The Wine Dilettante's Buying Advice

Wine may be more varied in flavor and experience than any other food. The varieties of grapes and their flavors once vinified is astonishing. The influence of the growing conditions, wine making, and time have dramatic affects on the result. A winery's wines will change from year to year due to changes in the weather and wine making. Especially in less expensive wines, it can be hard to find even a family resemblance between two years. In wine reviews you will see one-dimensional flavor adjectives like fruit, earth, dry, mineral. Beyond that, you'll find specific adjectives like blackberry, pear, flint, chalky, tobacco, chocolate, and mint. Although you might not be able to pick these flavors out, you'll agree that there are profound differences!

For many wine drinkers, this is what makes wine drinking so exciting. Finding those special wines in the face of so much uncertainty is a welcome challenge. However, the wine drinker is never pleased to have chosen a substandard wine, especially if a lot of money has been invested in the wine or it is a special occasion. Here are my recommendations about finding a good wine at a reasonable price.

Find a wine merchant you trust. Unlike most consumer products these days, a wine merchant's expertise is essential to success. A great wine merchant has tasted most of the wines in his or her store, has vast experience (this does not mean they have to be old), and listens to the customers needs and preferences. If you get shrugs, uninformed advice, or a pushy sell, you may want to ask another salesman or try another store.

My favorite wine merchant is the San Diego Wine Company (5282 East Gate Mall, 535-1400, 11am-6pm M-W, 11am-7pm Th-Fr, 12pm-5pm Su). The owners, Tom and Paris, bring a refreshing attitude to their business. They know their wines, don't play favorites with wineries, only carry wines that they like, and they have the best prices in San Diego. They also have a tasting bar open on Saturdays (and some Sundays) for just $5. Other good bargain wine merchants are Cost Plus, Trader Joes, and Barons (several locations). A few times now I've found high-quality bargain California wines at Whole Foods long after their release. Because wine prices have been steadily climbing regardless of the quality of the vintage, these can be great bargains when buying older wines from better years. For premium, rare, and older wines, you might want to check out Vintage Wines (6904 Miramar Road, 549-2168).

Learn what you like, but experiment. You'll find you like some wines more than others. Although you don't want to get in a rut, you have to trust your tastebuds. You may want to take notes on your drinking, but it usually enough to remember your favorite wineries and grape varieties. Many wine drinkers never get beyond Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, they are wonderful grape varieties, but they are also the most expensive for the quality because of the high demand. Be sure to try varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. There are also many countries that produce great wine, like France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Chile. Some foreign wines are named for the variety, others by their region. I won't try to explain what all these wines are like, except to say that Pinot's are best drunk with food; they are incomplete no their own. Many feel the same way about most whites, whose high acidity leaves a bitter taste in the absence of food.

Right now, I feel that the most consistently valued wines are from California, but a lot depends on your tastes. California wines exhibit forward fruit flavors, body, acid, and tannins, which I like. French wines, my second favorite, tend to exhibit fascinating earthy flavors of mineral and chalk, with fruit providing balance to the whole. Finding bargains is harder, for a variety of reasons, but they exist, sometimes far exceeding in value what we can get in California. I find the wines of Australia and Chile to be generally one dimensional--the Australian wines are often tanninless fruit bombs--but I know people who absolutely love these wines, and of course there are always exceptions. Overall, I think that California '96 Zinfandels are the most consistently valued wines, although the '95 Cabs are coming out ready to drink and fairly priced. In general, finding quality, affordable Pinot's, Merlots, and Cabs is harder, the former two because of the ornery nature of the grapes. My favorite wineries are David Bruce, Ravenswood, Beaulieu, Chateau Souverain, and Columbia Crest, although I'm an eclecticist by nature. All are California wineries, except for Columbia Crest, which is a Washington winery. Although these wineries are also known for their value whites, don't forget that I've only been drinking their reds. For details on all these opinions, see my tasting notes.

Read. There are continuous debates as to the accuracy of magazine wine reviews (due to the influence of advertising and the way the tastings are conducted) and the relevance of what is reviewed (low production wines selling for high prices). I myself find them helpful, especially once I adjust for the biases of the reviewers and realize that they can review only a small percentage of the wines in release. The Wine Spectator is my favorite. Their web site also has articles and an extensive wine-review database. The Wine Advocate, Robert Parker's publication, is generally regarded as the most professional and honest. A more grassroots view can be found at the Wine Lovers Page. From these publications you'll get not only reviews, but reports on grape harvests around the world, which is a great way to learn which countries' or regions' wines will be consistently good in a particular year. I also enjoy reading the weekly Wednesday wine articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune and the New York Times. Frank Prial, who writes for the Times, is a world-renowned wine writer. Wine books are also fun. Hugh Johnson's wine atlases are wonderful (I have the one for France), and make great gifts. Jancis Robinson's books are also generally regarded highly (I have her Wine Course, although her Oxford Companion to Wine gets the accolades). The web is also full of sites on wine; try a search engine.