The subject of buying fine wine is a bit precarious because I have to make generalizations; otherwise I’d be writing a tome that would be obsolete by the end of each day. Here’s the problem for most of us:
Few retailers have a stock of older vintage wines so its not like we can just walk into our neighborhood liquor or wine store and ask for a ’61 Latour. Fortunately there are fine wine merchants around the country and because of the Internet, it’s much easier to locate what we’re looking for and have it shipped. But the caveat is that you must live in a state that allows wine to be shipped into it. If you live in a state with old archaic laws that don’t allow shipping of alcohol, there are creative ways to involve family or friends that reside in other states. And write your legislators. Seriously.
First, know what you want to buy, including the vintage, and very importantly, approximately when you want to drink it. Generally, a 1st Growth Bordeaux should not be drunk for at least 15 years. Other Classified Bordeaux may be consumed earlier, depending on the vintage but I do not recommend drinking any Classified Bordeaux upon release – it just needs bottle age to show you its magic – almost always at least five to eight years. And generally again, if you want to buy mature Bordeaux (ready to drink now), you will pay the highest amount for such a purchase. If you are willing to wait for the wine to reach maturity, you will often pay less. Also the provenance (where it came from, how it was stored, etc) of older wines is extremely important, as is the dealer, although I have found very few problems by buying on the Internet.
The point to always remember: if it seems too good to be true . . . Sometimes it’s possible to see lowball prices on Classified Bordeaux but the provenance may be questionable. If it came out of someone’s cellar post-Katrina or was left on a shipping dock somewhere to cook or freeze, the condition of the wine is going to be suspect. It is important to find retailers you trust and who will reasonably stand behind their sales. Always make sure if you’re buying fine wine from a retailer for the first time to call them to make sure a human answers the phone and adequately addresses your questions about the wine.
Also, the older the wine, the more important the issue of provenance becomes. Wines past the age of 15 are susceptible to possible cork failure issues; some sign of seepage is normal, leakage is not. Ullage (the fill level in the bottle) is another issue and experience is key to buying quality mature wines. Until you gather experience you may want to buy wines that are less than 15 years old unless someone you trust and is knowledgeable is guiding you.
1st Growths are almost always more expensive than other Classified Bordeaux (1st through 5th Growth are all considered Classified) but there are many other options available so don’t overlook them. 2nd through 5th Growth offer a number of alternatives that can get fairly close to the quality of a 1st Growth without having to cash in your 201K (could become a 101K).
Bordeaux that are drinking well right now are mostly coming from these vintages, with some exceptions to the rule:
1961 – but almost anything worth drinking from this vintage is very expensive and should be a 1st Growth – most other Classified Bordeaux are at risk of being faded by now – cork condition and ullage will be important, more so than with younger vintages
1982 – great year throughout the Bordeaux region
1988 – some estates produced outstanding wine this year
1989 – excellent vintage all around Bordeaux the region
1990 – generally, but not in every case, better than ’88 but not as good as ‘89
1995 – very good vintage
2000 – excellent vintage, most Classified Bordeaux are starting to drink well now but is mostly too young for 1st Growth, which needs until at least 2015
2003 – very good vintage but is mostly too young for 1st Growth and some 2nd Growth, however, many other Classified Bordeaux are starting to drink well now
If you have patience and good storage conditions these are great vintages that are generally not yet ready to drink and need to be laid down for some years to come. Again with a few exceptions to the rule:
2005 – great vintage but should be ready to drink by 2020
2009 – great vintage and many are approachable now but the best need 15 years or more of age
2010 – exceptionally great vintage, but the best will require patience to 2025 and beyond
If you are looking for great Bordeaux, I recommend avoiding generally, other vintages unless you have knowledge about a specific château in some ‘off year’ producing a great bottle, which indeed happens on more than one occasion. The upside is that less than great vintages typically have a big cost advantage over so-called ‘super’ vintages – just remember though, you often get what you pay for.
I do not recommend buying wine via auction, especially on wine auction websites, the exception being major wine auction houses (listed below). The questions of provenance and storage conditions are too difficult to answer buying auctioned bottles from unknown individuals. One of the most useful websites to find fine wine is at www.wine-searcher.com, which is free unless you choose to sign up for the pro version. Make sure you exclude auctions in the preferences, and it’s probably best to search in the US only unless you have a lot of wine buying experience.
Again, generally buying from the very least expensive retailer listed could be risky unless prices across most of the board are fairly uniform. Look at other prices and look for a retailer somewhere in the middle to lower-middle categories. Also refer to the list in this article and use those retailers as a benchmark – someone that is trusted and reliable. A few of those include:
Hart Davis Hart * – http://www.hdhwine.com/
Santa Rosa Fine Wine – http://santarosafinewine.com/
Flickinger Wines – http://www.flickingerwines.com
Zachys – http://zachys.com/
Sokolin – http://www.sokolin.com
* an excellent retailer and also a major and reputable fine wine auction house
WARNING – wine retailer, Premier Cru, of Berkley California was formerly listed as a reputable source on this site and has now been removed. It was revealed in October 2015 through a multi-million dollar lawsuit that the company was not delivering wines that it sold as being ‘pre-arrival’, along with some Bordeaux futures that allegedly remained undelivered to clients after a number of years. Do NOT buy wine from this retailer and remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Shipping adds to the cost of your purchase but if you’re buying great wine, you do not want to cut corners on shipping. In other words, don’t ship ground on your $500 bottle just to save $20. I ship expensive wines and old wines (which are always expensive) overnight and in Texas I only ship from November through March while also checking the forecast for the week. Less expensive wines or later vintages I will sometimes ship ground or second day if I know the weather will cooperate.
Be as certain as you can about the predicted weather conditions when your wine is enroute. A good rule of thumb is that temperatures should never peak over 70F degrees or dip below 40F or so. If weather is going beyond these temperatures in either direction, wait until conditions change and shipping your wine is safe. Because an adult signature is required in all states, it is possible to miss your driver’s delivery attempt and if your wine sits on a truck or in a warehouse during temperature extremes, damage can occur. If this happens, I do not know of any retailer that will replace the wine unless you have specifically instructed them to not ship until further notice and they have agreed to that. Nearly all Internet wine retailers are sensitive to this issue and pay close attention to your shipping instructions. Make sure you give them the proper instructions.