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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?

Comments (11)

Michelle wrote:
02.18.07 at 6:59 PM

Alder - That is simply a brilliant idea. I don't know how well it will work for me in the Cincinnati area, but it's a great excuse to get to Chicago.

Deena wrote:
02.19.07 at 1:43 AM

Hi Alder,

There is another way! Become a waiter or a bartender at a high-end restaurant with an excellent wine cellar. Most places like that go to some effort to train their staff, so you get some benefit there. But the real benefit comes from what you get to taste. You'd be amazed at how often a bit of a really amazing wine comes back your way. It's true that many people won't have the time to pursue this option - but if you've just discovered wine and you're a starving college student and you need that kind of flexible job anyway... why not?

boyce wrote:
02.19.07 at 6:50 AM

Hi Alder,

Yet another way - go to wine tastings, at least that's the case in China.

Everyone's eager to promote themselves here, so we get great opportunities in Beijing to have a dinner, paired with 6-7 wines, with winery heads visiting town. An example: this Phelps / Shafer dinner, which was less than USD100:

http://www.smartbeijing.com/en/scripts/event.php?event=2157

(The ad is for Shanghai, but the same dinner was held in Beijing.)

Cheers, BB

Alder wrote:
02.19.07 at 8:42 AM

Boyce,

Thanks for the comments. I recommend that wine lovers go to as many tastings as they possibly can. However, I've found that most "affordable" tastings usually do not include world-class wines, and most often are very recent vintages. There are big wine dinners like the ones you suggested that happen frequently around the world that DO feature some of the world's top wines, but those are usually thousands of dollars per person.

Alder wrote:
02.19.07 at 8:45 AM

Deena,

Great idea. Lot of effort to taste some good wines, but heck, some of them are worth it!

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
02.19.07 at 1:14 PM

Being in the bussiness I find it a bit easier to get my hands on some great wines than many non-pro's but getting yourself next to a wine professional is another great way to do so. Wine festivals, such as Oregons International Pinot Noir Celebration is one such event. On the final evening, the Salmon Bake, wine makers ( from around the world ) and wine collectors pull corks from some of the most fabled wines on earth, mostly Burgundies. Getting some in your glass can require great cunning but many of these wines are once in a lifetime wines and worth every bit of effort to get to. It is also wise to get on the mailing or e-mail lists of high end wine shops in your area, sometimes they will do some great tastings. Wine dinners with European producers are another way to do so, though they may not be appropriate for budget minded tasters.

Joe wrote:
02.19.07 at 6:04 PM

I found some generous friends...thanks for the Auction house links. Cheers!

Brooklynguy wrote:
02.25.07 at 8:23 AM

Whole-heartedly agree with you. I am case-in-point: my passion for wine is far more vast than is my ability to taste some of the "greatest" wines out there. I just went to pre-sale tasting at Sothby's in NYC and I had a great experience. I tasted a Cheval Blanc for the first time, a 1990 Guigal Hermitage, several mature white Burgundies of Grand Cru status, and a bunch of mature California wine. No way would I had the opportunity to taste those wines otherwise, unless I came over to your house for dinner (and Jack might have to come by too :))

Tim wrote:
02.26.07 at 10:11 AM

Alder,
Great recommendation and congrats on being #1! another solid way to get a taste of the greats is to attend the NY Wine Experience in October every other year. Some of the top wines from the world are invited to pour for 2 evenings at the Marriott Marquis. I have attended for the past two decades and like the auction, the price of the admission is more than worth it. See you there next year if you can make it.

02.27.07 at 8:19 AM

Hi Alder,
This is the first time I got at least slightly disappointed with one of your posts.
Make rich friends and go to pre-auctions??? It just sounds to me like the worst advice a wine-novice could ever get, let rest the lack of sensibility in telling someone to treat other people well to get to their cellars.
Although the rest of the post is, as usually, impeccable, I'd say most probably there aren't many more then 10 or 20 major cities around the world where you can find wine auctions, specially of that magnitude.
The suggestions made by your readers, such as go to wine tastings, wine festivals, etc. seemed to me much more connected to simple consumers' reality.
Anyway, I think I should say that to me this is the reference-blog in wine matters and, like I said before, this is the first time I dislike your opinions.
Congrats on the continuous awarding,
Bernardo.

Alder wrote:
02.27.07 at 9:42 AM

Bernardo,

Thanks very much for your comments. I appreciate you taking the time to offer your point of view, and I welcome it.

I can see how part of my post might come across as suggesting that novice wine lovers insinuate themselves into the life of someone with a deep cellar. That's certainly not my suggestion. I have no advice to give anyone on how or whether to make friends with anyone else.

But realistically, if you can't afford to buy them yourself, knowing someone with a deep cellar or these auction tastings are some of the few ways that exist to taste the great wines of the world and to learn what happens to good wine when it gets better with age.

I'm not talking about a 2004 Chateau Beaucastel here, which you might actually be able to find at some public tasting. The wines that really ambitious wine lovers need to taste for reference are not poured at public tastings and wine festivals (except at those tastings that are so expensive that our hypothetical novice wine lover would never be able to afford to go to them).

Unfortunately, the great wines of the world are simply absent from the simple consumers reality that you speak of.

Which is the point of my post. Given how impossible it is for most normal people to taste these wines, the opportunity presented by a $50 pre-auction tasting is tremendous.

I do take your point however that such tastings are confined to the major metropolitan centers of the world, and are inaccessible to many. But then again so are many of the best restaurants of the world. If I restricted myself to writing about only things that were accessible everywhere, I'd be writing about Yellow Tail.

For those who cannot make it to a metropolitan area to attend an auction tasting, I have one more suggestion, but it involves shelling out a bit more money than most beginners want to part with at first, and it requires you to have access (via the internet or a great local wine store) to purchase high end wines.

Get a group of six to ten friends and if everyone chips in $50 you can purchase a single bottle of extremely good wine which you can then taste as a group. If you're willing to do this over and over again (it gets pretty expensive pretty quickly) you can end up tasting some very good stuff.

I know when I was starting out as a wine lover, I might have been able to justify $50 for a tasting once in a while, but not once per month or every two weeks.

Hope that helps.

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