What do wine writers buy when they’re not drinking for free?

If you gave a party over the holidays, you probably got a lot of wine as host gifts.  We did too.  We love it when people want to share something they like with us.  It gives us a chance to try wines that aren’t from first vine, which we don’t do very often.

Our tree doesn’t look quite like this one, although we always have a lot of wine bottles underneath it.

The bottle bags under our Christmas tree reminded me that people in the wine business get a lot of free wine.  There are bottles to review, samples for potential purchase, and invitations to tastings (almost always with accompanying gift bags of wine).  It’s like Christmas several times a year.

Even when they’re consuming wine for business reasons.  Wine writers often receive two bottles of each wine for review because one might be less than perfect.  So while they take the tasting seriously and try the wine in various ways, more often than not they have a bottle left over to drink another time.  The same with samples for potential purchase – producers and distributors nearly always send at least two bottles of each.

Still, people in the wine biz have to buy wine sometimes, both for themselves and to give as gifts.  Which made me wonder, what do they buy when they’re actually buying wine, as opposed to drinking it for free?

I know a few wine writers and met a bunch more this summer at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference.  So I sent e-mails asking some of them.  The responses were fun to read, and reminded me why I like their blogs so much.  I learned a lot, too.  So this week’s post is a roundup of their recommendations.  I think you’ll enjoy it – after all, you can’t buy first vine wines all the time (well, you can, but we appreciate that you need to try other wines to remind yourself how much you like ours 😉 ).

Curse you, Jon, for making me even THINK about going in here…it would totally kill my urbanite reputation!

Jon Thorsen’s Reverse Wine Snob blog states up front that wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.  He doesn’t review anything that costs over $20, except for an occasional splurge.  While he started out buying the wines he reviews and still buys many of them, the success of his blog has led to his getting a lot of wine samples (no complaints there).  No matter how he gets the wine the process is the same, trying the wine over a couple of days with and without food.  Each post is short and to the point (something I clearly haven’t mastered.)  Jon sent me three quick picks for gifts he’s giving these days:  Altovidium Catalayud Evodia Garnacha from Spain, and two from Argentina –Famiglia Meschini Premium Malbec-Syrah, and Kirkland Signature Malbec.  All of them scored a taste rating of at least 8 out of 10, and they cost less than $10 a bottle, which sounds like they’re worth trying without hesitation.  These wines might just force me to get in the car and drive to Costco, something I never do.

Tom Wark is Executive Director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, which is how I first had contact with him.  He describes Fermentation as “a blog set inside the world of wine public relations – where the media, culture, and I mingle.”  I read Fermentation every day and wish I had Tom’s knowledge and writing ability.  While he doesn’t review wine, he has plenty of opportunities to taste it.  When he buys wine, he wants “something I’ve not tried before or something interesting.”  Among these:  Bordeaux from years the critics say aren’t the best, Australian “Stickies” (sweet dessert wines), Austrian Grüner Veltlingers, and California Pinot Noirs from colder climates.  I think the range of choices is pretty cool.  Even “bad” Bordeaux is still interesting wine, and nothing says summer in a glass to me like Grüner Veltlinger.  I haven’t tried any of the stickies yet, but I used to love northern CA Pinots – something I’ve gotten away from drinking since starting first vine.  I think it’s time to try them again.

Joe Roberts’s 1 Wine Dude is a go-to site for learning about wine, wine reviews, and great discussion.  The reader comments are as entertaining and thought-provoking as the posts, and a tribute to how well-respected he is.  He had a simple answer to my question:  “When I buy, I usually go for good Mosel Riesling.  It’s not inexpensive, but it can be some of the best, most beguiling and longest-lived wine on the planet.”  I agree.  When I was a kid, my Dad did a lot of work in Germany and when he’d buy wine for us to drink, he’d get mostly German wine, primarily from what was then called Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.  So at a young age I was exposed to wine with unpronounceable names (definitely not the names of the grapes) and that had specific terminology on the label to tell you the quality level.  No wonder I don’t have any problem with the French AOC designations!  I really liked them then, and I still like them today.  We didn’t buy the great Mosel Rieslings when I was young, but I love them when I drink them – they’re considered to be some of Germany’s finest wines and can age for 50 years or more.

