By Emma Janzen, Imbibe Magazine
Despite what many people think, building a solid wine collection at home is an attainable—and affordable—goal. But because every palate and budget is different, the process isn’t as easy a ticking off a series of uniform boxes. Vanessa Conlin, head of wine for Wine Access, takes a more relaxed, personalized approach. Conlin joined Wine Access after working in New York City and Napa Valley doing wine buying and marketing, and she says the best way to create a wine collection at home is to broaden your scope. “Variety is an overarching theme,” she says. “You can be a collector but not every wine has to be expensive.” Here are her top tips for buying and collecting wine:
Find a Trusted Source
Think about how you like to shop. Do your prefer brick-and-mortar or online? For physical wine shops, Conlin suggests seeking out places that have a designated wine buyer—someone who’s tasting everything that comes through the door to vet for quality. “When you look at the big box chains, some of them buy purely on price in a lot of cases to make sure they’re always stocked. Sometimes they commit to wines before they’re even bottled,” she says. “It’s important to know there’s someone tasting the wines and choosing them because they’re a great bottle.” Ask the shop who selects their wines, and what kinds of wines are exciting them right now, Conlin advises. If they don’t have any suggestions, that might be a red flag. “Wine people are pretty passionate and geeky, so you can tell quickly whether or not they know what they’re talking about,” she says.
Conlin says the same applies to online retailers. Wine Access sells wines at every price point and taste everything before committing to carrying the bottle. “We’re not a clearing house for bottles that everyone needs to get rid of. We stake our reputation on the things we select,” she says, adding that shopping online can be helpful because of the abundance of information that often accompanies each bottle. “We write a lot about every wine, so if you’re just starting out, having the opportunity to get an in-depth story about who made it, where it was made, what the philosophy is, etc. can be helpful. It could be overwhelming because there are so many more ways to buy wine online, but there’s more opportunity to find something you like.”
Set a Budget
Nobody knows your financial situation better than yourself, so asking a wine professional what price range to set for your home collection can be an exercise in futility. “One person’s value wine is $10, and another person’s is $50. I used to work for a winery where our bottles cost $600, and when we started our second label, $150 was our budget wine,” says Conlin. “The better thing to keep in mind is to keep things under control and know your limits. There can be beautiful values for a fraction of the price that other people would find enjoyable if you know where to look.”
Look Off the Beaten Path
Thirty or so years ago, most winemakers would only work for a single winery, but these days there are so many more brands and wineries than there used to be, which means finding great bottles at reasonable prices from talented winemakers is easier than ever. “A lot of winemakers who make wines for their clients will have their own passion projects too, where they’re just making one barrel of something and they’re offering it under their own brand,” Conlin says. Seek out the winemaker behind your favorite high-end label to see what other projects they have in the works. “Some of these make multi-hundred-dollar wines, but they also offer affordable wines in the $40-50 range. That’s a great way to put together a collection on more of a budget because you’re still tasting wines from a great winemaker.”
Prepare for Anything
Consider a variety of styles you enjoy, at a variety of price points. That way, you’ll have a bottle for every occasion. “There are occasions you can plan for, but some of the best celebrations are the ones you didn’t plan, so you want to be able to pop a simple red open on Tuesday with pizza and it’ll be something you enjoy, but you also should have some [nicer or more expensive] bottles that you hold on to, so that when that graduation or anniversary comes up you’ll be ready with something special for that moment.” When you’re thinking of upcoming occasions, also think about bottle size. “750 mL bottles are the standard, but I think it’s great to also have half-bottles as well so you don’t have to worry about having to pour something out if you’re drinking by yourself,” Conlin says. “And magnums are so festive! You can have two bottles of wine with a table of friends, but a magnum makes any occasion feel like a party.”
Be Ready to Pour
Plenty of people will tell you that you need to have specific glassware to match your wine collection. Conlin doesn’t subscribe to the idea. “Riedel makes a different glass for every type of wine, and I know some people think that’s the coolest thing and glasses can accentuate certain styles of wine, but I have a universal glass and I drink everything out of it,” she says. “The most important thing isn’t what type of glass, but do you have enough glasses to have a party? You don’t want people drinking out of a coffee mug.”
And, Conlin says, be sure the glasses you have are cleaned properly. “Are your glasses clean and without scent? I don’t have a wine glass washer like a bar would; I hand-wash my glasses with a dedicated sponge and scent-free soap, because the last thing you want is a glass that’s been in your dishwasher with your greasy plates, or you wash it with your floral soap and then everything tastes like flowers. You want to experience the wine itself.”
Other essentials to have on hand? A simple weighted corkscrew with the double hinge so you can pull the cork up in two steps. Preferably, one with a good knife on it so you can get a clean cut on the foil. And if you’re aging wine, you’ll also need a decanter. “It doesn’t have to be a $1,000 crystal decanter, but if you have a wine that’s aged, you’ll want to decant it first,” says Conlin, noting that you should be storing bottles on their side, and pulling them out to stand upright for a day before opening so all the sediment settles at the bottom. “Traditionally, you’d light a candle under the neck of the decanter so as you see the sediment pouring into the decanter you stop pouring. You have a little wine left in the bottle, but it’s the part with all the sediment,” she adds.
Finally, Conlin suggests that if you’re storing wines, even if you’re going to drink them soon, try to avoid extreme temperature variations. “Wine doesn’t want to get cooked, or get frozen, or have fluctuations between those two things. A steady temperature is more important than what the actual temperature is,” she says. “In general, keep bottles on the cooler side and away from light and vibrations. The worst thing you can do is have a wine rack on top of your fridge because it can get really hot up there, it’s probably close to the lights and your fridge is vibrating. Also, don’t put the bottle by your stove where it’ll get hot.”