How to pick a fine wine

Jim Knight, owner of the Wine House in Los Angeles

Tess Vigeland: For these next stories, you might want to find a comfortable chair, slice up some good cheese and pop a cork. 'Cause it's 5 o'clock somewhere and we're gonna talk about wine.

We, as a country, drank more than four billion bottles of wine last year. Retail value? $32 billion, according to The Wine Institute. So, do the math: That's an average of about eight bucks a bottle, right? Would an $8 bottle be a good wine? How do you know?

Miles in the movie "Sideways": Hold the glass up and examine the wine against the light. You're looking for color and clarity. Now, stick your nose in. There is some straw burning. There's just a flutter of like a nutty Edam cheese.

Oh Miles. Sure, that's one way. You could go wine tasting in Santa Barbara, as they did in the movie "Sideways." Or perhaps Napa and Sonoma, as I did a couple of weeks ago. Pretty much my favorite pastime.

You could also attend a wine class.

Instructor: So what I want to do tonight is I'm attempting to give you a glimpse of a couple of key things you need to know about if you're going to drink Burgundy...

That's an instructor at The Wine House, an 18,000-square-foot retail store just off the 405 Freeway here in LA. They do classes once a month. You could look for something similar in your neighborhood. But in case there isn't one, we asked Wine House owner Jim Knight to answer some very basic questions about buying wine. And to start, what goes into a wine's price?

Jim Knight: Well the first thing is definitely supply and demand. But let's take it all the way back to the vineyard, your land costs, your labor costs -- you know, everything that goes into that. If you're using new French oak barrels in your wine, that's gonna bring up your cost. But the market brings up the cost of the wine as well. There may be something like a Kendall-Jackson chardonnay, they may hundreds of thousands cases. Whereas Chateau Petrus, they make 500 cases for the whole world.

Vigeland: But even at 500 cases, it better taste good.

Knight: Yeah, it better. So yeah, that all goes into what makes a bottle expensive. Are your labels embossed or is it just a cheap piece of paper? Is it a thick, heavy bottle or is it just a regular normal bottle? The difference between a $2 bottle of glass and a $10 bottle of glass, all those factors some.

Now supply and demand is dictated mostly by what people decide they like, right? So how do you know what you like?

Knight: If it feels good on your palate, that usually means it's gonna be a crowd pleaser wine.

Vigeland: What does that mean, if it feels good on your palate? What wouldn't feel good? Obviously you don't want vinegar.

Knight: What wouldn't feel good is a wine that's really super tannic. Tannins come from the skins of the grape or even the oak as well. If you taste a glass of wine and you feel like you need a glass of water afterwards, that's not a very refined delicious wine. And if there's too much acidity, that hits you right in your jowls. Then that doesn't feel good either. So you want something that's creamy, that's lush, that's juicy, that's round, that's opulent and delicious.

Vigeland: Can you take us to a wine that you would consider very nice on the palate? And perhaps affordable?

Knight: And very nice on the old pocketbook as well? Follow me.

He marched us over to an area with wines from outside the U.S., specifically Spain.

Knight: This is actually a wine that's called blau. It's from Spain, it's kind of a blend of grenache and cabernet. And it's $10.99 a bottle. I know this is a radio show so you can't see it, but the packaging is very expensive.

Vigeland: Beautiful!

Knight: And this is an $11 bottle of wine. We haven't really talked about points at all, but I'll mention that the Wine Spectator gave this wine 91 points. So 91 points for a wine that's under $15 is unbelievable. People use points simply the same way that someone that's interested in a car would use RoadTracker. That's what people end up looking for. They look for high score, low price.

Vigeland: Does that make sense if you're just an average consumer? Is the score something that you should really pay attention to? Seems really subjective.

Knight: I think the first thing you should pay attention to is find a reputable wine store; they'll learn your palate. Now, if you don't have that, where a lot of people are shopping in places like Costco and grocery stores and stuff like that. And so that way, you should use scores.

And Jim had one more piece of advice for getting to know what's worth spending your money on: Have your own tasting party.

Knight: For doing wine tasting and stuff like that at home, stick to themes. Let's do a cabernet tasting, let's do a Sonoma tasting, let's do a south of France tasting. Keep it simple, because then you can get people to put money in each bottle with you. So if there's six people tasting out of one bottle, that's a lot cheaper than one person buying that bottle. Because really what we're talking about here, it's just fermented grape juice, people. Let's not get high and mighty about it.

Vigeland: Well, Jim Knight, thank you so much for taking us on a tour of wine today. Really appreciate it. Bottoms up!

Knight: All right, cheers!

Sound of clinking glass

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

Jim Knight, owner of the Wine House in Los Angeles

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