How to pick better wine—better
A buying guide for the liquor store and restaurant
Beaujolais at Ranch Acres Wine & Spirits, 3324 E. 31st St.
Thousands of different grapes are used to make wine in hundreds of countries around the world. I work in a wine shop, and it’s my mission to help people find better wine for a good price. It’s hard work to develop a deep knowledge of wine and to be able to walk into a store or a restaurant, know what you’re looking at, and what to choose. But I’ve got some hot tips for you.
First, let’s talk about grapes. When I think about what kind of wine I drink, I always think about agriculture. In winemaking, the grapes don’t get washed before they get pressed into juice, so if vineyards get sprayed with Roundup, you better believe there’s some Roundup in those wines. Sulfites in wine get blamed for allergic reactions, but only an extremely small fraction of the population has a sulfite sensitivity—pesticides are probably the problem if wine makes your nose stuffy and your throat scratchy.
1) Drink grapes you have never heard of from regions you didn’t realize made wine.
Blaufränkisch, Saperavi, and Agiorgitiko. What do these three words have in common? They’re all grapes, and excellent wines from these grapes can be found (maybe not in Tulsa, unfortunately) for around $25. The biggest reason: supply and demand. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and some others are in high demand, but lesser-known grapes are often cheaper and offer better quality per dollar than those with household names.
Also try wines from countries you don’t think of as winemaking hubs, like Hungary, the Czech Republic, or even Mexico.
2) Pay attention to the back labels.
The way wine makes it into the U.S. is complex, and many different companies import wines. When I started getting interested in wine, I noticed I was more likely to enjoy wines from certain importers. Every importer’s portfolio tells a story about their taste and focus. I tend to drink wines from importers who focus on clean, pesticide-free farming and have plenty of wines from somewhat weird regions. Some of my favorite importers available in Oklahoma include Grand Cru, Skurnik (and their Terry Thiese portfolio), Jenny & Francois, Martine’s, and T. Edward. All these folks have stellar and smart wine collections. Look for their logo on the backs of the bottles.
3) Talk to clerks.
I’ve learned the most by asking people who know more than I do open-ended questions. There are some excellent shops run by excellent people in Tulsa. The two wine buyers at the original Parkhill’s Warehouse Liquors & Wine (2432 E. 51st St.) are Dave and Milton. Their knowledge is deep and their taste excellent. Between them, these guys seem to have tasted at least 98% of the wines they carry (which is rare in the constantly changing wine world). Steve at Old Village Wine & Spirits (1327 E. 41st St.) is knowledgeable and brings in surprising products. And then there’s Emily at Ranch Acres Wine & Spirits (3324 E. 31st St.), who seems infinitely curious and, in addition to possessing a badass knowledge of wine, knows lots about beer, too. Talking to these folks about what they like to drink or what they’ve been surprised by recently is a good way to start expanding your tastes and having more confidence in the wines you buy.
4) Spend a couple more (or fewer) dollars more wisely.
This seems kind of obvious, but it’s more complicated than that. My sweet spot for really good wine is $17–$40. If a wine costs more than $40, it’s worth it if it’s Champagne, if you intend to age it and you’ve selected an age-worthy wine (maybe with the help of a knowledgeable clerk), or if you’re buying that particular wine for a very specific reason and know exactly what you’re getting because you’ve done your homework. Otherwise, you should never feel like you need to spend more than $40 on a bottle of wine.
The $17 mark might sound random, but it’s what I’ve settled on after working in wine for a while. I’ve found that wines that are grown organically and hand-harvested (no birds or squirrels crushed in the making of the wine; also, better quality fruit because humans are smarter than machines … for now) almost don’t exist below that price point. There are rare exceptions, both above and below. Below $17 there are some whites from the Loire Valley (hello, Muscadet!), occasionally some decent Riojas and other Spanish wines, good Beaujolais, and solid Italian wines from all over, among others. California is a bad place to look for wine that is well-made and cheap—sad but true. There are rare exceptions, like the wines that Kenny Litiprakong makes under his labels Folk Machine and Hobo.
Ultimately, you should drink what you like, but it never hurts to learn more about your options.