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Dan Berger On Wine: Post-pandemic wine buying

Dan Berger On Wine: Post-pandemic wine buying

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 6, 2020 series
  • Updated

Severe national health issues have plagued this country for nine months, but it’s impact surely will have a long-term impact that’s certain to change our daily lifestyle routines for decades, if not forever.

That includes how we buy alcoholic beverages. As a starter, trips to stores to buy wine once coincided with frequent grocery shopping. This was possible on a daily basis. That has changed to weekly or even less often. Grocery delivery is now a new option.

Also, stocking up on some wines isn’t always a great strategy since some wines do get tired over time.

Additionally, vintages vary in quality, especially at the upper echelons of wine quality. That affects how we decide which wines to buy, and how to buy them — even after a pandemic is no longer a serious threat.

The national recovery is a dynamic topic for the wine industry, and several Northern California wineries are looking at how the recovery will look and what new issues are in play.

Recently a winery official told me confidentially that some wineries have had strategy meetings to discuss what retail wine sales will look like after the pandemic has abated.

One thing is certain: buying wine from internet sources has already become a thing for wine lovers, and may well be a bigger deal long-term than it is now.

To be sure, our food shopping habits have changed. And purchasing of young, daily-consumable wines, also has shifted. No longer is it routine for consumers to visit the grocery store several times a week after work to pick up dinner provisions as well as a bottle of wine for that evening.

Since we are all making fewer trips to the market, we tend to buy more wine per trip.

Ordering wine from distant locations, once a rare situation for many consumers, now has grown significantly. Since more bottles of wine per purchase is now the norm, we need to think about where to keep them.

Before the pandemic arrived, wine racks weren’t widely seen as a household necessity. Now many people see a need for a wine rack – or decide to cope with counters cluttered with unopened bottles.

Wine collectors long ago figured out that buying fine wines from internet sites has some benefits (prices vary in some remote stores), but there are also several drawbacks to consider.

Rule No.1: Before placing an online wine order, check to make certain that the vintage and appellation are exactly what you wanted.

Rule No. 2: Check weather forecasts and have wines shipped only when you know no heat wave along the route is anticipated. This is important when wine is to be shipped for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Rule No. 3: Buying larger amounts (cases instead of single bottles) can save money, but with wines that have a time-sensitive downside (i.e., most Pinot Gris is best when young), buy smaller amounts.

I love going to fine wine stores because I might spot a special wine that I’d never have known was there had I been exclusively perusing a database. (To avoid crowds, go at off-peak hours.)

One key reason to visit wine shops is to inspect the bottles you’re thinking about buying – to be certain that there are no visible signs that deterioration might have taken place.

This is critical when it comes to older wines, many of which have high price-tags. Most fine wine shops carry only wines whose provenance is validated as appropriate (i.e, cool constant temperatures).

But that’s not always the case. In a Beverly Hills shop about 35 years ago I saw an interesting bottle of a 1969 Burgundy. I picked up the bottle and noticed a low fill level and some leakage. And as I held it up to the light, I could see a slight bit of browning had taken place.

This is exactly the kind of thing to look for when in-person shopping for wine. Even though that bottle of Burgundy wasn’t in pristine condition, the price was fair, so I took a chance and bought it. It was awful. Lesson learned.

I spoke about questionable bottles many decades ago with the late Michael Broadbent, then director of the wine department the London auction house Christie, Manson, and Woods. Part of Broadbent’s job was to ascertain the quality of the wines he’d be auctioning. He used many tactics to make certain that each wine was what it was supposed to be.

To that end, he said he inspected labels to make certain they weren’t fraudulent; capsules to make sure they were original, and even esoteric aspects of the glass bottles themselves.

I’m wary of older wines listed on retail websites. But buying younger wines from online stores rarely entails risk. Yes, it often means having the wine shipped, but young wines aren’t going to fall apart in a few days.

The shipping of older wines involves some risk, of course. One hazard is that bottles might not be held during shipment under ideal conditions – a vital point for fragile wines.

For that reason, I have older wines shipped only during winter months, so that even if the wine is left in a truck for a day or two, temperatures will never rise to risky levels.

Even more appropriate is to pick up wines at a local store, so they don’t have to be placed with a common carrier, who might not respect the bottles the way you would.

A side note: Several of the largest wine shops in the country not only discount many wines but also discount or even waive shipping fees for sealed-case purchases.

And one final point: buying wines well in advance of when they will be consumed is a time-honored tradition in many areas of the world, and most wine lovers would tell you that truly fine wines often are sent to market very early and wine quality is NOT the main treason.

When Orson Welles told us decades ago on TV that Paul Masson would not sell a wine “before its time,” a friend and winery owner told me, “I sell no wine before my banker tells me it’s time.”

Last week I was asked to evaluate a new release of a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The winemaker pulled the cork on a 2019 vintage! A year ago, it was still in barrels.

The winemaker, almost apologetically, said, “We released this a year sooner than we usually do, but we’re all out of the 2018 – and we can’t be off the shelves.”

I tried his wine and told him that even an extra year wouldn’t have been enough time. “It’s a baby,” I said.

“Well, you know, most wines are released a lot sooner than they should be,” he said. “It’s sort of the tyranny of the marketplace – people drink them a lot younger than is best for the wines. I’m in love with our 2016s now…”

It’s a theme I have broadcast for decades. So, a final suggestion: Do not fear buying a few extra bottles for a home stash. Very few will go bad and most will improve.

Wine of the Week

2016 Argyle Brut, Willamette Valley ($25) – There are probably 40 or more exceptionally high-caliber producers of sparkling wine in this country, all of whom aim to compete with Champagne. Very few actually do because the West Coast has a Mediterranean climate and Champagne has a continental climate, and the grapes are often radically different in character. This wine offers a distinctive Oregon mien.

Winemaker Nate Klostermann is a superb craftsman when it comes to wines of this sort. It doesn’t have the overt yeasty elements that often show up in Champagne, but the flavors here are “sea foam,” subtle spice, peach, and brioche. Pristine acid levels give the wine not only wonderful food compatibility but also a superb aftertaste. Wine geeks might like to know: the 55% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir blend has an acidity of 8.3 g/L, and pH of 3.08. The back label says it is “disgorged on demand,” so later bottles will be even better than this!

Watch now: How Drinking Red Wine Can Benefit Your Health


Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, Calif., where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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