Expert Advice: Building a Wine Collection

how to build a wine collection

Common wisdom in the wine world these days says, “Drink what you like.” Good wine – defined as any wine that you enjoy drinking – can come with just about any price tag. In fact, one might even argue that it’s this new, egalitarian attitude is what has fueled the steady rise of wine consumption in the US in recent years (from 552 million gallons to 749 gallons per year in the last decade alone).

That’s good news for new anyone who loves wine, especially when personal budgets may not afford too many bottles of $300 Château Lafite Rothschild for your wine cellar. But with the proliferation of quality low- and mid-priced wines on the market, the question remains – how do you know which ones you will like?

In order to find an answer to this pressing question – and a few related questions about shopping for wines – we called in a couple of wine experts to offer their opinions.

Joe Roberts is the dude behind 1WineDude.com,  which has been offering up wine reviews online since 2007. He’s also contributed to numerous publications from the New York Times to Playboy.com, and is the author of the book How to Taste Like a Wine: Geek: The 1WineDude Wine Tasting Guide.

Bill Eyer works in the wine industry, and has been writing the Cuvée Corner Wine Blog since 2008. He’s certified in Wine Essentials by the International Sommerlier Guild, and is a contributor of wine reviews to Unreserved and San Diego Magazine. He is also the organizer of the weekly #WineStudio Twitter chat, an educational online “meet and taste” with other wine-minded folks around the world.

How can I try new wines without spending a lot of money?

Both Roberts & Eyers recommend local tasting events as a way to sample a lot of wines in order to find the ones that tickle your taste buds the most.

wine store

Roberts suggests, “Tasting events are definitely the way to go for this, in my opinion, because you get access to so many wines that you wouldn’t normally encounter, especially at regionally-focused events. A lot of those happen at local wine shops, unless you live in a control state like I do, in which case you’re out of luck unless you travel! Wine bars (and these are starting to crop up within supermarkets) with self-service preservation systems are also a great way to try wines; I’ve even gotten my first taste of some some rare and expensive wines through this method. For example, I might not be willing fork out for an entire bottle of Y’quem, but parting with twenty bucks to try a glass is fun and a lot less painful on the wallet.”

“Some of the best ways is to attend weekend tastings at your local wine-shop…where for a nominal fee you taste many different wines each week,” says Eyer. “Second, get involved with a local tasting group; each member brings a wine from one region for a shared experience. They are easily found on Twitter or if you’re not social-media inclined there’s Meet-Up.Com. Third, go to big tasting events. These are great opportunities to sample a large variety of wine w/o paying a fortune. The price of admission for the reasonable events averages right around $50, often you’ll find more than a dozen producers pouring 4-5 wines, do the math, that’s quite a bit of tasting for a relatively small fee.”

“It helps to have friends with big cellars!” Roberts adds.

If I find a wine I really like, should I buy a case?

In answer to this question, Eyer says: “If you find a wine you ‘really’ like the first thing you should do before making that case-buying decision is to consult your smart-phone. Go to wine-searcher.com, it will show you the price history about the wine you’re considering. If it’s a reasonably good price compared with the market, then I’d say buy a half-case. Perhaps you’re wondering only a half-case? Yes, because as you will come to know, there’s a lot of good-to-great wines swimming in the sea of wine sameness and you want to leave room in the cellar for the next great deal that comes down the purple-stained path.”

When I find a wine I like, what do I need to know to find other wines like it?

three wine bottlesRoberts says, “Pay attention to what you did and did not like about a wine when you drank it, write it down, really focus in on it like a hawk. Did you like that peppery, svelte Pinot Noir because it was lighter, more pithy, and spicy? If so, then any sommelier, wine shop owner, or wine educator worth his or her salt can help guide you to similar examples. The key is being able to describe in some detail what you liked about that wine, so make sure you focus on that.”

Eyer offers some additional advice: “First thing you want to do is Instagram that puppy; that’s right bust out your trusty smartphone and take a picture. I say Instragram, because phones may come and go, but the Internet is forever. Now that said, you need to know the producer, the region, the vintage year, the AVA [American Viticultural Area]. But taking that picture first thing solves having to recall all that other criteria. But once you do have that info in your hot little hand, call your local wine-shop, like the one I work in, and ask them about it. Or another good bet is to use [an online service such as] Wine-Searcher—they’re a great resource for obtaining hard to find wines.”

How important is the date on the label?

