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Savvy Wine Buyers 'Shop' Before They Buy

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Shop, shop, shop until you drop. That's my wine-buying advice for the upcoming stretch of weeks that will take you into the holidays.

There is a method to this madness, and it's not designed to blow up your credit cards or break your budget. Exactly the opposite, actually.

Consider this: Wine distributors have noticed that consumers are trading down on their wine purchases this year. They're buying just as much wine — in fact, there has been a slight uptick in sales — as they were before the recession, but they're spending less.

That's not to say we've become a nation of box-wine drinkers, though most everyone must admit boxed and jugged wines are better than ever. But that's not it. Nor have we averted our gaze away from the traditional precincts of fine wine, such as California's Napa Valley or Oregon's Willamette Valley.

What we are witnessing in this new era of fiscal restraint is the art of the deal. Behind the scenes, wineries and their distributors have been wheeling and dealing to unload expensive back inventory that piled up a year ago after the credit market meltdown.

More wine waits in the pipeline (basically new vintages ready to be released) and cash flow is critical because credit is still tight. That's causing prices to tumble as cash-strapped wineries and distributors lower prices to generate sales and stave off a reckoning with their bankers.

Not good for those in the wine biz, but a windfall for consumers. The trick is finding the deals. They are out there for those who would look. Savvy consumers know, for example, that even at $89 a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is a steal. That's because this wine routinely fetched in the neighborhood of $200 a bottle less than a year ago.

A friend sent me a text recently asking about Domaine Chandon's Etoile, a Napa Valley sparkling wine that generally goes for $40 a bottle. She had just purchased a case that worked out to $12.99 a bottle, and wanted to know if there was anything wrong with the wine that she should be aware of.

After getting a couple more texts about the same wine, I realized Chandon or its distributor had unloaded a bunch of Etoile at bargain prices, and retailers had generated a feeding frenzy by passing along the savings on a top-notch Napa Valley bubbly.

Just last week I got an e-mail from reader Don Wood, who found the Howell Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, another Napa Valley stalwart, on sale for $14.95. It's normally $60 a bottle.

"I tried a bottle, then bought two cases," he wrote. "When they ran out, I wished I'd bought more. I'm always interested in finding more great wines at reasonable prices."

While I don't believe there will be a huge escalation in prices around the holidays, I do believe the best time to buy is now, because it is old inventory that generally brings the steepest discounts. Wines that are taking up space in the warehouse have to be cleared out to make room for new stocks that have been timed to hit the market before Thanksgiving.

I can't tell you where to look, for this country is too big and every wine merchant applies his own unique markup after purchasing a wine wholesale.

But I will tell you to shop, shop, shop until you drop.

The deals are there. You just have to find them.

BEST BUY

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value. Prices are nationally suggested retail.

Clos du Bois 2006 Merlot, North Coast ($17) -- Within the realm of yummy red wines under $20, Clos du Bois has long been a key player. And they've always done a nice job with merlot, typically blending it with another red grape for added structure and complexity. In this case, it's malbec. This vintage is approachable now, exhibiting ripe plum and black cherry aromas, supple tannins, spice and a minty character that is possibly derived from the use of some American oak cooperage. Rating: 87.

Melini 2008 'Borghi d'Elsa' Chianti, Italy ($7) -- Basic Chianti seldom merits a strong "buy" recommendation. More specific appellation wines from within the Chianti zone -- such as Chianti Classico or Chianti Rufina -- tend to be more refined, and thus garner most of the critical acclaim, and deservedly so. But occasionally comes along a more generic Chianti that isn't thin and light; that could actually be compared favorably to its more expensive cousins. Melini's Borghi d'Elsa Chianti delivers simple but pure ripe red fruit, with good balance and palate weight, and notes of spice and earth on the back end. It's perfectly sensational with pasta dishes and antipasti. And it's really, really cheap! Rating: 85.

TASTING NOTES

En Route 2007 'Les Pommiers' Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($50) -- En Route is yet another coastal California pinot noir venture by an iconic Napa Valley winery. The group led by Dirk Hampson and Larry McGuire also owns Far Niente, Nickel & Nickel and Dolce. They are following in the footsteps of Duckhorn (Golden Eye) and Joseph Phelps (Freestone) by dipping their toes into the ever more dynamic world of California pinot noir.


En Route will focus on a number of Russian River Valley vineyards purchased by the partnership. The debut release of Les Pommiers is sourced primarily from their Manzana Vineyard in the very cool Green Valley sub-region of the Russian River Valley. (Note: The 2008 is a blend of several vineyards.) It is a classically big California pinot, meaning simply it is rich and dense on the palate, reflecting the California sunshine in the best possible way. Ripe raspberry and cherry are the dominant aromas, though there is a lovely touch of the earth, with an attractive floral backnote, hints of minerality and subtle leafy character. The tannins are smooth, allowing for a long, polished finish. As debuts go, this one's socko. Rating: 94.

Seven Hills 2007 Merlot, Columbia Valley ($22) -- Lovely balance and elegant palate weight are among the most attractive aspects of this 13.5 alcohol merlot from Washington's Columbia Valley, where merlot seems to thrive. What this wine lacks in power it makes up for in purity of fruit expression and food-friendliness. It shows pretty plum and red currant aromas, with hints of spice and firm acidity. Good value at or around $20 a bottle. Rating: 89.

To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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