Updated: Jan 8
A typical wine drinker, I liked my glass of wine a few times a week, but kept my favorite wine club bottles for special occasions. So I made my monthly pilgrimage to my big box wine store of choice, armed with lists of best-buy wines, hoping to pull together a case of decent “everyday” wine for $15-$20 a bottle.
Then I met my future wife. She wasn’t a wine drinker, but saw that I loved wine. When she said she would join me for a glass, I bolted for the best bottle cooler to select something special. The next evening, she suggested we open another bottle. Without thinking, I grabbed a bottle from my everyday stash. She asked me why I wasn’t getting the wine from the same cooler. That’s where I keep my best bottles, I responded. This is my everyday wine supply. And that’s when she said it....
“Why do you ever drink anything but your best bottles? What’s the point of everyday wine?”
That was the day my wine world came crashing down around me, and started me on the journey to finding the best artisan wines at everyday wine prices. But before we dive into that, you might be asking why chase artisan wines. What’s the big deal?
Wine science these days is pretty amazing. They’ve figured out how to pump out massive volumes of decent tasting wines using low cost fruit, adjustments to sugar and acid, flavor additives and factory production techniques to cut time to bottle. Over 80% of all wines in the USA are sold at prices of $15 or less a bottle. Everyday wine at everyday prices. So what’s missing?
For me it was the wine experience. What put the wines in the “best bottles” cooler was the knowledge that I was going to taste something unique and authentic in every vintage, every varietal and every region. Differences that came from a myriad of choices made by the grower and winemaker together.
It’s like the difference between fast food and farm-to-table cuisine. Unfortunately, the difference in price was also similar. Maybe, I could find a way to change that. I set out to discover and buy amazing artisan wines at everyday prices, and along the path I learned these 5 secrets.
#1 The Best Wines Are The Ones You Like
We're a "best of" culture. We search for the best movies, the best cars, the best insurance. We buy the stuff on Amazon with the most 5 star ratings. It’s the safe choice, right?
Wine’s not like that. But here’s the most important part. Nobody can tell you what wine tastes good to you. We all see colors slightly differently, perceive aromas slightly differently, experience flavors differently. How could we all possibly like the same wines?
And by the way, there’s no wine hierarchy. Every artisan wine is a passion project. The lesson here is drink the wines you like, not the wine someone else likes. Go with what tastes good to you. Learn to understand the things about a wine that you like. That way, you'll be able to find wines with those characteristics consistently. Whatever the wine.
#2 Taste With Your Mind, Let The Palate Follow
People say that wine tasting can be intimidating. Let me repeat this for those in the back, there isn’t a “right” answer for wine tasting. Don’t be intimidated by complex descriptions of wines with aromas that you can’t even begin to imagine. You don’t need to know that stuff to find wines that you love.
A friend's mom used to say, “when you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s harder to find it.” When tasting, lead with your mind and let the nose and palate follow.
I’ve put together key wine tasting hacks that I’ll be sharing with you. You'll learn how temperature shapes wine, the code words wine critics use, how oak aging impacts wine flavors, how to distinguish acid and tannin and much more. With these hacks, you'll quickly learn to identify what you're tasting and translate that into what you like and don't like.
#3 It's A Journey, Not A Destination
There are over 11,000 artisan winemakers in the USA alone, making wines with over 35 common varieties of wine grapes. When you multiply thousands of winemakers, by hundreds of unique wine regions, by tens of types of grapes, by a myriad of styles and winemaking processes you get a whole honking lot of wines to try. The third secret I learned along the journey was to experiment with different styles and regions. It’s not about working your way through them all to arrive at a single perfect wine, it’s about creating your own trail map.
What varietals do you like, and what characteristics do they share? Those clues will lead you to other varietal wines with similar profiles.
How do wine varieties that you like taste when they are from different regions?
That helps you with another important qualifier to easily find wines you love. Regional influences shape the style of wines across varietals. Experimenting is like a real-life game of Clue, only the topic is much tastier and more pleasant.
