The Boston Phoenix
March 16 - 23, 2000


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On the case

When should you buy more than one?

by David Marglin

Here at "Uncorked," our goal is to help you appreciate wine, and also to make that appreciation easier. So from time to time we try to help you with the practical but thorny problem of buying wine. This week our focus is on the tricky question of when you ought to buy wine by the case.

Most of us buy one bottle of wine at a time, maybe two. But if you drink wine regularly, there are serious advantages to buying a case of one wine -- a dozen bottles -- if your finances permit. The obvious reason is that you'll be sure to have a bottle of good wine, something you know you like, on hand when you need it. And in some indefinable way, a case of wine will usually make that wine more memorable, more yours. You'll get a chance to experience the way it develops over time. You'll probably end up giving a bottle or two to friends as a gift, turning your pals on to something you love.

Buying a case of wine makes financial sense as well. You always get a discount from your wineseller when you buy in quantity, usually 10 to 20 percent off the normal retail price. (You can also usually get the low end of that discount if you buy a "mixed case" -- 12 assorted bottles.) The question is, when and how do you decide to buy a case of one wine? There are three good reasons to do this:

1) You have tried the wine on a couple of occasions and have enjoyed it thoroughly each time;

2) You have reason to believe that the wine might be hard to find in a few weeks (or days, or hours . . . );

3) The price is right.

To elaborate:

1) Try, try again. Even with the discount, unless you're at the low end at Trader Joe's, you'll be spending more than $100 for a case of wine. Before I drop that much on one wine, I always want to be sure that the wine is consistently to my liking. My suggestion is to try a couple of bottles. Try it in different settings and with different friends, especially friends whose taste you trust. Solicit their opinions. If they like it too, then chances are it's a good bet. It's worth being careful about this, because if your first instincts turn out to be off, you'll be sitting on a bunch of wine you don't much care for. You'll feel guilty giving it away, and you'll have a hard time serving it without a forced smile.

2) Finders keepers. Wine is a hot commodity right now. Good wines always move off the shelves quickly, and lately, because people have money to spend, wine is being snapped up faster than ever. But not every wine will run out. Buena Vista's garden-variety 1997 zinfandel, for instance, is a well-made wine and a steal at the price (about $7.99 a bottle), but there was plenty made and it'll be on shelves for some time. By contrast, Eric Solomon imports a syrah from the Rhône called Domaine d'Andezon; when the 1998 comes out, you'll see it in a lot of places for around $10 a bottle -- but not for long.

This is where it pays to talk to your retailer. Find out how much of the wine was made, how many cases are in stock, and whether the store expects to sell out of it soon. If you're a customer serious enough to be buying by the case (and merchants truly love such customers), you'll get straight answers.

One thing to note: although there are no rules as to releases, lots of cabernets and zins get released in February, and lots of white wines such as chardonnay, pinot gris, and sauvignon blanc get released in early spring. If you are a white-wine fan, you may not want to wait until June to buy your case. If you love zinfandels, now is the time.

3) The price is right. By shopping around, you can usually get a sense of whether your favorite store marks up wines or gives you the cheapest price. The stores I frequent, which tend to have big selections and interesting wines (as well as interesting customers), are fairly consistent in price, and differ mainly in which wines they stock. Sometimes the price discrepancy between stores can be $3 to $5 a bottle, which will really add up when you're talking about a case. But chances are that the price difference between one store and the next will be no more than a buck or two per bottle. So the real question is less "Can I get this wine cheaper somewhere else?" than "Is this the best wine I can get for the price?"

Here's where you have to combine your own taste with your trust in your wineseller. Reliable wine folks will tell you when a bottle is a sweet deal. And you can compare other, similarly priced wines to ascertain whether the case in question will bring you more pleasure than a case of any of the other wines. If a $12 1997 Chianti is rocking your world, and you've tried it a couple of times, and you know that you usually have to spend $15 to get something that good, then buy a case of the Chianti. The "right" price means one that gets you a great wine, relative to other bottles you could purchase with the same money.

There is something very comforting about bringing home a case of wine. It means you value wine, you're saving money, and you've made a new friend -- one who will be with you long past the time when the last bottle is cracked open. When you find a wine that sings, that lingers, that tingles, and you like the price, and someone you have reason to trust says it might not be available for much longer, then it may well be time to get on the case.

I'm not going to offer specific recommendations this week -- after all, you wouldn't want to run out and buy a case of wine that I like. Your case will be better if it's about your own taste.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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