FP Top 5 – Questions to Ask Before You Buy Wine



[Today, we’re thrilled to have a guest post from wine enthusiast and entrepreneur Damien Casten. Raised in New York and trained in the culinary arts in Paris,  he now runs Candid Wines in Chicago.]

Before you set foot in a wine shop, answering five simple questions will dramatically increase your chances at finding happiness now and later.

1. Why am I buying wine?

Provide the shopkeeper, and yourself, with one honest sentence about why you are buying wine.  Two examples from my past along with their vinous answers:


WHY I’M BUYING WINE #1: I’m cooking alone, I’ll likely drink the whole bottle during the process, and I want something that I’ll enjoy before, during and after my roast chicken.

WHY I’M BUYING WINE #2: She likes bubbles, I like her.


WHAT WINE I’M BUYING #1 : Light, low alcohol reds like a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir from the Loire Valley or Blaufrankisch from Austria; a dry Rosé; high acid whites that also have weight like Chenin Blanc, dry or off dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, or Muscadet.  For more on pairing food and wine, and to revel in the voice of Julia Child who apparently inspired Faulty Towers, watch this.

WHAT WINE I’M BUYING #2 : Bubbles, of course, but of what sort and how much to spend?  On a budget, look for an area outside Champagne.  Prosecco and Cava are generally perfect aperitifs, but a Cremant D’Alsace from Northern France, a dry Sekt from Germany, or something from New Mexico might offer an inexpensive voyage to a place neither of you have been before, and isn’t that subtle way to communicate your goal?

She likes bubbles. You like her.

2. Would a wine I’ve had before make me happy right now?

Let’s imagine that you are now buying wine for a second evening with she who likes bubbles.  It seems that she liked the Cremant.  Congratulations, and, you’re welcome.

PAST WINE: The Cremant D’Alsace was tasty, the price was right, and I looked like a savvy wine buyer when the cork popped.

FUTURE WINE: Look for a wine from the same region, but a different producer.  In doing so you’ll expand your knowledge of an area that you know you liked, but you’ll need to pay attention.  Try to compare this producer’s Cremant to the one you had last time.  If it’s better, you’re building positive momentum, and if it’s worse, you’ll reflect back happily on the last time you were together.  Bubbles make it easy to find a silver lining.

3. What do I expect from the wine?

I browse used CD stores for jazz discs featuring musicians I know playing with musicians I don’t know.  I expect to enjoy the discovery process, and I expect that the album will have some of the qualities I like about the player I know.  Wine is the same.

EXPECTATION: The Blaufrankisch from Austria that I drank with my Chicken was light and had bright fruity flavors I liked.  I’m in the mood for something similar.

TELL ‘EM: No need to be fancy, if you can put into words one or two of your expectations, you will provide the sommelier or the wine shop owner with all they need to offer a similar experience.  In wine, as in life, communicating something about what you want is the best way to get what you want.

4. Will I have to sacrifice another pleasure?

The Cremant forged a connection.  The Sekt paved the way for something more.  It might be time to explore the magic of grower Champagne, but it comes at a price.  What to do?

THE CONFLICT: She likes bubbles, I like her, but I won’t have enough for dinner out and a bottle of Champagne that we hope will contain significantly more happiness than our favorite Sekt.

RESOLUTION: Impulsive purchases of expensive bottles just because “she likes bubbles” spawn resentment when the price tag was the driver instead of the process.  Rank the value of the pleasures you are considering.  To me, great grower Champagne possesses the same attraction as a night at the theatre, but it may not for you.  Don’t spend theatre ticket money on one bottle if you’re not willing to forgo the theatre, and be ready to accept that not every production and not every bottle will captivate and entertain.   But remember that some will, and when they do, it’s magical.  If you do decide to spend money on a special bottle, you will have done so after weighing the options and you’ll have made a reasoned choice.

5. What is my backup plan?

Follow this guide to vinous happiness and you might still be burned by a corked bottle, a bum recommendation or a lousy producer.   A backup plan just might save the day as you tend to that roast chicken, or look across the table at she who prefers bubbles that don’t taste like moldy newspaper.  At its best, wine is a natural product that comes with no guarantee.  You’ve invested in the potential of a great bottle, and I hope your choice delivers, but if not, be ready to crack a beer and promise her another adventure next time.

Again, ask yourself, why are you buying wine?  Better yet, tell me why you’re buying wine in the comments section and I’ll make some recommendations.

Damien Casten subscribes to Handey’s hypothesis –that it’s better to be rich than stupid– and yet he abandoned a nearly ideal job as a VP at a multinational company on the Mediterranean to attend cooking school.  After six years in France and a stint at a three-star restaurant in Paris he returned to the US, broke but sated.  Damien now combines his corporate and culinary experiences as President and co-founder of Candid Wines, a wholesale wine company in Chicago focused on organic, biodynamic, and sustainably grown wines.

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