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Copyright © Ric Einstein 2009
The Red Bigot Buying Strategy
© Red Bigot (Brian Handreck)
Whether you spend $2,000 or $25,000 (or more) on wine each year, the difference between careless buying and smart buying can be significant. No one merchant has the best prices all the time or stocks all the wine you want to buy, so (unless you don't care about money) you need to shop around. Here are just a few examples of my recent purchases:
There are two main aspects in buying wine, the first is choosing what you want to buy and the second is determining where to get it at a good price. This brief article describes the strategy I use in my wine buying. The assumption here is that you are buying for cellaring as well as immediate consumption. (Editors note: This is just a sample of the chart that will be updated weekly by Brian. The link to it is located near the end of the article.)
What to buy
I won't go into budgetary matters here, it's up to you to work out what you can afford and work out whether you think a particular wine is worth the asking price (i.e. QPR = quality/price ratio). If you are just starting a cellar, you will probably need a mix of early drinkers and medium-long term cellaring prospects. Once you build up a cellar you may just buy cellaring wines for the future and drink the maturing/mature wines already stashed away, with occasional buys of 'quaffers' for everyday use if your cellar is oriented towards 'special occasion' wines. If you have the funds, get the mix right and manage your stock (see point 8) there will be a wine for just about every occasion from week-day drinking to special dinners.
In the case of red bigots such as myself and TORB there is a big head start - we don't have to bother looking at the white wines. :-) We also have the advantage that we have been drinking wine a long time and our preferences are fairly stable. Despite that bias, here then are the basic factors that make up my wine-buying strategy and are just as applicable to non-red wines:
1. Know your own preferences.
This can be a bit difficult if your are early in your wine-drinking journey or even mid-way. Lifestyles and partners change, so can wine preferences. If you are serious about building up a reasonable cellar then there may need to be an element of caution if you are just starting out or contemplating a big sea-change in your life. One way to guard against being caught with stocks of wine you no longer like is to buy in smaller quantities of each - 6-packs instead of cases or multiple case buys or hold off on big purchases until you are confident your preferences have stabilised. If you do get caught, sell the unwanted bottles to friends who still like them or use the auction system to get rid of the wine rather than forcing yourself to drink them.
There are no sure-fire solutions here, but education helps, both self-education (see next 3 points) and formal courses with tastings can be very useful.
2. Taste first wherever possible.
Go to as many tastings as you can at wine merchants or other events such as Wine Australia and touring wine region promotions. Join a regular wine-tasting group (I attend three now, weekly, fortnightly and monthly) and try new releases and wines from other peoples cellars. Buy mixed dozens to get good prices and work your way through them with food. If you can't taste first before buying a wine, see points 3, 4 and 5 for ways of reducing the risk. (Not really recommended although I've done it in the past, join Cellarmasters. Buy some of their offerings but be prepared to sort through a lot of dross, and don't be afraid to send back what you just don't like).
If you don't have reasonable length of cellaring experience, whenever you can (even if you have to pay a bit more), try to taste some older vintages of wines you are considering buying. This is the best indication of whether you will like them after 5-10 years and help you decide whether you like drinking reds at maturity or while they still have the youthful characters.
3. Decide which wine-writers your palate agrees with.
Try to taste wines that you think you may be interested in where you have the reviews from one or more 'reputable' wine writers. Compare your impressions and gradually work out which ones you agree with. Once you've done that, invest a little money in buying their annuals or subscribing to their regular publications. Some of the regular subscriptions that you may find worthwhile are Jeremy Oliver's OnWine, Winefront Monthly and WineWise.
Be wary of point scores (20 or 100 point systems), anyone who follows them slavishly or claims that wines below certain point scores are not worth considering. Read the tasting note that accompanies the scores and then decide whether you think it may be a wine worth trying for your own assessment. Even if you find a wine writer you can generally trust, just following the scores or stars without reading the tasting note will often lead you astray. The ultimate example of this folly is the way many follow the pronouncements of Robert Parker Jr with religious fanaticism and are swayed by a single point difference in wine scores. See point 10!
4. Frequent the wine forums and wine web sites.
Hey, if you are reading this you probably know that already. :-) There are two main Oz wine forums and numerous overseas forums and wine sites. Check out the TORBWine Links page (Links) for more details.
