Sommelier Jason Kallsen is the founder and owner of Twin Cities Wine Education, and has taught over 15,000 students about wine over the past twenty years. Complete class listing can always be found at www.TwinCitiesWine.com (be sure to sign up for the weekly newsletter – its got some fantastic tidbits, both educational and entertaining!)
Bang for the buck. Top value. Best buy.
Whatever name you want to call it, it’s the holy grail for wine consumers everywhere. The goal is simple: get true bang for the buck.
How to achieve this elusive goal? Here are seven ideas that wine consumers in Minnesota can use on a regular basis.
#1 Shop regions where the economy is relatively weak against the strength of the dollar
Examples: Greece, Portugal, Argentina, and Slovenia are all good examples of regions where the dollar remains strong against the local economy. Buying a $15 bottle of wine from these regions will often pay back with a $25 flavor. Dry red wines from Portugal in particular have quite possibly the biggest bang for the buck at the moment.
#2 Seek out wines imported directly into Minnesota by a few key importer/distributors
Walk in to the Italian or French section of a fine wine shop, grab a bottle, and turn it over. If the importer is in Minnesota, you might be holding a terrific value in your hand. Why? Because in Minnesota it’s legal to be both an importer and a distributor, but many wines that are self-imported do not get marked up with a traditional importer’s cut. The result? That wine that costs $20 on the shelf should for all practical purposes actually cost $28. Look for local importers The Wine Company, Domaines and Appelations, World Wide Cellars, Small Lot, and Lompian.
#3 Find wines made from varieties off the beaten path, that are fighting for attention
Something I often tell students in my classes: if there’s a Viognier on a wine list by the glass, order it! Odds are good it’s the best wine for the money. Why? Because nobody knows how to pronounce it, few can explain what it will taste like, and it’s in an uphill battle for attention against Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Other good examples beyond Viognier include: Cannonau, Garganega, Carignane, and Friulano.
#4 Discover wine sub-regions surrounding the world famous regions
Napa Valley wines cost what they do for many reasons, but part of the equation is simply that they are from Napa. There is a premium to the name, and a higher cost for the land. But just north of Napa lies the regions of Lake County and the Dunnigan Hills, where terrific Cabernet Sauvignons are available for half the cost of their Napa counterparts. Love Pinot Noir but tired of Russian River Valley prices going up? Try Mendocino. Are you into Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre? Seek out Menetou-Salon. Open up the wine atlas, find your favorite regions, then learn the sub-regions surrounding them.
#5 Buy Merlot, and a lot of it
The moment that Miles told Jack that he’s not going to drink any bleeping Merlot, the sales of Merlot plummeted in the United States. And that was a good thing, for there was a mountain of sub-par wine out there, often made with Merlot that was over-planted in the 1980’s. As Merlot sales dropped quickly in the early 2000’s, vineyards were ripped out or converted to more profitable varieties such as Chardonnay. But here’s the secret: the best Merlot producers, with the best vineyards, kept their vines in the ground and have weathered the storm. Their prices are still down, but they are without a doubt some of the best wines for the money out of California. Seek out Merlot, especially if you haven’t had it for a while. You might be surprised at just how much you still like it.
#6 Spend $12-20 on your bottle of wine
To make a bottle of wine that costs under $10 or even under $8 on the shelf, a producer has to use industrial winemaking practices. Big tractors, a bit of herbicide and pesticide, a dose of plant growth formula, mega sized tanks, and inoculated yeasts. Very few cheap wines have anything ‘handcrafted’ about them. But move up just a bit, into the $12-20 range, and suddenly you have family ownership of the wineries, sometimes using organic or sustainable farming methods. You suddenly have a place, with a family, with a story. You suddenly have your dollars supporting a small group instead of layers of international management. You have story and connection. All of this adds up to a better tasting wine.
#7 The most important hint: Shop at independent wine retailers (and ask lots of questions)
Here’s the difference between your local fine wine shop and larger national wine retail chains: your local fine wine shop tastes more wine than anybody else. On a daily basis stores like Solo Vino, Thomas Liquors, North Loop Wine and Spirits, Zipp’s, Brightwines, Cork Dork, and many others are bombarded by wine sales reps carrying between four and twelve bottles of wine. Buyers at these stores taste through them all, taking notes and carefully curating their selections and knowledge base thanks to these experiences. The result? When you ask Erica at Zipps, or Sean at Solo Vino, or Dustin at France 44, or Darrin at North Loop for a suggestion on a Cotes du Rhone, you get to tap into all the experience of all the wine tastings they have done in the past year. Their suggestions carry value because of their experience. And you know what? Their suggestions will more often hit the mark, raising your wine shopping batter average to nearly 1000.
Never forget that price and value are two very different things. In the end, the only goal should be you loved the wine and felt that it over delivered for the money you spent. So therefore “value” is a sliding scale relative to your personal expectations. Don’t seek out the cheapest, seek out the best for what you want to spend.
I hope these hints and tips help! I wish everybody a wonderful new year. See you in 2017!