Roberts answers, “The vintage is always important, in my mind. Not because it’s the be-all, end-all clue as to whether or not the wine is any good, but because it gives you context. If you have the vintage of a fine wine, and the producer is still around, then you can find out exactly what that vintage was like, and hopefully that conveys itself in some way into the bottle (and for really fine wines, it should; it’s part of the special magic and uniqueness of wine). It also helps you discern when you should probably pop the cork on the bottle, of course.”

How can I tell if an expensive wine is worth the price?

red wine bottle on its sideOf course, no bottle of wine is worth the price if you don’t like it. Both our experts agree on that. But if you don’t have the option of trying before you buy, Eyer’s makes these suggestions:

“When it comes to knowing the answer to that question without the advantage of having tasted said wine, you have to do your homework. If you simply make that purchasing decision based on the wine’s price or even that producer’s reputation you’re then setting yourself up for failure. I’ve seen too many good dollars being wasted on expensive bottles of wine, being purchased just because it’s pricey or a cult-collection (unicorn) wine. This is my opinion is very silly, but it’s what some folks like to do.

“But to answer the question, if you’re are not sure then consult Cellar-tracker.com. The chances are good that one of the users there has encountered said wine and that will give you an idea of the wine’s true value. Other factors to consider: exclusivity should enter into the equation, case production, demand, vintage, the wine-maker—is it Heidi Barrett of Screaming Eagle fame or John Smith from Lodi?”

Roberts says, “I wish there was some magic formula here but there isn’t. A wine that’s worth $250 to me might not be worth $0.25 to you, if our preferences differ significantly. What can help is following critics and personalities who give higher marks to wines that you yourself like; those critic’s ratings then become guideposts for you to help you decide if a bottle has the right quality/price ratio for your budget. And with so many personalities out there doing that, it’s easier than ever to find someone.”

What are some of the basics I should have in a well-balanced wine collection?

Our experts offered divergent opinions on this question, both practical advice in their own way, offering different approaches to building a wine collection.

Roberts suggests letting your collection grow organically based upon your personal likes and favorites: “I wouldn’t look at having a well-balanced collection as a goal, unless you’re getting into fine wine as some sort of investment (in which case, I’d try to talk you out of that in favor of low cost index funds!). I’d look at learning what you like, and focusing on why you like those wines, and then branching out from there into more iconic representations of those wines and similar wines as your tastes progress and develop. The important point is to have much, much, MUCH more storage than you think you will need when first starting out, so that you have a place to put all of that wine with which you’ll be experimenting!”

Eyer, on the other hand, offers a structured plan for building a wine collection:

“First things first, before you start building (purchasing wine) a cellar/wine-collection you should have a clear idea about the place these treasures will be stored in your home. It’s easy to allow a collection to spiral out-of-control and suddenly be facing the ‘oh no where do I put this’ dilemma.

“Now that said, I have to assume you already trust your own palate completely. Second, you’ll want to think about having a collection of wine which is diverse as your own tastes are. Ask yourself, do you mostly drink red or white wines? Do you mostly drink domestic or imported or both? Once you’ve answered those questions, then it’s time to start categorizing which wines you’d like to collect in your head or better yet on a spread sheet.

“Third, there are different wines for different occasions. For example, my own cellar is never without a bottle of Champagne. I don’t drink Champagne all that often, but when the unexpected situation calls for it, I’m ready to rock. So it’s wise to adopt this line of thought in order to start building your collection correctly.

“Fourth, you’ll want to categorize your wines into the ‘drink now and drink often’ category and the wines I like to refer to as the ‘lay-down and say good night’ selections.

“Fifth, you’ll also want to think about building your collection from the food and wine pairing aspect. You may not want to have that bottle of Uruguayan Tannat you picked up on a wine-junket last summer with a delicate fish entree, when that dish is flatly crying out for a more delicate touch via a Muscadet Sevre et Maine.

“Lastly, and I wish I had known this from the start. Get a wine-tracking app to help you keep your collection organized, like Cellar-Tracker or Wine Cellar Database as an example.”

In closing, we asked both our experts for any final advice for new collectors. Says Roberts, “My number one tip: be fearless. Really, don’t be afraid to try anything, even if it’s something that you didn’t like in the past. The wine world is more fluid than ever these days, and with more variety and higher quality available than ever before. In fact, you ought to be more afraid of trying to play it too safe!”

Eyer offers some good advice for when you’re tasting: “And finally as a reminder, please remember you’re sampling wine[s] not drinking them, spit or pour away the remainder of the sample. It’s the expected thing to do.”

Do you have more questions about wine collecting you’d like answered? Leave a question in the comments and we’ll address them in a future post!

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