Over the years, I have been asked this question so often that I have developed a quick answer, so here it is. This is my overview of how to buy wine.
TLDR; Go to an independent wine shop.
OK so we have that out of the way, let’s have some real talk.
What Wine Should I Buy?
I don’t know man, what are you into? What’s your budget? What’s it for? I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.
I can’t tell you how often I have heard that people have major anxiety when choosing wine. Like wine is something you erupt from the womb knowing about? Come on!
People are so weird about feeling like they should know something about wine.
Why? If you’re not into it, who cares? If you’re into it, then educate yourself to the extent that is useful and interesting to you.
I know about wine because I’ve been actively studying it for over a decade. I’m a wine expert because it’s my career.
I don’t come to your office and tell you how ashamed I am that I don’t know how to program android apps or be an architect or whatever it is that you do. Chill out!
Nobody expects you to know a lot about wine, especially not people who work in wine.
So that sales person at the store or the somm at the restaurant are not there judging you, they’re there to help you.
We in the business all know that nobody knows about wine unless they have learned about it from somewhere, because we’ve all worked our asses off to acquire that knowledge!
Time and Place
So instead of freaking out over what wine to choose, why don’t you take a step back and instead figure out what you actually want from the bottle.
To pair with a nice meal? To bring as a gift to your mother-in-law? Drunk brunch? Just plain drunk? What do you want from your wine?
All of these are different scenarios that require different wines. Do you want to please your mother-in-law or piss her off? These are important questions.
But the most important question is:
What Wine Do I like?
Do you know what you like? Is it a specific wine? A certain grape? Wines from a certain region?
If you come across a wine that you like, take note of it.
You don’t have to have a nerdy wine tasting notebook (I don’t), and there are two particularly handy apps that will give you all the info you need from a bottle by taking a photo of it: Delectable and Vivino.
I have no opinions on which one is better, they both work.
Knowing that you like Cru Beaujolais is a piece of information. Now you have to figure out why you like it.
This is why blind wine tasting is so fun! It really forces you to analyze what is in your glass. If you know what you like about a wine, then you can learn how to ask for similar things in other wine.
How to describe wine
A little wine vocab goes a long way. These are the major things that you need to be comfortable talking about in order to describe a wine:
Aroma – this is the way the wine smells. Is it very smelly? Some white wines aren’t, and that’s just fine. What kinds of aromas are you getting? Check my super basic aroma wheel below to give you some ideas of how to organize those scents.
Body – this is the texture of the wine. Is it light? Full? Think the difference between water and milk as you swirl it around in your mouth
Acidity – acidity is a good thing. It’s the sharpness, does the wine make you salivate a lot? You don’t want a flabby wine, but also you don’t want something where the acidity isn’t in balance with everything else, as often happens with crappy wine where they add it artificially.
Sweetness – this is not subjective, and is about residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation. Is the wine actually sweet or does it just smell and taste fruity? People confuse these things a lot. Most wine is not sweet, but a lot of wine tastes and smells fruity.
Tannins – tannins are the chewy thing you get on red wine. Tannins come from the skin, seeds and stems of the grapes and they are drying. They vary in quantity and quality. For example, you can have a wine with lots of soft tannins, or a wine with medium coarse tannins.
Here’s my tasting note for Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly, one of my favorite wines.
Aromas: fresh ripe cherry with some spice and metalBody: on the lighter side of medium
Acidity: bright and sharp, but balanced
Sweetness: super fruity, but not sweet!
Tannins: light, soft tannins
Conclusion: this wine is delicious and should be drunk on its own and with food and for breakfast and with your mother-in-law.
Now what? Well, I like that this wine is a fruity red without too much tannin but with a lot of flavor. So the next step is to try and find other wines that also fit that bill.
To do that, you need to either educate yourself about the insanely vast world of wine, or speak to a human who has already done that. That human works at an independent wine shop and is there to help you figure out how to buy wine.
How to Buy Good Wine
Good wine is all around you! So is shit wine. Let’s take a small detour to talk about the world of garbage wine.
A Note About Mass Produced Wine
Shit wine is anything that is mass produced.
Just like a big mac is delicious, there is plenty of tasty but crappy wine. Just like a big mac, it’s been engineered to high heaven to be tasty, and bears little resemblance to the real thing.
Major wine brands are high volume output machines, they are owned by massive corporations, they exploit the earth and in many parts of the world their workers, and your money is going towards marketing and into the pockets of very few rich people.
They dump god knows what onto the grape vines as they grow, and they continue that in the winery. Don’t drink this kind of wine, it is not real wine. It will give you a headache.
What’s Real Wine?
Real wine is made by farmers.
Real wine can come in many forms, there are co-operatives that buy grapes from farmers and make real wine, there are people that make higher volumes than others and still make real wine.
But your best bet for real wine is to seek out independent winemakers.
The fact is that they care more, they care about the health of their grapes, they care about the quality of each bottle, they care about it from the grape up, so instead of fixing shitty juice with chemicals, they work hard to have good juice to begin with.
Where to Buy Wine
From your local independent wine merchant!
You have one. Seriously you do. Not only should you already be supporting local small businesses for all of the reasons, but that’s where you’re going to get the best wine for your money.
Stop. Buying. Wine. From. The. Supermarket.
Independent Wine Shops
Independent wine shops buy wine from independent producers.
Independent wine shops hire knowledgeable staff.
Knowledgeable staff can help you find something you like, within your budget, for the right occasion.
Being friends with the person at your independent wine shop is a good idea, they will learn what you like and recommend you things.
But I want to buy wine for $5!
Go home Karen, you’re drunk.
But seriously, the reality is that wine is expensive. It’s expensive to make, it’s expensive to ship, and it’s taxed like crazy.
If you want inexpensive wine, tell that to the salesperson at your local wine shop.
This is complicated stuff. Value varies widely by region. Some regions, like Burgundy, are never going to be good value for money.
Some regions, like our buddy Cru Beaujolais, are super good value for money.
You can trust that your local independent wine merchant is not here to rip you off, but you need to face the reality that very cheap wine sees 99% of that price tag going towards everything but the actual wine, and that is suspect AF.
How to Buy Good Cheap Wine
If you are cheap and want good wine, I think these regions produce the best value for money on the international market:
Côtes du Rhône
So there we go.
I’ll finish with an anecdote:
When I was in college at Oxford, where I learned about wine by being part of the Blind Tasting Society *nerd alert*, I had a dinner party and invited a bunch of friends. They were all nervous about what to bring and I said just bring a Côtes du Rhône, it’s cheap and pretty consistently good.
Years later, after we’d all left Oxford and moved to London and become adults I had another dinner party with many of these same friends. They all brought Côtes du Rhône!
I thought it was such a crazy coincidence that everyone brought the same wine, having forgotten all about my advice years before.
They laughed and reminded me, saying that they’ve kept that advice and have brought Côtes du Rhône to everything over the years and it’s always been a great choice!
So when in doubt, get a Côtes du Rhône!