Buying a case of wine doesn’t have to mean committing to a dozen of the same bottles. A case of twelve different bottles is great to have on hand as a starter cellar, it makes a wonderful gift, and it’s fun to shop for. Plus, many wine shops will cut you a break and give you a slightly lower “case price” while they let you mix up your selections.
Choose a theme
So now you’re loose in a wine store with money to spend, but you don’t know where to start. Life could be worse.
Why not select your twelve bottles based on a theme? It can be as general as wines for specific types of meals or occasions or more specific, like grape type. With a theme, you’ll end up with more than twelve bottles of wine: you’ll have twelve chances to learn more about some aspect of wine that you’re interested in. (Jot down notes after you’ve tasted to help you remember your impressions.) Here are some possible angles for arranging a mixed-case shopping list.
Go with bargains in mind. Aim for a dozen delicious finds under $10. Price is the easiest way to narrow down the field, and you’ll find great buys under $10 from all over the globe. Best Cellars, a wine store in Manhattan, stocks only wines in this price range. The store arranges wines by style, which makes it easy to pick something you think you’ll enjoy.
A mixed case of wine: Here is what I got for $176
Three light wines for apéritifs. These are great for when people drop by or to enjoy by myself. I got a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Stoneleigh (light and dry, $10), a Washington Chenin Blanc by Hogue Cellars (light and fruity, $7), and a Ribeauvillé Tokay Pinot Gris from France’s Alsace region (medium-bodied and dry, $10).
Four medium-bodied reds for drinking soon. For bringing to dinner parties or drinking at home, I wanted crossover wines that would be delicious with roast chicken, salmon, or steak. There are bargains from almost every major wine-growing region in the world. I got an $8 Ribero del Duero made by Bodegas de Fuentespina (well-priced lusty wines come from this part of northern Spain); a $16 Château de la Terrière Brouilly — Didier, my wine guy, was nuts about this cru Beaujolais, especially for grilled foods; an $8 Coltibuono Italian Sangiovese; and a Rex Hill Pinot Noir from Oregon (a steal at $12). (Didier Boutet, at The Spirit of Wine (860-868-2181) does consulting for wine lists and wine cellars.)
Two big white wines for special dinners. Here I was up for a splurge. I wanted a crisp, full-bodied Chablis or other big white Burgundy for the seared or poached fish and beurre blanc type dinners I love to make. I hunted down a good Chablis for $19 (a Premier Cru “Vaillons” by Jeanne-Paule Fillippi) but then came the surprise: Didier said I had to try a Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay from Chile ($25) that he claimed would rival the Chablis.
A bottle or two to cellar for a few years. I was ready to spend up to $45 for a knockout French red, but on Didier’s advice, I got two bottles for the same amount: a top-shelf Santa Rita Chilean Cabernet ($16) and a Mount Veeder Cabernet from Napa ($25).
A dessert wine. I chose a Coteaux du Layon from Baumard ($20), a sweet wine from the Loire with lots of complexity and flavor.
Discover the multiple characteristics of a single varietal. Try buying a mixed case of Pinot Noirs to compare from Washington, Oregon, different parts of California, and of course, the many regions of Burgundy. (I’d find a mixed case of reds from just about any part of Burgundy impossible to resist.) Or try a bunch of different Chardonnays from all over; besides France and the United States, Chardonnay grows in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, and just about every other wine producing region in the world. You’ll be amazed at the difference between the lean, flinty Chardonnay of a French Chablis and a big, buttery Chardonnay from Napa or Sonoma.
Explore a particular region. An array of reds from the Côtes de Provence, for example, will get you acquainted with the grape types planted there. You’ll get to know some of the flavors of this sunny, dry region on the Mediterranean, and how the climate and location might affect the character of its wines.
Learn to recognize a producer’s style. Wine stores sometimes carry a number of bottles by the same winemaker. Try buying Zinfandels, Merlots, Sauvignon Blancs, and Chardonnays from specific Sonoma Valley producers and compare how each winemaker bottled the grape type. This is a great way to get to know the releases of an individual producer.
Make a list
Once you pick your strategy, set a price limit, like $200, and jot down a wish list to keep you on track. Even if you veer from your original strategy, a list will keep you from getting overwhelmed by too-eager sales help or by just too many bottles on the shelves.
Find a good guide
If you haven’t found a trusty local wine merchant or wine-loving friend to shop with, bring along a guide as your shopping companion. The Quarterly PocketList (to order, call 800-524-1005) is a survey of top-rated wines for $15 and under, compiled by John Vankat, a botanist who loves wine. “I’m a typical absent-minded professor,” says Vankat, “and writing this guide was the only way I could remember what to buy.”