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Stop Drinking $12 Wine. Here's How To Buy a Better Bottle

Men's Health logo Men's Health 6 days ago Sean Evans
a group of glass bottles on a table: Don't know how to buy wine? We asked Silver Oak's CEO David Duncan for his tips and tricks on how to buy wine that you'll really enjoy. © Sara Sanger Don't know how to buy wine? We asked Silver Oak's CEO David Duncan for his tips and tricks on how to buy wine that you'll really enjoy.

For most people, selecting a nice bottle of wine is a daunting proposition. With an overwhelming volume of options, be it at the liquor store or when pursuing a restaurant’s wine list, it can be really hard to know whether what’s in the bottle will be exactly what you were expecting. You don’t have to be a wine aficionado to be able to make a more informed decision, however. David Duncan, president and CEO of Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars, has decades of experience in his family vineyards and has some fantastic advice on how to select wine like a champion.

Trust Your Friends

There’s solid industry data a friend’s recommendation is the highest thing to trust. “If you’ve got a pal who said, ‘Hey i drank this and loved it,’ and then you see it, that’s something to act upon,” says Duncan. While a good fine wine shop can be helpful with suggestions, more often than not stores are trying to sell off inventory and that ulterior motive can sway their pushes. “You’re better to listen to a friend.”

Forget The Wine Score

“I’ve never been a fan of the 100 point score,” Duncan says. “It’s really 20 point score because nothing is ever awarded less than 80. You’ll see a 92-point $30 bottle and a 92-point $300 bottle. Are they equivalent in quality? Probably not. That score is often wrong.” Duncan points to some of his Silver Oaks 1998 vintage, which was largely panned by the scorekeepers. “Those bottles aged gracefully and they now drink beautifully. That score puts a permanence for a moment in time on a bottle that will evolve over time.”

a house with a mountain in the background: How To Buy Better Wine © Damion I. Hamilton How To Buy Better Wine

Skip Bottles Under $20

At that $20 and under price point, across any varietal but certainly for reds, you’re generally not drinking fine wine. “Buying a cabernet at the grocery store for $12 isn’t going to be great. Those are Frakenwines, doctored up from a bunch of different blends and they taste accordingly.” But don’t break out all the benjamins, either. “Above $250, you’re paying for a rarity, which doesn’t always account for quality. I won’t pay $400 for a bottle at a restaurant because I don’t want to do that,” Duncan laughs. “I’ll pay between $75 and $150 for a bottle of champagne or a really great varietal from an area I want to try.” Where’s the sweet spot for price? “Drink the most expensive bottle than you’re willing to afford. Anywhere between $50 and $200, you’re often getting what you pay for.”

Blindly Taste To Find Your Favorite Varietal

Completely new to wine? Grab price-equivalent bottles of the big five varietals-cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, and merlot-and do a blind tasting. “Open each bottle, pair it with some hard cheese, crackers and maybe some Italian meats, and see how the food is affected by the different wines. It’s a very instructive way to get started and to learn.”

a person holding a bottle and a glass of wine: How To Buy Better Wine © Damion I. Hamilton How To Buy Better Wine

Trust Your Palate

Especially for newer wine drinkers, you’ve got to have faith in yourself. “There are enormous resources on the Internet about aroma wheels and how to learn what strawberries smells like or cigar box or whatever descriptor, and so on. Geek out as you will, but know that it takes the average consumer a little time to start to enjoy what they’re tasting,” says Duncan. “Most people taste beer for the first time hate it because it’s bitter. Wine can be much the same.”

Is It “Yummy”?

When it comes to tasting, Duncan’s invented his own scoring system, based on the word “yummy.” “The ‘y’ stands for ‘why bother? This is flawed or just not for me and I don’t like it. ‘U’ is for ‘you may like it, but I don’t. This is when a friend recommends something and you don’t care for it. ‘M’ is for ‘yum.’ Now you’ve got a good, solid wine that you’d buy again. Add a second ‘m,’ and you’ve got something so good, you can’t wait to tell everyone about it. And finally, ‘yummy.’ This is a wine that absolutely knocks your socks off. You want to collect it and have in your cellar for years to come.”

Try Shopping The New World First

Wine can be loosely divided up into the new world (California, Oregon, etc) and the old world (France, Italy, etc). “I have a bias towards California and Oregon, where we have properties,” Duncan says, “But even beyond us, there’s so much exciting stuff happening on the West Coast. Pinots from Napa Valley are really great, especially anything from the 1982 vintage. The Russian River Valley in California is also fantastic.” If you do go Old World, you’ll have a lot to explore, since folks like the French have a serious time advantage for the likes of burgandy and bordeaux. “Don’t try to tackle the whole wine world; it’s just too much. Pick an area and explore that region.”

Buy Big. Literally

Large format bottles are great for holidays. “Big bottles, whether they’re magnums or three liters, age the wine more slowly, but they’re also great crowd pleasers. Ten people opening a magnum adds to the whole joy of the occasion,” says Duncan.

Stick With a Vintner You Trust

Whatever you buy, explore the rest of the label’s offerings. “Our winemaker does a fantastic job across the board, offering up a distinct expression from all of our vineyards,” says Duncan. “I love our 2016 Twomey Pinot Noir releases, our 2014 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon-just released a month ago-and our Twomey Sauvignon Blanc. That’s got an incredible value and we’re treated to more and more Indian summers, so you can drink white wine longer.”

Above All, Drink What You Like

“This is the most important thing: If you like something, drink the hell out of it. Enjoy it and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. If you’re a guy who likes sauvignon blanc on ice, you do you and relish that. And if ever you’re in a restaurant with a sommelier who tries to tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about and he or she does, stand your ground.”

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