What Happens to All Those Wine Samples?

When I first started writing Vinography, I’ll admit, I had fantasies that one day, just maybe, someone would send me some free wine to review. At the time it was nearly inconceivable. Here I was, just a passionate wine lover, tapping away my thoughts in an unnoticed corner of the Internet. The idea that any winemaker could possibly even find my web site, let alone think it might be worth their while to send me a bottle wasn’t an idea I entertained with any seriousness.

Of course, one day I did get a box of wines, much to my surprise. These few bottles were an initial trickle that over the past four years has turned into a bit of a deluge.

Gone are those naive fantasies of free wine. They’ve been replaced by a serious amount of work, to the point that sometimes, at the end of a long day when the doorbell rings, I find myself thinking, “Oh lord, not another box of wine.”

I know, I know.

It’s a pretty ridiculous thing that I could get to the point of feeling like getting free bottles of wine was more of a chore than a pleasure. I suppose I might feel differently if I didn’t maintain a strict policy of literally tasting every bottle I get. I certainly know folks in the wine writing business who file a lot of the samples they get into their own cellars without stopping to blink.

But despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the six or eight cases I get a month (on average) I don’t take the wines I get for granted. I literally do taste every bottle, write a tasting note for it, and score it — unless the bottle is flawed, spoiled, or so bad that it gets the “Do Not Put In Mouth” rating right off the bat (luckily only one or two bottles per month sink to that level).

When the bottles were fewer, I ended up reviewing anything that was fairly good. Now that I get a lot of wines, I tend to only review the ones that are exceptional, and there is often a bit of a lag between when I get a wine and when I review it.

But the point of this little essay is not to talk about how I review the wines I get, but what happens to them after I’m done.

I generally taste the wine in batches, grouping like varietals together so as to get a better comparative feeling for the wines I’m tasting. There was a time when at the end of tasting thirty or forty wines, the best bottle or two would get recorked and go in the fridge for Ruth and I to enjoy with dinner, and the rest would literally go down the drain and the bottles would be pitched into the recycle bin on the curb (and usually to be removed late at night by the roving homeless in my neighborhood).

But then one day I was having lunch with a couple that live in my neighborhood. And in the course of them inquiring about my blog they asked the usual questions about whether I got wine samples for free, and how many, and what I did with them when I was done. You should have seen the look of horror on their faces when I got to the part about pouring them down the sink.

“Oh my God,” they practically shouted, “give them to US!!”

I chuckled and explained that while I knew that they enjoyed wine, there was no way they were going to be able to drink forty opened bottles of wine.

They looked at each other and then back at me, and said, “OK. So we’ll invite all the cool people we know in the neighborhood to join us.”

And that turned out to be a really, really good idea.

So now, every six weeks or so, I take half a day off work and come home to taste through four or five cases of wine and then when I’m done, I recork all the bottles, no matter whether they are $10 or $200 wines, and I bring them over to someone’s house in my neighborhood who has volunteered to host the gathering this month. Then, at the appointed time, all the folks we know in the neighborhood (sometimes up to forty or fifty of them) show up with their own wineglass and either a piece of cheese, a loaf of bread, or something else to share, and we all spend a little time getting to know each other better over a lot of different wines.

To me, this is the perfect solution. It not only puts the wine to good use, it also provides exposure for some of the wines that I might not review to potential consumers who might end up buying another bottle of something they like. It also provides the regular impetus for me to stay on top of my sample tasting, and not get too far behind.

So there you have it. Of course, you’ll notice that I’m conveniently not naming my neighborhood nor mentioning the brand name that this regular gathering has started to use, for fear of getting inundated with requests to attend, even though the gathering is limited to only those who live in our section of the city.

But for the sake of those who do send me samples and might wonder where they go, because a number of people have suggested I write about it, and because I like to be up front about all the stuff I do here, I thought I’d share the story. It’s turned that mountain of boxes from a chore to a community event, and it has turned a lot of people on to some good wine.