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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: “What’s a Good Bottle of Wine?”

A question that intrigues and beguiles the best of wine merchants, and anyone concerned with taste itself as a philosophic question, “What’s a good bottle of wine?” It’s a loaded question that often creates more questions than answers.

The most common time of year that I get this question is undoubtedly December when folk who often are not regular wine buyers are forced, usually by a friend or family member who doesn’t want the task, to purchase a bottle as a gift for someone else whose tastes they don’t know. Though it isn’t limited to the end of the year, it’s a perennial inquiry that must be answered carefully.

This isn’t a question about what is an objectively good bottle of wine, if such a thing exists, but perhaps what’s a good bottle of wine for right now. What’s a good bottle of wine for someone who only drinks California Cabernet? What’s a good bottle of wine to pair with a frittata? What’s a wine for dry rub pork ribs? What’s a good wine for someone who only drinks sweet Riesling? What’s a good wine for a housewarming gift? What’s a good bottle of wine for someone from Italy? What’s a good night wine?

The last one is a real question that I got once. I still ponder to this day the correct answer.

I recall in another life knowing a salesman at a store in Washington DC who thought he had a very good bottle of wine to sell. It was an almost 10 year old bottle of Bulgarian Pinot Noir that he had bought on closeout for about $3 a bottle (but was selling for about $15). He was prolific in describing the “forest floor, rich aromas of truffle, and deep complexity,” that this wine possessed while he was selling it.

No matter how good he claimed it to be, it didn’t change the fact that it was an oxidized turd. In this case it was a good bottle of wine, for his bottom line.

When I (and my compatriots here at the ol’ State Line) recommend wine, we aren’t necessarily trying to answer the objective question of what a good wine is, but often what we think is a good fit. Let’s be frank, we aren’t trying to make a quick buck on bad wine, we’re trying to get you to come back.

I’ve often likened my job to the music streaming service Pandora. For those who haven’t used it, you pick a musical artist and then they’ll choose another artist or song that matches your taste. Give their suggestion a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and do that enough times, and eventually they get pretty good at making recommendations.

Similarly, if someone asks me for a good bottle of wine and follows that up with, “I like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Albarino,” then what that tells me is that they’re fond of dry, unoaked whites, with moderate to higher levels of acidity, but with fruitier rather than savory flavors. Which means I would be comfortable recommending white wine from Bordeaux or Savoie, Spanish Verdejo, or Gruner Veltliner. If you tell me that you like Argentinian Malbec and Paso Robles Zinfandel, then I’m not likely to recommend the grape Grignolino from Italy’s Piedmont no matter how much I may like it.

I’d be happy to open a bottle of wine and debate until the juice is gone as to what is good in wine and what isn’t. But when you’re out in the world shopping for wine or choosing one at a restaurant, a dialogue with whoever is helping will almost certainly steer you in the right direction. Articulating what you like is as important as articulating what you don’t so that we can find a good wine for you.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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