Don’t just wander around in a daze — bring a list of some of these recommendations!

Now for two bloggers I know personally and who wrote longer replies:  David White, who writes Terroirist, and Derek Swanson, who writes Weekly Wine Pick.  Terroirist is a daily wine news roundup, and also has occasional thought pieces on wine (some of which David syndicates to other publications).  Terroirist has weekly interviews with wine makers and others in the wine business (including me), and reviews of what the Terroirist team has been drinking lately.   (Amazingly, David also has a day job.)  In his reply to my e-mail, he admitted that he buys way too much wine.  But when he goes out to a local wine shop to buy wine for himself, “I’ll likely be buying one of two things.  1) If it’s to pair with food, I’ll probably pick up a cool-climate Syrah or Pinot from California.  2) If it’s to drink for the sake of geekery, I’ll look for something that’ll surprise my palate — and looking to the wine shop staff for advice. Maybe a Fruilian white wine, maybe an old Bordeaux from a no-name producer, maybe something completely esoteric.”   U.S.-made cool-climate Syrahs are interesting wines.  When a producer calls the wine Syrah instead of Shiraz, I find it generally means that the winemaker is trying to make a wine that’s more European in style, rather than bigger, fruitier wines from Australia and other warmer climates.  But the end result is usually a hybrid of the two, and it’s fascinating to try the different ones.

Derek started Weekly Wine Pick with a premise similar to this post:  asking someone in the wine business for a wine recommendation each week.  Over time, it evolved into more, and now includes restaurant reviews, event listings, general wine reviews, and lots of other content.   “I find great value in Syrah-based wines from all over.  The Rhône of course is prime, but there are some sweet single-vineyard values out there from south of Napa and Washington State.  I’ve also been really keen on Marsanne and Roussane blends from places like Paso Robles.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend Cru Beaujolais.  Lots of character in those wines for a few dollars more than most entry-level French wines.”  I really enjoy the nuttiness and spiciness of Marsanne and Roussanne too, they add a lot to white wine blends.  And the non-nouveau Beaujolais wines are finally beginning to catch on here in the U.S.  I think maybe that didn’t happen sooner because too many people unwittingly drank “old” Beaujolais Nouveau, the wine that’s meant to be consumed shortly after bottling and not for very long after that.  But Beaujolais produces wines that are meant to age, too, and they’re delicious.  And pretty inexpensive, too, at least for now.

David and Derek shared a couple of other hints as well.  David suggested that once you’ve found a wine from a producer you like, you should consider buying other wines from that producer and buy across years too.  Getting to know particular wineries and winemakers can provide hours of enjoyment, and once you’ve been buying you’ll get the opportunity to try the really good stuff they make (the stuff they save for their repeat customers and put aside for themselves).  David’s favorites include Peay Vineyards, Failla, Copain, Rivers-Marie, Rudius, Williams Selyem, Kutch, Rhys, Myriad, and Outpost.   No wonder he says he buys too much wine!

Derek told me that he’s always trying to learn more about wine, and that the wide range of selection in the marketplace today makes it easy to try a lot of new things.  The trick (other than finding time to drink it all) is not spending too much money.  “I’ve become a big fan of online auctions.  Winebid.com and Acker are two of my favorites.  The auctions allow me to create ‘watch lists’ of wines I think I might like, and gives me the time to research price and vintage info on other websites.  Winebid.com is really user friendly, and they refresh their offerings weekly.  They do a nice job of offering pictures of the actual bottles for sale too.  The monthly Acker auction requires a bit more knowledge, as it is displayed in a list format.  I’ve gotten some killer deals on both sites.”  Tom Wark also mentioned using wine auctions as a way to find older wines that might not be available in your local wine shop.   I haven’t tried them yet myself, but it sounds like fun.

If you followed this sign and bought any in 2010 and still have it, throw it away now!

