Wine buying simplified

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Jamal Munshi, Sonoma State University, All rights reserved.
If you know absolutely nothing about wine you can still buy and enjoy good wine at a good price at your local supermarket, wine store, or restaurant by following these simple wine buying rules. Use these rules as a last resort when you know nothing else about an inexpensive wine and your only source of information is the bottle that you are holding.


Rule # 1: Look for alcohol
Look for 13.5% or 14% and settle for 13% but reject 12.5%. This is because ceteris paribus, high alcohol content generally is derived from higher sugar content of the fruit which in turn implies a ripe and luscious fruit with long hang time that will produce a "big" wine with lots of fruit and complexity. The lower alcohol wines will be limp and uninteresting by comparison.
Rule # 2: Look at the appellation
In general, ceteris paribus, the more precisely they specify the geographical source of the grapes the better the wine. "California", "France", "Chile", etc are very general in scope and are not desirable. But "Central Coast", "Mapa Valley", "North Coast" are more specific. Further specifications also exist. For example, "Paso Robles" is more specific than "Central Coast". Also "Sonoma County" is more specific than "North Coast" and "Dry Creek" is more specific than "Sonoma County". In the extreme, we have what is known as "vineyard designated" wines. These will identify the grower as for example, "Peterson Ranch" or by the word "Estate" which means that the grapes were grown in the vineyard at the same location as the winery. It pays to know a little geography.
Rule # 3: Pay for the wine not for the marketing
Avoid heavily advertised brand names. These are usually the worst wines you can buy and a big chunk of the price you pay for them is being used to sell the wine not to make it. Unknown brand names offer the best value because pricing is usually based on the cost of production and the more the cost of production the better the wine. The cost of production is heavily weighted by the cost of grapes, the cost of barrels, and the cost of aging - all of these enhance wine quality. Marketing does not.
Rule # 4: Look for varietals
All wines are blends of grape types (called "varietals") but those that are predominantly one varietal may be labelled with that varietal name. Otherwise some generic name must be used. In general, ceteris paribus, varietal designated wines are better than those with no varietal designation. So, for example, "syrah" is better than "red" and "cabarnet franc" is better than "table wine" and so on. See rule 12 for an exception to this rule.
Rule # 5: Look for oak
Ceteris paribus, "oak aged" or "barrel aged" is better than no mention of oak at all and "barrel fermented" (look for this on white wines) is better than tank fermented. Also "french oak" is better than other oaks so if it just says "oak" they mean it's some cheap oak (american, yugoslavian, etc). Oak barrels are one of the most expensive ingredients of wine so cheap wine is made with as little of this as possible.
Rule # 6: Forget "dry"
In wine terminology "dry" means there is no sugar left in the wine and "sweet" of course means that there is. All dinner wines are fermented to complete dryness so it makes no sense to talk about dry and sweet dinner wines. So you may safely expunge this factor from your dinner wine purchase decision.
Rule # 7: Forget legs
The alcohol content of wine is always printed on the label so it is not necessary to observe the formation of "legs" in wine glasses to infer alcohol content. Besides it's a very approximate and relative measure with very little useful information. So you may safely expunge this factor from your dinner wine purchase decision.
Rule # 8: Forget blush
As a rule don't buy blush wines such as white zinfandel.
Rule # 9: Forget breathing
Wines don't need to breathe and even if they did leaving a bottle uncorked for a few minutes or even hours is not going to do the trick. Just pour and enjoy. There is an exception. Some wines have excessive sulfites. Sulfites might give you a headache or you may react in other ways. To lower the SO2 content, uncork the wine about 24 hours prior to consumption.
Rule # 10: Look at the color
Hold the neck of the bottle against light and examine the color. For red wines you want very dark opaque "inky" colors. The more color there is in red wine the more fruit and richness you will find. Avoid faint and translucent colors. For white wines, look for clarity but with some characeristic yellowness for chardonnays. If there is a brown tint to a white wine it means that it has been oxidized and is no longer drinkable. Do not buy this wine.
Rule # 11: Send it back!
Oxidized wines will have an awful "aldehyde" taste (what "drunks" smell like). "Corked" wines will have a moldy smell like old wet towels. Very old wines with crystalline sediments will taste limp and insipid. You might find other "off-flavors" like metallic, chemical, and medicine tastes. In such cases all restaurants and even retailers will take the bottle back and cheerfully refund your money sometimes even with an apology.
Rule #12: Appellation specific generics are bargains
If you can find a "red" or "white", "table wine" or other generic wine labels but with a well-defined appellation the wine is usually good and normally cheaper than varietal designated wines.
Rule #13: Look at the year of harvest
White wines should be 1-3 years old. Red wines should be 2-6 years old. Younger wines may not be ready to drink. Older wines in the bargain category are over the hill. If the year of harvest (also called "vintage") is not stated on the label don't buy it.
Rule #14: Forget the "white wine with fish" rule
Experiment with food and wine combinations and you will find what tastes good to you. If the food tastes better with the wine than by itself then it is a good match. If the food tastes worse with the wine that by itself then it is a bad match. Alternately, if the wine tastes better with the food than by itself then it is a good match; and if the wine tastes worse with the food than by itself then it is a bad match. Rules of thumb don't work here. Even the rule that dry wines go with the main course and sweet wines with dessert has at least one exception - Merlot tastes great with chocolate.
Rule #15: Look for bulk
If the label says "cellared and bottled" instead of "vinted and bottled" then this wine was sold as bulk wine to the bottler. If this wine is appellation specific it has tremendous potential of being a good wine at a bargain basement price. Wineries that produce very fine wines are very strict about the blends that they will market. Wine in tanks and barrels that are left over after the blend are sold off in the bulk wine market.