Fifteen Buck Barolo

By Craig Camp
Tuesday, February 3, 2004

LAST NIGHT while at a friend's house for dinner our host pulled out a bottle of 1998 Barolo. While this normally would bring with it a sense of anticipation, the bottle in question only engendered suspicion. I had seen this label before on sale at the local grocery store at prices well below the going rate even for even average-quality Barolo. Sure enough, the wine was a thin parody of what Barolo should be. The same thing happened in the USA a few months earlier when another friend served a washed-out Barolo purchased at discount prices at Trader Joe's. Both of these wines sold for under fifteen bucks and proved the P.T. Barnum theory of sales: "There's a sucker born every minute."

You can't make cheap Barolo that tastes like Barolo.

Everybody wants something for nothing. However, the reality of the situation is that more often than not you get what you pay for. Selling poor quality wines with famous names is big business and buying these wines is certainly the worst wine value in the market today. It's a little like buying a Kia with all the nameplates changed to Mercedes: now it has the name you want, but it just doesn't go down the road with the same feeling. Cheap Barolo doesn't go down very well either. A famous name is not enough.

If you want a Mercedes you have to pay for it and it can be argued you get great value for your money. The same with wine: if you want both greatness and a famous name you have to pay. However, the winemaking world has changed dramatically in the last decades and advances in winemaking and vineyard techniques has created an explosion of wines offering outstanding quality and a distinct personality that are cursed with a name almost no one has heard of outside his own region.

At last night's dinner a $10 Nergroamaro from Puglia was also served, and at the end of the evening the Barolo was only half-empty while every drop was drained from the Negroamaro bottle. The palates had voted and Puglia had won. If you want real value for your money you have to do your homework and you often have to go outside the famous place-names and varietals for excellent wines that are good values.

The expansion of varietal instead of geographical wine labeling, powered by the commercial successes of New World winemakers, has created new and broader categories of over-priced wines that span regional and international borders. Merlot and Chardonnay lead the worst-value wines-without-borders category. With few exceptions you have to spend some serious money to get really interesting examples of these varietals. The store shelves are filled with bland, oaky examples of Chardonnay and Merlot selling for $20 or more, and the under $20 slots are mostly made up of commercial grade, fruity-sweet wine of indeterminate varietal character. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule as, for example, the many fine chardonnay wines from the Macon region of France, but these wines are most decidedly exceptions in the sea of mediocre and, all too often, expensive chardonnay and it is worth pointing out that most do not even carry the name chardonnay on their label.

If you want to buy a California white wine and have $20 to spend are you better off buying a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay if both go with your menu? For my money, you have to go with the Sauvignon Blanc because for your $20 you get a top-of-the-line wines in the cheaper Sauvignon Blanc category instead of a "budget priced" Chardonnay. Yes, $20 is budget priced for Chardonnay these days in California.

There is no denying the excitement and pleasure of great bottles from famous vines and vineyards -- and they are something that every wine lover should experience -- but don't expect to taste their wonders without straining your budget. However, instead of straining your budget I would recommend straining your eyes instead. A little time invested in research can fill your wine cellar with extraordinary bottles that don't require you to fight over allocations or sleep out by the mailbox so you can get your copy of the The Wine Advocate first and beat your buddies in the wine club to the store.

How do you find these wines? First of all you have to open your mind and palate to new grapes and place names, and second, you have to find a good wine merchant. If you walk into a store packed with promotional material touting the latest Parker or Wine Spectator scores you are probably in the wrong place. You have to find a wine shop with a buyer whose passion and curiosity matches yours. A place like this:

A customer walks into a wine shop on a slow day. There is not another customer in sight. The customer says, "I have a special occasion coming up and my wife and I want a really special bottle of wine, something old from a great vintage. I was thinking of a top Bordeaux like Latour or Lafite, because we have never had one. I think we are willing to spend three of four hundred dollars a bottle." Now here's the funny part. The shop owner actually talks the guy out of dropping that much money and convinces the guy to try a bottle that doesn't cost of third of what the guy was willing to spend. "After talking to him about what he liked and disliked and what he had enjoyed before I just thought he would be disappointed in an old wine," said Howard Silverman. "He was looking for drama and excitement that would match the occasion, so I recommended he experiment on a less important day."

How does a guy like that stay in business? This is not a fairly tale, and merchants like this do stay in business. In fact this store owner, Howard Silverman, has stayed in the fine wine business for over thirty-four years even though he has only just hit 50 years of age. In 1997 Silverman opened Howard's Wine Cellar on Belmont Avenue in Chicago after a career that started as a teenager in his father's wine shop, followed by over fifteen years as Wine Director at Sam's Wine Warehouse. Silverman's father was the legendary Leo Silverman who started the transition of Sam's, with owner Fred Rosen, from a corner liquor store and bar into what it is today: one of the largest wine stores in the world.

Every inch, top to bottom, of his small shop is packed with wine. "It is a little overwhelming for many people because they have never seen these labels before, normally people will pick up the first thing they recognize, but here they don't recognize anything," said Silverman with a smile. "Everything is here because I like it and I will not buy a bad wine no matter how good the reviews are."

"I buy what I like, not what I need. After all of these years I can judge intelligently enough to taste every category -- even those that are not my personal favorites. With only 1000 square feet it takes a special wine to get in," says Silverman.

Like small wineries, emerging wine regions, and unknown varietals small wine shops are under attack from the continuing consolidation of the wine business into the hands of fewer and fewer producers, distributors, and retailers. You may find super-low prices on some famous names at Costco and Trader Joe's, but you will not find thin, bitter Barolos no matter how cheap they are at wine shops like those run by Howard and hundreds of others like him to whom the title of wine merchant means responsibility to the client first and the accountant second. You may pay a bit more sometimes, but in the long-run you will save money and broaden your experience with these small shops. Personal service and knowledge are worth an investment.

When a deal seems too good to be true it usually is.

Some of Howard's current favorites:

-1999 Finca Allende, Calvario, Rioja, Single Vineyard Estate Bottled $46 from vines planted in 1945

-2000 Don Antonio, Nero d'Avola, Morgante $28

-2001 Castle Rock Carneros Pinot Noir $10

-2001 Cimicky Trumps Shiraz, Barossa Valley $14.50

-N/V Gruet, Brut, New Mexico, $12

2000 Givry A. Poncey. Domaine Parize $18

2001 Joesph Leitz Rudeshiemer Magdalenenkrunz Riesling Kabinett $12

Howard's Wine Cellar
1244 W. Belmont Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-3766