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The Young Wine Drinker's Conundrum

Back when I was just getting started in my own self-education in the world of wine, I had the problems that many young wine drinkers have: I didn't have much money, and I didn't know what I didn't know. Actually, I was very aware of my lack of knowledge across many areas of the wine world -- I hadn't tasted many different varietals, and certainly not from many areas of the world. One of the things that I didn't become aware of, though, until much later, was how much I had to learn about the way that wine ages -- something that I could only do much later by spending a lot for older vintages at restaurants, making friends with deep cellars, and proactively cellaring my own wines.

My friend Tom over at Fermentations has a fantastic post this week about a way to get that education about what happens in the bottle to different varietals over time. The answer: buy bottles for less than $25 at auction. Tom walks you through how to do it.

One of the things that Tom doesn't mention however, is that it's important to realize that in some cases (no pun intended) these bottles will be bad. A few will just taste bad because they are older and have lost some of the qualities that many people look for in wine: bright fruit, nice acidity, lush flavors. But some will be bad because they are spoiled or damaged or "corked."

Sometimes people buy wine at auction and find out that it's heat damaged or spoiled and then they auction it off themselves, passing the damaged wine around until it runs out or until someone opens it and doesn't know any better than to just drink it. Unfortunately these auction houses don't offer any protections against this to speak of, so you're taking your chances.

However, the risk of getting a bad bottle or three is worth the education you can get, and the money you can save in the process.

Comments (10)

Jack wrote:
09.17.05 at 3:17 PM

I've already been practicing Tom's philosophy there: Bought a case of 1991 Stony Hill Chard for about $24/btl w/commission at auction. And am tasting the first pristine bottle this very second. Imagine a non-sweet maple nose. Decent acids. Just a nice wine, great for food, and seems such a bargain compared to all $25-$100+ of the 2003 Cal chards on the market.

Alder wrote:
09.17.05 at 5:13 PM

Ah yes. And then there is Jack, who will happily inform us all that we'd all be much happier drinking wines that are at least 10 years old.

When you quote prices like that, Jack, it's not hard to agree with you.

chuck wrote:
09.18.05 at 1:43 PM

after a recent trip to NY where i partook in many $200-600 bottles of wine, i've learned expensive wine is very risky for the novice (which i am) or the not-so-rich.

@ cru, my friend (who is very knowledgeable) ordered a $600 bottle that had high marks from everyone. the result? way too much acidity to the point where we asked the sommelier to check it; he consulted his boss and they both agreed that was just how the wine tasted. oh well.

@ dinner, he had brought 2 fancy bottles (probably $300-500 at any restaurant) from canada. guess what - both had been disturbed by the short journey & lost a lot of their vibrancy. (he had other bottles from the same lot that tasted much better @ home.)

and then there's the whole risk of buying from an auction where it's nearly impossible to know how they've been treated.

and would you dare buy something from a private party you don't know? after the experiences above, paranoia creeps in - if it's sooo good, why are they selling it?

when you factor all this in, you can understand why restaurants charge so much (and why people pay it.) it's insurance - if it's bad, you can send it back.

Jassmond wrote:
09.18.05 at 5:39 PM


I got into the wine business for many reasons, but the one that I often site as the catalyst was a local shop owner who would shunt me off with the most under-valued wine he could think of, something that hadn't moved in close to a year and was a bad value even before it started to move into its dark (or oxidized) days.

During that time I spent more energy than I would have liked reading good books telling me how bad the wines were (no not The Good Book, though in many cases I would have preferred water to the wine.)

When I got a job in a restaurant and got to interact with distributors I started asking them for closeout wines that they had either tried recently, so they could describe the flaws or attributes for me, or bottles that they hadn't checked in with for a while. After a few weeks of buying the wines they knew were somehow off for a couple bucks a bottle and reporting back, I found that they were very generous in giving me the wines they suspected were toast to try solo.

