Finding Vino: A guide to locating special wines

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | aug. 2016

I was on a business trip years ago at a convention in Monterey, California, and had enjoyed a really nice bottle of wine at dinner with one of my customers. The wine made an indelible impression on my mind, and I was determined to find out how to purchase more of it. When I asked for the wine at my local wine store, I was told that they not only didn't have it but that they couldn't get it for me either. It was at that point that I decided I was going to find out how to obtain the special bottles of wine that I wanted. Since that time I've gotten to know all the ways to obtain those bottles and, believe me, there is a lot of competition out in the wine-consuming world to get these bottles. For example, Screaming Eagle sells wines only to clients through their website, but when you visit the website there is only a waiting list to sign up on, with no guarantee that you will ever get a chance to buy one of the wines. Back in the 1990s, there were also a lot of laws that restricted access to these wines as well. Access and shipping laws have vastly improved since then to allow us to get these wines shipped right to our homes.

So here we are in the dog days of August, typically when I take a break from drinking wine or any liquor for a few weeks, and I thought that this subject might be interesting. Additionally, most wine shipments from Europe and the West Coast have been put on hold until the weather cools down (try to imagine that special case of wine you ordered sitting on a sunny dock in Marseilles or Sacramento in 90-degree weather for a week waiting on a container ship or truck while it turns into vinegar). There are a few categories of wine that require special ways of finding them, and I will go through them starting with the most prestigious wines.

If you are looking for a Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1966 (a particularly good vintage year in Bordeaux) to celebrate a 50th birthday say, this will be difficult on two levels. The first is rarity (a lot of this fine vintage has been drunk by now); the second is price (Lafite Rothschild is a very expensive wine as we will see). The first website I would search is winesearcher.com. Type in the name of the wine and year and voilà there it is. The average price for a bottle of 1966 Lafite Rothschild is $797 or you can buy a magnum for about $2,000. The site lists the source and contact; you have to arrange the sale yourself.

If you want to take a chance of getting a better price on older vintage wines try using a wine auction. All the major wine auction houses have an online presence. The one that I have used over the years dating back to the late 1980s is Hart Davis Hart in Chicago at hdwine.com. A recent auction conducted on May 13th and 14th featured a 1966 Chateau Latour that sold for $750 plus the auction fee. Shipping is extra unless you want to pick up the wine in Chicago at their 38th St. location. I have found that there is a lot of competition for the very top wines stored in impeccable conditions from high-end restaurants and very rich collectors. If you go a little downscale to some of the lesser growths of Bordeaux or Burgundy in that same HDH auction a bottle of first class growth just one step below a Lafite or Latour Premiere Growth sold for about $75. The idea of classified growths dates back to 1855 when there was an attempt to identify the best vineyards based on the price they commanded in the open market starting with Premiere growths then 1er cru, 2, 3, 4 and 5th cru. That classification holds mostly true today. The other strategy is to bid for prestigious wines produced in years or vintages that were not “outstanding” but just “good.” For example, in Bordeaux the 2003 and 2005 vintages were outstanding but 2004 was widely panned, even though the top wines of First and Second Growths vineyards were very good but will not age like the '03s and '05s. In that same recent auction, a bottle of 2004 Latour sold for just over $300 less than half of the cost of a bottle from the 2005 vintage. If you are a Francophile, HDH is the place to find some great bargains for age-worthy red wines. HDH holds wine auctions at least every quarter. You can bid for the wines you want online as well as attending the auction.

The other great places to look for special wines are online sellers. My two favorite online sellers are Binny's (binnys.com) in Chicago and K&L wines (klwines.com) in the San Francisco area. Binny's is a favorite of mine because I started shopping in their downtown Chicago location back in 1978 when I first got really interested in building a small wine cellar. At the time the store at 213 W. Grand Avenue was owned by Max “the Hat” Zimmerman who wore a Stetson hat in the store. Max taught me about Bordeaux and why it pays to age wines. Today Binny's owns the store along with a whole slew of stores in the Chicago area. They have a great selection of hard to find California and Oregon wines along with great French selections and their website is easy to use.

K&L Wines has been rated as one of the top online wine retailers by the Wall Street Journal, Food and Wine Magazine and Smart Money Magazine. K&L has an insider's connection to the wines of the West Coast including California, Oregon and Washington State. They publish a free quarterly newsletter that features different growing areas. K&L also has an auction site that will allow you to bid on those rare bottles for special occasions. If a particular wine is sold out, you can register to be alerted when the wine is once again in stock. Both K&L and Binny's also deal in grain spirits, so if you are trying to find that rare bottle of Scotch or American whiskey, these are great places to look.

Another way of locating great wines is to use wine importers websites. My favorite wine importer is Kermit Lynch (kermitlynch.com). Kermit's expertise is in small, relatively unknown, European producers that have high-quality standards. His expertise started in the vineyards of Burgundy. I use his website to source great Beaujolais and Rose as well as wines from the southern Rhone area. You can purchase wine directly from his website and you can use it as a guide to identify some of the best wines in the marketplace. When I'm shopping for wine I always look at the back label on the bottle to find out who the importer is. If I am looking at Austrian or German wines, I look for Terry Theise, whose selections are always outstanding. Both Terry and Kermit do extensive tastings at the vineyards in Europe. Their names on the back label indicate a very good wine.

Going directly to particular wineries websites also results in obtaining special low volume high demand wines. That will work well for US and Canadian wineries, not so much for overseas wineries. One of my favorite winery websites is the Tablas Creek Winery (tablascreek.com). Tablas Creek is a winery that was founded in 1990 as a joint venture between Jean-Pierre Perrin of Chateau Beaucastel and wine importer Robert Haas. This is my favorite wine website for several reasons. The first is that they produce some of the finest white and red Rhone varietal in the US including such rarities as Vermentino, Roussanne, Counoise and Tannat along with the standard Rhone varietals like Syrah and Mourvedre. I also like the fact that every spring they run a sale that includes free shipping. They also have some very good recipes designed to match the wines they make. And if you like to travel to wine country they have a hog roast every summer at the winery that sells out every year.

Finally, if you like bargains on great wine, get on the mailing list at the Waterford Wine Company in Milwaukee (waterfordwine.com). Founded in 2005 and run by the enigmatic wine geek Ben, they send out email blasts almost every week that offer fine wine from around the world at cut-rate prices. I recently bought a case of Bourgogne Blanc from the famous Puligny Montrachet producer Alain Chavy for $9.99 a bottle. Ben searches out wines that, due to market pressures, the owners are willing to negotiate a lower price to generate cash and get the wines off their books. If you are willing to be patient and flexible, you can score some very nice wine for a song. The store is on Brady Street in Milwaukee and you will have to drive down there to pick up your wine. (Not a bad place to be on Saturday afternoon!)

I think that I've given you a good start to finding those great bottles of wine and wish you happy hunting during the dog days of summer.

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