The other day my cousin, who is fairly knowledgeable about wine, told me about a place he found in Florida (the state he lives in) that sold wine at a spectacular prices. At first, I was really impressed with the wine they offered and their prices, but then I heard the catch… it was a gas station on the side of a road!
The wine was stored next to a hot Florida window—and who knows how long it sat on a Florida tarmac or on a hot truck before getting there. Of course, it’s certainly possible that all the right storage precautions were taken but my cousin didn’t know one way or another.
Storage and shipping are really important to preserving the taste of wine, as we wrote in our Gollum post a few weeks ago. So buying wine at a great price might seem to be a good decision at first but become an awful one once you realize the wine has turned to vinegar.
Like any investment, buying wine takes some planning. There are a lot of ways to lose all of your investment with some simple mistakes. Here are a few tips to prevent you from making a costly mistake:
- Know what you know and know what you don’t know
My cousin knew he had a good deal on wine and that the wines were good labels, but what he didn’t know is how the bottles were shipped there; how the station kept the wine stored before stocking it on the shelf; whether the station kept the store air conditioned when it was closed, etc. All of these things are important in maintaining the integrity of the wine. If you think about it, wine is another perishable item that needs to be preserved with care or it will spoil.
Also, while my cousin knew the wine was inexpensive, the question he needed to ask himself is why? Why would a gas station off a highway have less expensive bottles of high-end wine? High-end wineries usually don’t give really deep discounts based on volume because they don’t want to cheapen their wines. Also, why would they reduce their prices for a gas station but not for a major wine or liquor store? Costco may be one of the few exceptions that has some higher-end wines at a deep discount but they usually don’t have the selection that this particular gas station had.
- Look for knowledgeable wine vendors
Talk to the people who know the most about the wine at the store and ask them a few questions about their wines. It will be fairly obvious if they know about wine and their wine in particular. The first question to ask them is how they buy their wines; how the wine is shipped to the store and how the wine is stored before stocking. If they’re evasive about temperature questions (keeping the wine cool), that can be a bad sign.
Most wine sold at stores come from the winery, then to the distributors and finally the store. However, if you like imported wine, you should be aware that an extra layer of importers are involved. It’s important to trace your wine back to the winery in order to know the conditions while shipping.
A really knowledgeable wine person should know wines that are similar to the ones you like and be able to make recommendations. For example, you should be able to say, “I like big bold Cabs, do you have a recommendation?”, and the vendor should be able to suggest a few wines that meet your taste profile. The more you ask the vendor, and have a prolonged conversation, the better you’ll understand if they know their wine. It’s not to be a snob about who is selling you wine but rather to get a sense of whether they themselves are asking the right questions when buying from the wine distributors and transporting/storing their wine.
- Gas stations and supermarkets have a low probability of having well preserved, quality wine
According to David Throne, Total Wine & More President, most supermarkets, “focus on a limited number of items and a limited spectrum of wines”. He noted that many of the wine purchases at local supermarkets are convenience driven with a focus on major brands, which tend to be in the higher-volume and lower-price category. You can find the article on this HERE.
With supermarkets concentrating on quantity over quality, it is unlikely you will find higher-quality wines. The exceptions are the Whole Foods and Costcos of the world, which have wine specialists buying wine and who make it part of their overall strategy, but even at those stores the selection is limited.
It is unlikely that a gas station will have high quality wine. They too choose quantity over quality. Also, if you’re a gas-station owner, you want to maximize profit by providing the most common items someone would buy after filling up their tank. Wine is not on most consumers mind after buying gas. High-end wine distributors probably aren’t marketing to gas stations either.
- Look up the best wine vendors in your area
There are few places to find good local wine vendors. Yelp.com is the obvious choice to find highly rated wine stores but the people on Yelp may not be looking for the same qualities in a wine store as you– so bear that in mind. Also, wine specialists usually offer the best quality for value wines, but Yelp often rates a lot of liquor store generalists. Reading a few of the reviews can give you a better sense of the store.
Stores like KL Wines have the history of each bottle of wine, and a long history of selling quality wine to astute wine enthusiasts and buyers. Here, in the Bay Area they have stores. If you ship, then you have to be careful of both shipping costs and conditions. The challenge is to find a similar wine store near you so you don’t need to ship.
Ordering wine directly from the wineries is usually a good idea if they ship their wine in temperature controlled environments in the summer. In the winter it is less important.
You can also use a search engine like Google to find the best wine shops in your area. The search terms should be phrased like Best “Wine Shops” or Best “Wine Stores” and then your city name. Note, the quotation marks are to limit the search results to specialists rather than finding results for best wine, which will give you a number of wineries or something else. Once you find a wine store you can call them and ask about their selection, how they buy ship and store their wine, you might even want to ask for the most knowledgeable person and get a sense of how knowledgeable they are about wine.
Unfortunately we could not find a good online or mobile application that has a list of good wine stores for each city. Most sites and applications we found had about 20 or so shops but not a comprehensive list. Perhaps we’ll do the research and blog about it later. If you know of a good resource, let us know and we will share it with everyone. Regardless, if you use a search engine like described above, there’s a good chance you’ll find a list for your particular area.
There are also a lot of on-line wine companies but you have to be careful because many of them do not maintain high standards for buying, shipping and storing wine.
- Talk to someone you know who is a wine enthusiast
Most people know someone who is really knowledgeable about wine. Ask them where they buy their wine. When I meet someone new and a wine enthusiast, I often ask them where they buy their wine and I’ve learned a lot about great wine shops through the years.
- Proof is in the pudding but seasonality may matter
After you’ve done your due diligence on a wine store, you should start by buying only a little (whatever that means to you). Sometimes after you bring home the wine, despite your best efforts, the wine is not very good. Maybe it’s a storage issue or they happen to get bad bottles, but move forward with caution. Caution is particularly important if you bought the wine during the winter because if they have bad storage or shipping practices, it is not as noticeable.
- Look at review sites before buying a particular bottle of wine
You might find a wine shop that has an excellent wine selection, is knowledgeable about their wines and is doing all the right things to preserve their wines, but if they charge 20% or more than all other vendors, you may want to find a more affordable option.
There are a lot of ways to determine the value of a particular bottle of wine. Probably the best way is to go to the winery’s site and look up the price. If you are already at the store, you can use an application like Vivino, which has a search function and pricing information. A great on-line source for pricing information is TotalWines.com, although prices there are probably better than you can find at local stores.
- Know thyself, your taste and palette, something that is good for others might not be for you
After you’ve found a store with knowledgeable wine operators and good storage and shipping practices, you should be aware of your own wine preferences before making a wine investment. As stated earlier, ask a knowledgeable person at the store for suggestions based on other wines you like. You can also use a wine application on your phone. There are many apps with wine profiles on them and usually all that you need to do is take a picture of the wine you’re thinking about buying, to get its profile.
- Think about transportation home and storage
If you took all the precautions mentioned above, you may still come home with bad wine if you’re not careful about how you get the wine home. For example, don’t leave it the trunk for hours. Again our Gollum post has a lot more about this.
- Most importantly don’t worry about buying wine. Wine drinking is meant to be fun and good in life (chances are you’ll be just fine).