Beyond Balance, Wines of Character

Each week we try numerous wines that are being “auditioned” for potential sale at Spirits. We taste with local sales representatives, regional or national supplier reps, winery reps, winery owners (their spouses and children), importers, brokers, winemakers, assistant winemakers, you name it and we’ve probably tasted with them. Obviously we don’t purchase every wine that we taste- I would estimate that we probably buy about 5-10% of those we sample- so we use several criteria to determine what will make a good fit at our stores and what will not.

Generally the people that we taste with feel some sort of connection to the wine, be it subtle or strong- whether they are a local sales rep showing a wine that they have “goals” on or some sort of incentive to sell, or the winemaker who painstakingly created it starting months, even years before they ever sample the finished product surveying vineyards and watching berries grow on vines with anticipation for what is yet to come. Then here we sit, together in a shop in Tuscaloosa, tasting and judging the wine in order to determine if it is a candidate for our selection.

Recently I sampled a line-up with a broker rep that caused me to examine my purchasing philosophy. The wines tasted good, but weren’t exactly products that we had a need for. When we were wrapping up the session and it was time for the inevitable sales pitch, the rep asked me what I thought. “They are accessible and fruit-forward,” I said honestly. To which the rep replied, “But they are very well-balanced,” in a slightly defensive tone. Luckily a customer entered the store so the meeting ended abruptly. I was later thinking about this encounter and that what the rep said was somewhat true; there was a bit of acid present to marry with the jammy fruit and sweet oak flavors, along with slight tannic backbone, all of which might constitute “balanced” wine, but what they did not offer was character- something to make them stand out against others of their style and price.

So what is the criteria by which we judge one wine against another? First and foremost, the quality of the wine should be reflected in the price- this is the easiest way for us to eliminate a potential candidate- we simply compare it to other products of similar type/style and determine if it is as good or better than others in its perspective category. After that, there are numerous factors that must be considered- do we have a need for such product? is it sellable in our stores and the Tuscaloosa market? if we buy this one does it mean we should (or likely will) stop selling another of its type? is it collectible? ageworthy? highly rated or sought after? and even, does the person presenting this product make a compelling offer, perhaps one we feel that we cannot refuse? Overall, however, if it is a wine of character it will always be one that we feel most inclined to include in our selection.

A wine of character should be varietally correct and display terroir- not only should a Pinot Noir look, smell and taste like a Pinot Noir offering light color, lively acid, bright fruit and earth notes, it should reflect the place from which it comes- the Willamette Valley vs. Burgundy, Santa Rita Hills vs. Marlborough. A wine of character should be regionally and stylistically correct- a Rioja should taste a certain way vs. a Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero; a Bordeaux should offer specific characteristics and not taste like a Napa Valley Meritage; a Sancerre has qualities that a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc does not. But perhaps most importantly, a wine of character must be compelling- it should be unique, distinguished, and reflect its origins and vintage.

Is every wine we buy for Spirits a wine of character? No. Is there a way to determine, without tasting, if a wine is one of character? Sometimes in the case of certain producers or importers, but not always. If I drink a wine of character I know it right away (and I think you would too); however, as such wines can be few and far between, there are many mediocre ones to endlessly sift through in the hopes of stumbling across something uncommon and beyond balanced.

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