By John Kerr
Common myths debunked so you drink better wine for less.
When the front door burst open, it was clear that our customer was angry. In his hand was an opened bottle of expensive, well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon. We knew the wine well, because we had recommended it to him three hours before. “This wine is bad. Just look at this cork!” On the bottle end of the cork was a cluster of deep purple crystals. After seeing the crystals, he didn’t want to risk ruining his dinner party or even trying the wine.
We exchanged his bottle for a Cabernet we were fairly sure had no crystals. Later that night, we served his Cab at our dinner and enjoyed one of the best bottles we’ve ever poured on a Tuesday night.
Yes, crystals on a cork can be alarming the first time you see them. Crystals indicate the wine is unfiltered, and unfortunately some of the unfiltered sediment can solidify at the end of the cork. But many wine lovers seek out these bottles knowing that crystals often mean a better tasting wine.
Sediment in wine doesn’t sound good, but it adds richness to the wine. My rough analogy is fresh squeezed orange juice. The pulp adds texture, increasing the complexity of the juice. Unfiltered wine isn’t actually chunky like that, of course, and you won’t really detect the sediment. But what you will detect is a beautifully rich texture. Unfiltered wine is only a problem when you hit the sediment in the last sip of the last glass of wine. So, pour these wines through a filter, or when you get to the last sip, grit your teeth.
Okay, we’ve debunked our first myth about crystals and bad wine. Now it’s time to move on to several others and set the record straight. The truth may not set you free, but more often than not it will help you drink a better wine or save you a few bucks along the way. So, let’s get back to the list. The bulk of our first article strives to guide you towards a well-priced wine and debunks sulfites. Articles to follow will strive to enlighten you about other common misconceptions.
The best prices are found in grocery or big box stores
What’s so hard about getting the best price? You just check the sticker on the bottle and look for sales. Besides, everyone knows that big stores and the Internet have the best prices.
Pricing is more complex than what meets the eye. If your goal is to get the best price, it requires more than a casual review of the multitude of pricing schemes out there. You are up against marketers who give the impression of low prices while actually keeping them a bit higher than they appear. How do they accomplish this paradox? They take into account human nature and rely upon the fact that many people don’t have the time to check. So frugal people, sharpen your pencils and pay attention.
Iconic brand: There are several global brands, and wine lovers tend to know their prices. One classic example is a famous champagne. Many stores keep this champagne’s price low all year long, but often drop the price even further around the holidays. Prices are so low that many stores make almost nothing or even take a loss on this item.
If one or more of the brands you know have a low price, you might reach the conclusion that all the store’s prices must be low. However, prices on wines less known to you generally include the usual mark up–or higher. Prices can vary as much as 30 percent among stores for less-known wines. If you’re looking for a great price on an iconic brand, shop around and stock up on the best price. But don’t think you’re necessarily getting the same deal if you buy a mixed case.
House brand: House brands somewhat parallel assumptions about iconic brands. If the house brands sell at a low price, then the prices on all their wines must be low. It’s worth checking around on their other wines if price is a prime consideration.
And depending on where you are on what you put into your body, you might want to look into your favorite house brand. This is a related price assumption that wine at all price points is essentially crushed, fermented grapes.
When prices are extremely low, much of what you pay for covers the price of the bottle, cap, label, and transportation. But since most people won’t buy an empty bottle, the producers must put something inside.
Low priced wines are often bulk juice enhanced by flavorings and other organic and synthetic chemicals. To be fair, several of these chemicals are sometimes found in higher priced wines as well. If you want to get an idea of what might be in your wine, search the Internet for wine additives or fining products, as well as lawsuits about wine.
Set prices versus case discounts: Some stores have a set price no matter how much wine you purchase. Others give a discount on six or 12 bottles of wine. If you buy more than one bottle at a time, you may lose by comparing only the prices on the stickers. In many cases, the volume discount at one shop will get you a lower price than the set price at another store.
You get your best prices during sales
Sales can be a powerful motivator. Who doesn’t love a bargain? You’ll see sales of 10 percent, 20 percent, or sometimes higher at several stores a couple of times a year. But the question you have to ask is, 20 percent of what? In extreme cases, we’ve seen the discount price at 20 percent off higher than the regular price at some shops. And that’s before the shop’s discount on cases.
The best prices are on the Internet
You will often see a great price on the Internet. But is it really lower than your local price? There are a couple of layers you’ll have to cut through to get to the answer.
My first suggestion is make sure you are comparing apples to apples. A fellow wine shop owner got a call from a customer asking him to confirm his price on a wine the shop owner had recommended. The shop owner found out later that the customer had compared his quote to the Internet price, and then purchased the wine on the Internet.
How did the customer end up paying more for the Internet wine? The customer got a quote based on one bottle at the shop. Had the customer asked for the wine’s price based on the number of bottles he was buying on the Internet, he would have found that the shop’s case discount price was lower than the Internet price. And that was before adding in the shipping costs.
Many people assume that the prices in New Jersey and other Internet hubs are lower than local prices. This is true for some wines because the importer is right down the New Jersey turnpike, removing the middle man and reducing transportation costs. But you can take advantage of this locally because there are several importers right here in North Carolina. The largest North Carolina importer is probably Eric Solomon, but there are at least two in Asheville: Robert Walter Selections and Harris Wine Imports. One of their wines sells for about $35 in Manhattan, but around $16 in Asheville.
So, compare prices on the same quantity ordered and don’t forget to incorporate sales taxes and shipping costs into the equation. And if there is a wine with a low price in New Jersey, you may find one you like better at an even lower price in North Carolina.
Sulfites are bad for you
The story of sulfites reminds me a little of P. T. Barnum’s venture with canned salmon. A canning factory was stuck with a large amount of unmarketable white salmon. Huckster Barnum stepped in and sold it all by touting, “guaranteed not to turn pink in the can.”
Eight decades later, Senator Strom Thurmond used the same trick. With great effort, this teetotaler pushed through legislation requiring a government warning on wine bottles, “Contains Sulfites.” The notice was done more to frighten than inform, and people have been wary ever since. Although many foods like shrimp, trail mix, frozen French fries, and salad bars have far more sulfites than wine, there are no required warnings on these products.
There is a small percentage of the population that is allergic to sulfites. But for the rest of us, a bad reaction is more likely to be something else, like overindulgence or histamines found in red wine skins. If you are still concerned about sulfites, it’s pretty easy to remove most of it from your wine. Sulfites are fairly volatile, and most of it evaporates when you pour your wine through an aerator or swirl your wine glass for a while.
is the co-owner of Metro Wines located on Charlotte Street in downtown Asheville.
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