In a way we were all doing favors for each other, as I got to taste through a wide range of varieties in different stages of often-detrimental development, and they could offer an informed opinion to other customers who were interested in the wines. Plus, it chipped away at the inventory, however slowly. Many of these closeout wines were better in some small way than the "interesting $15 red" I would have gotten from the above mentioned shopkeeper.

You've commented before about the generosity of those in the wine community and this was just one of the many examples I've encountered myself.


Alder wrote:
09.18.05 at 8:27 PM


Everything you say is true, certainly. With regards to buying at auction however, people sell wines for all sort of reasons. I know a lot of people who sell wine that they were once excited about, but their tastes have simply changed and they want to replace it with wines that they are now interested in owning and drinking. I for instance, have flirted with getting rid of a couple of cases of Zinfandel that I own, not because the wine is bad -- on the contrary, it’s fantastic and has been well stored -- but because I realize that I don't drink it nearly as much nor do I want to store it nearly as long as, say, a bunch of white Burgundy.

In reality, you know nearly as much about a wine you're buying at auction as you do about one you're buying in a store. Many stores have no knowledge of the shipping and storage of the wine they sell, any more than you know about a bottle you see on wine commune. Of course, a store is likely to take back a bottle that is spoiled if you bring it back, where that is not an option at auction, but there's not a huge difference in your visibility into provenance at most stores.

Alder wrote:
09.18.05 at 8:30 PM


I've often wished for a reliable source of clearly faulted wines, especially with those faults identified in advance for me so I can learn more about them and have those flavors "in my head" to better inform my tastings. I gather that this is a regular part of the more serious wine education/certification courses, which I guess I will eventually have to get around to taking.

Great story. Thanks for sharing.

John wrote:
09.19.05 at 12:28 PM

Interesting thoughts Alder. One of the biggest frustrations I've had as someone who is just starting to get "into" the world of fine wines is knowing when to cellar a wine and when to drink it. Obviously the vast amount of information has made it easier to find "expert" opinions on the subject, but as a whole it is still extremely difficult to find out if a bottle should be stored (and for how long) or drunk. I feel quite helpless, especially with foreign wines, as to what to do. Any suggestions for figuring out this mystery?

Patrick wrote:
09.20.05 at 10:55 AM

When I first started drinking wine in the late '80s, I got to know clerks at two good wine shops. Their advice was invaluable and they often pointed me to the shopping cart of remainders, where I was introduced to many great (and inexpensive) bottles of wine.
Then, in 1992, I then took a chance with a friend and spent an outrageous $70/bottle for some Bordeaux futures, much more than either of us could afford. However, we've been well pleased with the 1990 Latour.
So, for me it was and is a combination of real bargain shopping and taking an occasional chance.
Thanks for your very readable, thoughtful blog.
Patrick in Minnesota

Olivia wrote:
09.22.05 at 4:38 PM

Excellent topic, Alder!

John: I recently started using CellarTracker and particularly love the "Drinkability Report," which takes information from other members of the community (who, judging by their cellars, tend towards the more advanced) and links to professional reviews to help you track when to drink the wines you have. (No affiliation with CellarTracker, just a satisfied customer.)

Alder wrote:
09.27.05 at 5:16 PM


First, apologies for getting to your question weeks after you sent it. I think another reader's suggestion of using CellarTracker is a good one, as it basically provides opinions from thousands of wine drinkers who have various levels of expertise, but many of them are quite high. There are services out there like erobertparker.com where you can look up your wine in his database and see his "drinkability" dates and use those as a guide, but he tends to cover only high end wines from certain regions. If your wine isn't on his list, you're out of luck.

Another thing to do is simply Google your wine and see what comes up. Often you'll find retailers who are selling the wine offer suggested dates to drink the wine.

Finally, I offer you this piece of advice. It's always better to drink a wine a year too early than a year too late. If in doubt, open it. Chances are that if it's good wine, you'll really enjoy it, and if it's bad, there's not much chance of it getting better*

* the one caveat are extremely high end (200+ dollar) Burgundies and Bordeaux wines, but I assume you're not talking about them.

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