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02.18.2007

How to Taste Wines You Can't Afford

petrus.gifOne of the perennial conundrums for the newly ambitious wine lover involves the lack of perspective with which to judge the wines he or she tastes during the initial forays into the landscape of the wine world. I remember being a newly minted wine lover and how disorienting it was to pick up any issue of a big wine magazine and flip through the pages. First Growths. Grand Cru Burgundies. Hermitage. Sauternes. Barolos. Brunellos. What the heck were these wines that were being held up as the pinnacles of the wine world, and how in the world did they relate to the $25 Napa Cabernets or $15 Chiantis I could currently afford to buy at my local grocery store?

It is a sad fact of life that passion is not enough to learn what you need to know about wine if you are serious about the subject. You also need money. But maybe not as much as you think.

There's a reason that everyone talks about wines like those I rattled off a moment ago. They are some of the greatest wines of the world, and the de facto standards by which many wines are judged, both for their quality and for their varietal character. It's hard to have well formed opinions about Pinot Noir if you've never tasted a Grand Cru Echezeaux. Likewise it's pretty foolish to decide whether you like Cabernet or not without having explored the wines of the Medoc on Bordeaux's Left Bank. And of course there's the added complication of what these wines taste like with age on them, or even more importantly, from some of the best vintages.

The problem, of course, is that most of the time these wines are hundreds of dollars per bottle, if not thousands, and well out of the reach of most burgeoning wine enthusiasts. So what is a supremely curious and ambitious wine lover to do?

There really are only two choices.

1. Get yourself some generous friends with deep cellars and deep pocketbooks and be very nice to them. But don't ask me how to do that. I'm still learning to make friends in general, let alone targeting wine collectors.

2. Go to pre-auction tastings. This, of course, is the main point of today's essay. Those just getting started in the wine world may not know it, but most major auction houses that sell off the major wine collections of the world typically have tastings that precede their auctions so that prospective bidders can sample a little bit of what they might be bidding on later in the day.

Absent the friends noted above or extremely deep pockets yourself, there really is no better way to get yourself a mouthful of wine costing hundreds of dollars a bottle. Most of these tastings are open to the public and for between fifty and eighty dollars you get the chance to taste wines that you may have only read about.

The impact such tastings can have on your education as a wine lover is inestimable. Astute and meticulous tasters can add to their mental maps of flavors, regions, and varietals. But even more obviously, most wine lovers can simply get a chance to dispel (or uphold) the mystique and myths of some of the world's greatest wines. There's nothing like hearing about 1982 Bordeaux for years and then finally getting a chance to taste one and realizing that while it's good stuff, it's not ALL good, and at the end of the day, it's just wine.

And then again, there's nothing quite like getting the chance to taste a wine that in a single sip helps you redefine what you think of as a "great" wine.

Needless to say, the fifty bucks is almost always worth it.

San Francisco Pre-Auction Tastings
The two primary outlets for such events in San Francisco are from Bonham's and Butterfields and Edward Roberts International. Both of their websites have places for you to sign up for their mailing lists which will notify you of upcoming tastings.

Top US Wine Auction Houses
Christies
Bonham's and Butterfields
Sotheby's
Zachys
Edward Roberts International

Looking for international wine auction houses?

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.