#4 Points Have No Flavor
Robert Parker revolutionized the wine industry with his points-based approach to wine evaluation. But it doesn’t matter how many points a wine has if you don’t like that type or style of wine. To understand this better, I went through a certification with WSET, one of two major wine credentialing organizations. They promote a systematic approach to rating wines which is comparable to most magazine points ranges.
Now the interesting part is what is being rated. While the WSET covers all aspects of the wine from appearance through aromas, flavors, taste and finish, the real measurement relates to the wine’s quality. And that is condensed into 4 primary areas: balance, length of finish, Intensity and complexity.
When a wine is judged to be outstanding, it does extremely well in all four areas, but that gives you practically no information about whether the taste will be appealing to you. So take those points scores as an indicator that it is a well made wine. But the most important aspects to know will be the indicators of taste like, the varietal, region and style and the winemaking process.
#5 Go Winery Direct, The System Is Rigged
Then I began to dig into the wine distribution system. It turns out that in the USA a dozen mega-brands supply over 70% of all wines sold. These uber consolidators buy a couple premium labels to secure placement and then fill the shelves with mass-produced factory wines.
This is matched up with the same on the distribution side, with 3 gigantic wholesalers controlling over 50% of all wine distribution. And I get it. There are a lot of shelves to fill, and placing wines produced in the 100,000s of cases is a whole lot faster than chasing down 1000s of artisan wineries for 100s of cases of wine.
That is too bad for wine lovers everywhere, because there has been a tremendous surge in the number of small wineries. And over 80% make less than 5000 cases of wine annually.
Usually, these small producers are unlikely to get much attention from wholesalers. So we’re just not getting access to these great wines.
Then there’s just the basic costs of the wine to consider. That $15 everyday bottle, after retail and distribution uplift, leaves around $3–$5 dollars for the producer. Those are economics that just crush the small, artisan winemakers. Let’s build that bottle of artisan wine. The average price of premium fruit from Sonoma or Napa tops $5 a bottle. Then add in $1-$2 per bottle for oak aging and $2-$3 bottling costs, plus operations, and the math just doesn’t work. When you talk to most artisan winemakers you understand that they are pursuing a passion, not riches. But you’ve gotta eat too.
Going Winery Direct Is Getting Easier The good news for wine lovers is that we already have several online alternatives to buying retail everyday wine. From wine clubs to daily deal wine sites to curated wine packs to sites gamifying wine buying with promises of upgraded bottles, there is a lot to choose from already. Most of these sites offer pretty good discounts on premium wines. The direct to consumer aspect of the internet is already offering some incredible deals. During 2021, a few wine lovers and I in Sonoma tried an experiment. We reached out to several artisan wineries we have been helping with e-commerce projects to offer group buying discounts of up to 70% on partial and full cases of their limited release wines. We set up an e-commerce site that allowed people to group buy - basically do a virtual split - on cases of the wines. We’re convinced that the internet plus sharing economy concepts can connect wine lovers directly with small, artisan wineries. And by skipping traditional distribution, pass some eye-popping discounts on to the consumer. It was a fun project that proved several things. First, by going direct to the wineries we could provide unique, premium artisan wines at $15-$20 a bottle in partial and full case volumes. Second, if we could get enough wine lovers together, there were many artisan wineries ready to participate. Finally, we could build the tech to allow people to easily split cases and get case discounts at less than case volumes. The key to making this work at scale will be creating a substantial buying group. We've gone back to enhance the shared shopping cart with feedback from our experience, and we're building out a community of wine lovers that would be interested in this new approach to finding the better than everyday wine alternative. Hopefully, you'll join our newsletter list and our community. In the meanwhile, I'll be sharing the deals that I find and highlighting great artisan winemakers worth checking out. I'll be sending regular newsletters with this information every couple weeks. I'll also be sending you 5 flights of wine tasting hacks. One hack per flight, that will help you more easily discover artisan wines that you'll like and make it easier to buy wines online. I look forward to discovering great wines together, and someday soon, to launching our own site to connect directly with the hundreds of amazing artisan winemakers we have relationships with across California, Oregon and Washington. Cheers!