Saturday, April 18, 2009

Look at the back label! (or, It's the Importers, stupid!)

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me how I choose what to buy from so many producers and yet still get very few clunkers. I think one of the most important factors with non-U.S. wine is the importer. Choosing a wine from a good importer can get you 75% of the way to an enjoyable surprise.


There are some really high-quality importers out there who take great care selecting what they'll bring in. Many even take care to ensure that they align themselves with wineries that share their views on what techniques make the most genuine and flavorful wine, such as yields per acre (high yields make thin, watery wine), chemical treatments (insisting on minimizing these), yeasts for fermenting (use whatever yeasts occur naturally on the grape skins), no or minimal filtering (which can strip flavor and texture), use of oak or not for ageing (it's complementary for some wines, but detracts from others).

So from now on, I'm going to try remember to list the importer in my notes. Not only should it help in choosing other wines one is not familiar with, but it will help if you want a retailer to order a particular wine for you, since he or she will know where to get it.

Here are a few off-the-top-of my head thoughts on some of the importers I think are top-notch:

ERIC SOLOMON -- One of the very best. His wines from the south of France and Spain tend to be loaded to the brim with flavor and usually not burdened with unwarranted oak.

LOUIS/DRESSNER -- Generally chooses wines that are absolutely the textbook exemplars of their appellations (French, mostly), with great balance and minimal oak.

KYSELA -- Lots of good value choices from all over France.

HAND-PICKED SELECTIONS -- Similar to Kysela in my mind. Lots of value-driven French wines with lots of flavor.

ROBERT KACHER -- Kacher's wines are usually very flavorful, unoaked, and extremely youthful tasting. I think he gets growers to bottle extra early, which frequently means that his wines benefit from decanting to get them a little more air time to develop their nose and flavors. I think Richard's stores have an exclusive with this importer (in Houston), so that's where to find them.

NORTH BERKELEY -- Hard, if not impossible to find their wines in stores here, but they now ship direct to individuals! I'm surmising they have similar philosophy to Louis/Dressner, with classic renditions of wines from the appellations in question (French, mostly, also), with great balance and minimal oak. Here's the link for ordering:

JORGE ORDONEZ -- One of the premier Spanish wine importers; has a great line-up of flavorful, value-driven wines. Tends to favor a modern Spanish style, emphasizing lots of ripe fruit and soft textures.

PARTICK MATA "OLE" Selections -- Another great Spanish importer, I sense that he favors a crisper, less overtly ripe style than Ordonez. Lots of good values here. (Central Market carries a lot of his wines).

LEONARDO LOCASCIO -- For Italian wine values, this guy's the best. Seeks out wineries that make flavorful, classic examples of their region, at very fair prices.

VINIFERA -- Excellent importer of more high-end Italian offerings. Wines have lots of character, but I'm not sure if I can discern a "house style" here.

VIAS -- Another high-end Italian importer with lots of interesting wines.

KERMIT LYNCH -- A great selector of good value French wines, particularly from southern Burgundy (Maconnais, Beaujolais) and the Rhone Valley ands other parts of the south of France.

NEAL ROSENTHAL -- This is an excellent but idiosyncratic importer of French and Italian wines. My experience has been that he tends to favor wines in a leaner, more minerally style than many other importers at this level, but make no mistake, he's got a very good portfolio.

I'm sure this stream of consciousness post has resulted in me leaving off some good importers. As I think of more, I'll add to the list. In the meantime:

. . . when buying . . . TURN THE BOTTLE AROUND!!!!!


Anonymous said...

What great advice. I have noticed North Berkeley, Kermit Lynch and Hand-Picked before, and maybe 5% of the time have used that to help me pick. But I have never talked to someone who has the knowledge to be able to recommend all of what someone imports. Thanks much.
-- John C

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for the tip... I never thought to look at it this way. Funny this is I'm a big music snob. Back in the day, before the internet, one way I found new bands to try/buy was to see what record labels the band was on. If I liked the labels previous releases, I usually like the newer stuff.