investing. Most of that advice came in the form of basics and fundamentals -- what to do (save money) and what to avoid (too much debt). Sometimes it was more specific scenarios, such as recommending mutual funds, or ideas on financing a college education or two. Occasionally, the subjects weren't terribly relevant to me. The thought of senior discounts or nursing home insurance still seems impossibly distant.

When writing and offering advice about wine, there are times when the parallels with finance and investing are strong. I have often warned that investing in wine is risky. For most wines, it's only guesswork how they'll age, or whether they'll appreciate in value or be more fun to drink in five to 10 years than they are now. Taking risks on unproven wines, wineries and winemakers should always be considered with caution. Balance and diversity in your cellar protect you from overspending on one category of wine only to find out later that your tastes and the tastes of your friends run in different directions.

How do I arrive at my opinions? Most of the time they're based on common sense that's derived from exposure to many types of wines and that's anchored in experience.

Take vintage charts. Reducing the quality of a vintage to a number or group of stars for a state as large as California is obviously a generalization. What else could it be? You'd be surprised how many readers think there's a special formula by which I arrive at my ratings. Do I add up all the scores and divide by the number of wines? No, but I do focus on the top producers who specialize in a type of wine to see how they performed in a given year. With wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, the chart is really a snapshot of Napa Valley, California's most important Cabernet district. Trying to give commensurate weight to a few dozen Cabernets from Paso Robles or Mendocino would only heighten the chart's inherent limitations. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are even trickier to squeeze into a chart because they're grown successfully in many areas having significant climatic differences that influence quality and style.

What about drink windows? Experience tells me most wines are best drunk in their youth. Age wines too long and you're setting yourself up for disappointment. I'd much rather make conservative recommendations than suggest you hold them for too long. Sooner is usually better than later with wine. As you taste more wines, you'll know your tastes better. You'll know whether it's worth the risk to pay $50 for a wine and wait 15 years to see what happens. Drink your wines young. Drink older wines from your friends' cellars.

That leads to another important point. Nobody really knows how a given wine or vintage will age. Sure, there are plenty of educated guesses, and if you choose the right wines, the odds may be in your favor. I'm sure that Bordeaux 2000 will be phenomenal. Yet there will be surprises. It's easy in wine to be wrong or fooled. I was once given a bottle of 1972 Inglenook Cabernet that had been stored for years in a barn in Modesto, Calif. Summer temperatures should have thoroughly baked an ordinary wine from a poor vintage, yet the wine tasted fine.

There's a lot of fuss about chasing wines that score 90 points or more. Those may be the best wines, but they're typically the most expensive and hardest to find. I've long recommended buying wines that score 88 or 89 points. Why? Because they're often overlooked, usually offer better value and have just as much a chance of improving with age as higher-scoring wines.

Occasionally I'm accused of liking only huge, ultraripe, alcoholic, high extract, superoaked, over-the-top tannic monsters. Yes, I have enjoyed a few wines that fit that description. But that's not the only style of wine I drink. I prefer diversification, much like my friend Quinn in her advice for finances. Never bet everything on a single hand.

James Laube's new edition of Wine Spectator's California Wine is now available.

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