When I was a young man, I thought like a young man, acted like a young man and drank like a young man. Now that I have matured, I think, act and drink like a mature man (with apologies to the Bible verse from Corinthians 13:11).
What does a mature man drink? I must say it has been an evolutionary journey, from price-conscious wines to price/quality wines and now to higher quality wines that command commensurate prices.
It has been my experience that it is becoming increasingly difficult to satiate my appetite for finer wines, while adhering to my self-imposed budget. The first hurdle is the price/quality hurdle. Certainly we’ve all experienced a few of our favorite wines in the under $15 category. The price/quality ratio can be exceptional in this price range.
But if you’ve ever “upped your game” into the $15 to $20 range or ever “splurged” on a wine above $20, you’ve most likely experienced a greater price/quality ratio than your taste buds and palate have ever enjoyed. And if you’ve ever experienced a “higher-end” wine above $50, it’s difficult to revert to the wines that piqued your palate as a younger wine consumer, your wine spending budget notwithstanding.
Over the last few years I’ve embarked on a mission to find upper echelon wines that stand apart from the hundreds of brands available on the shelves of retail wine shops. My current effort is focused on California wines, which, in my opinion, is today’s hotbed of entrepreneurial experimentation. There is a cult of winemakers who are intent on producing wine as a fulfillment of their passion, with a genuine desire to introduce consumers to fine wines at (somewhat) reasonable prices.
So here’s the rub: How does one find and procure these gems?
California is dotted with the likes of wine lovers turned winemakers. A number have grape-stained hands from crafting their own wines while others have ink-stained hands from writing checks to purchase wineries and hire talented winemakers.
During my last two trips to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, I have been fortunate to locate passionate winemakers producing fine wines in near obscurity from the broad wine-consuming community.
Here are several means I’ve employed to seek out these winemakers.
- A deep dive into the Internet prior to my trip. I’ve found comments from fellow travelers, blogs from fellow wine writers and newsletters from professionals with far greater time and budgets than I. This investment in surfing has paid off many times. Several of my now-favorite wineries have come from unpeeling the layers upon layers of information and opinions deeply buried on the web.
- Engage a sommelier at a wine country restaurant. Who better to offer advice than someone who is tapped into local winemakers who frequent their dining room? He or she will gladly share a unique experience with you of a wine on their list, which may be an exclusive offering. A number of them have hidden gems in their cellar that may not be on the wine list.
- The concierge desk at wine country hotels and resorts. Small producers frequently offer these workers free tastings at their winery. For me, word of mouth is a powerful inducement coming from an exuberant concierge.
- Visit a tasting room. Fellow patrons frequently will share their adventures and discoveries when you join them at the tasting counter. Everyone likes to share a secret, especially wine country travelers.
- Specialty wine shops in wine country. Wooed by small producers, these shops can be instrumental in identifying and sponsoring a rising winemaker star.
Invariably these gems command premium prices. But the artisanal craftsmanship and small production are worthy of an investment.
Coming up, a few of my discoveries over the last few years.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.