Lots of things to try.  Check out the bottles you got over the holidays (or any others you have) and see if there any of the wines suggested here, or take a list of any that sound interesting to your local wine shop and get some recommendations in your price range.  Let me know what you think about the things you try, too.  And if you have any Beaujolais Nouveau from 2010 lying around, throw it away now!


We finally had a blast of cold, and it got me thinking about winter soups, which are usually rich and satisfying.  But it’s January, which also makes me think about eating better.  After all, we want to impress all those people we’re suddenly seeing at the gym for the first time, right?  So I took a look at my old recipe file for ways to make some of my favorite soups a little lighter.   This week’s recipe for Barley, Corn, and Kale Soup fits the bill.  My original recipe had diced ham in it, but I found I could caramelize some onion and get just as much flavor.  Keeping the barley cooking liquid for the soup makes it thicker too.

Caramelizing the onion takes time, but the barley has to cook for 45 minutes or so anyway, so you’ll have the time to do it.  You can use chicken or vegetable stock, just make sure you like the taste of whichever one you’re using.  When I first started making this soup, it would take me an hour just to get the kale ready – washing it, removing the big stems, and cutting it up.  But these days you can find packages of pre-washed, cut kale in the supermarket, so it’s a snap to get this together.  You probably won’t use all of the kale in a package for the soup, but it keeps well in the fridge and you can cook the rest of it up with a little garlic as a side dish for another meal.

Serve a light-bodied red or a sturdy white wine with the soup, depending on what you like.  If you’re not using a holiday gift wine, try Cave la Vinsobraise Ambre ($12) a blend of Grenache and Syrah, or Domaine Chaume Arnaud La Cadène White ($20), a blend of Viognier and Marsanne.   I’d recommend serving both, but we have to have a little moderation somewhere!

Bon Appetit!


Barley, Corn, and Kale Soup

Serves 6-8

1 cup pearl barley

2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth or stock

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, diced (divided use)

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 10-12 ounce package frozen corn kernels

1 lb washed and cut up fresh kale

1-2 tablespoons soy sauce

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

Bring 2 cups of broth and 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan, add the barley and a half-teaspoon of salt.  Turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer the barley until just tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a soup pot (preferably nonstick).  Add one of the diced onions with a half-teaspoon of salt and some pepper.  Stir well, then turn the heat to low and put the lid on the pot.  Cook slowly for 15 minutes.  Then uncover the pot and continue to cook the onions, stirring occasionally, for another 20 minutes or so.  They should be lovely and brown.  Add the other diced onion and cook for another 5 minutes (add a little more olive oil if you need it), then add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more.  Pour about 2 cups of the broth into the pot and scrape up the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to remove any browned bits.

Add the cooked barley plus its cooking liquid to the soup pot, along with the corn and a tablespoon of soy sauce.  Then add the rest of the broth.  Simmer until the corn is thawed out, then add the kale, a couple of handfuls at a time, and stirring until each addition wilts down.  Cook for 15 minutes.  Add some water if the soup looks too thick – although the kale should let out enough liquid to keep it from getting pasty.  Taste the soup and add another tablespoon of soy sauce if you like, along with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot.

This entry was posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, wine delivery washington dc, Wine reviews, Wine Writer Wine Recommendations, Wine writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What do wine writers buy when they’re not drinking for free?

  1. Pingback: Terroirist » Daily Wine News: Buy Rhône!

  2. Joe Roberts says:

    Great list – thanks for the mention!

  3. I love the ‘behind the scenes’ peek into the wine writers personal wine selections. A great list of writers & wines.

    PS Caramelizing onions takes forever, I do a big batch and freeze it in smaller portions. I always have some on hand.

    • firstvine says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you like the post! You’re right, caramelizing onions does take forever. A big batch and freezing the onions is a great idea, particularly for slow-cooker recipes (I hate doing a lot of prep for those).

  4. kahunter says:

    Great piece! That little Evodia Grenache is killer for the price, and I agree with Joe about Mosel Rieslings. German riesling continues to be one of the most undervalued wines in the marketplace today, especially given how great a value it can be and its sheer ageing potential. Wish someone would come up with a marketing campaign along the lines of “Riesling: It Goes With Dinner” or “Think outside the Nun: Riesling”

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