Once you get a handle on the preferences and reliability of some of the posters in comparison to your own preferences you can use some of them in the same way as the formal wine writers. Usually this means identifying wines that you should try before buying, or if you have a greater degree of empathy in tastes (as I do with TORB) you may at times happily buy on each others recommendation alone.
5. Be aware of vintage variations
Beware of generalisations here. There are always some very good wines made somewhere in Oz in even the most generally disastrous year and there can be some real duds made in generally excellent years. Sometimes one whole region will fare better than most others in a state or overall. (eg Margaret River in 1989 and 1995, Coonawarra and southern Victoria, particularly cabernet, in 2000). In other poor or just average years there are always a few gems that stand out in many regions where by good luck or good management the growers/winemakers managed to overcome the weather.
Use the wine-writers and forums to assist with your research on this one, backed up (as ever) with personal tasting wherever possible. Don't slavishly follow a particular wine for vintage after vintage out of habit; if the vintage is a poor one, or the price has escalated beyond the quality of the wine, find something else to replace it in your buying schedule.
Another aspect of this is to be careful with the winery mailing lists you subscribe too, they can sometimes lead you into habitual purchases and buying wine from below standard vintages that are not worth the (unchanged or even increased) price. Be aware of quality trends with your favourite wineries, especially after a takeover or change of winemaker.
6. Cultivate some like-minded wine-drinkers to share purchases
I seldom buy cases of 12 these days, usually a 6-pack is enough. To get the best prices and save on freight you often need to buy one or more cases. You can often put together multi-case purchases from the wine-tasting groups you frequent, once you've identified a stand-out wine and sometimes even negotiate a further discount for a multi-case buy. As you will see later (Where to Buy), TORB and I regularly share case purchases either from wineries directly or from various merchants and we get together regularly to swap wine and settle up and differences in totals. (This isn't strictly a 'what to buy' point, but it's also a useful technique to share the risk of buying mixed dozens for tasting)
7. Occasionally take a punt.
Once in a while buy a wine that you don't have extensive reviews on or can't taste first, but for which you have some information indicating you will probably like it. What you buy depends on your budget, but there are some emerging small makers that don't have an over-inflated ambition to be the next cult wine and who offer some excellent wines at reasonable prices. If the purchase comes off, it's a confidence booster. If it doesn't work out, treat it as a cautionary lesson and go back to the research for a while.
8. Keep good cellar records.
Whether it be in a notebook, spreadsheet or proper cellar database, keep basic records of your purchases and a (brief or otherwise) history of your tasting of the wines in your cellar. After a few years this will be the best early warning system and will show if your tastes have changed and whether your earlier purchases are maturing in the way you expected. A good cellar system also helps ensure you don't forget about those wines hidden away and let them to fade away into vinegar. If you have MS Access, there is the free RB Cellar Master (RB Cellar Master Request), otherwise Winebase and the Uncorked Cellar are good options to consider.
9. Be careful of Show medals
And all the other glittery adornments added to wine bottles. If you don't want to research the relative merits of various wine shows, then take the adornment of medals on the bottle with a degree of skepticism. On the other hand if a new vintage of a wine you are familiar with comes adorned with a consistent string of medals from major wine shows then it can be a positive indicator. Be aware that some wine shows award medals for unfinished wines (i.e. barrel samples), including the (in)famous Jimmy Watson Trophy in Melbourne. The National Wine Show in Canberra is the only one that includes only finished and bottled wines and requires a medal win in another show for entry in most classes.
10. Trust your own palate above all else.
Where to buy
I buy from a fair variety of wine merchants. I look for good coverage of wines that interest me, good prices and good (or at least reasonable and reliable) service. I'm reasonably loyal (I'll pay a dollar or so extra per bottle to support local or favourite merchants) but if the price difference is much more than that or the merchant changes pricing policy in an upwards direction I'll take my business elsewhere.
I've set up a separate web page that describes how I decide where to buy, with a list of merchants I patronise and wines that are of interest to me and are currently available. You can find it here: The Red Bigot Red Buyers Guide
One bit of advice: Be proactive in seeking out good prices, but don't get paranoid about it. In some cases if you hesitate too long you may miss out, in some cases if you buy too quickly you may miss out on a slightly cheaper price, but in the bigger scheme of things if you do the basic research and shop around a bit you will end up getting good deals most of the time.
© Red Bigot (Brian Handreck) 2004