Don’t be caught out by wine stimulus errors

My upcoming book Wine Sense describes what a wine stimulus error is and how to avoid them. A wine stimulus error occurs when conditions around us play a significant part in our assessing a wine’s taste and quality. This is especially true when our sense of sight is involved as it is so predominant over our gustatory senses of smell, taste, and feel. We are so confident in what we perceive through sight that it overrides what we experience through our other senses. Sometimes people selling wine intentionally create stimulus errors to entice us to purchase more or pay a higher price than we should. (This topic is discussed in detail in Wine Sense, Chapter 17: Buying and Storing Wine.) Typical visual stimulus errors you should be aware of and consciously avoid include:

  • Assessing wine sealed with cork as being better than wine sealed with screw cap
  • Assessing wine in a box being worse than wine in a bottle
  • Viewing a fancy or imported label as containing better wine than those with simple label
  • Being tricked to believe white wine with red wine dye tastes like red wine
  • Dark, aesthetic settings (cellar door tasting rooms) for tasting wine we are considering buying increases our perception of higher quality wine
  • Providing leniency and over-rating a wine when we are in the presence of the winemaker, other winery staff or so-called ‘experts’ who are proclaiming the wine excellent when it is not

Up until about five years ago, these last two points above have caused me to buy wine or overpay for wine which did not taste nearly as good when I opened a bottle under different circumstances a few months later. I had been deceived by the surrounding ambiance and ‘expertise’ of those with me. While conducting research for this book, I was surprised how much research I found on designing wine labels. This is an extremely large field of study and there appears to be more courses on wine label design than there are on wine making and vineyard management. The industry knows how important wine label design is on wine sales and they work hard at getting labels right. Some people cannot bring themselves to drinking a cleanskin wine (bottle of wine without a label affixed) even if they have confidence they know what wine is in the bottle. They have a preconceived notion that cleanskins are made from low quality grapes (otherwise, why would it be a cleanskin?). I know people who have dismissed extremely fine wines out of refusal to drink anything without a label affixed to it even when the provenance supports the wine in the bottle to be of high quality.

wine dude

Is the wine in the glass in the photo above any better because it is being served by some good looking dude in a fancy jacket in the vineyard? No, but you probably will taste it and think it is better than it really is! With more experience and practice, you develop more confidence and can avoid getting caught out by wine stimulus errors. Have confidence in what you are tasting, not what the label, the color of the wine or those around you are saying!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley.  All rights reserved.
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My losing article in wine writing competition

Late last year, I decided to enter the Gourmet Traveler (GT) Wine magazine wine writing competition.  I was originally quite excited about it, but spent far less time to get an article out than I had planned.  My work commitments were high and most of my creative energy was going in that direction.  I knew the article could be improved and in the final week before the deadline, I was undecided about entering or not (as I knew I would not have the time or energy to improved the article furhter or write another one).  However, I felt if I did not enter, there was no way I could win, so I forwarded my submission.  Yesterday, I was informed the award was given to another.

Even had I been extremely pleased with my submission, I felt there was only a limited chance of winning.  Many previous winners have been sommeliers, wine makers, vingerons, etc. and I was an immature wine enthusiast!  Yet, my article did match most, if not all, of the characteristics they asked each writer to aspire to.  It was useful to go through the experience.

My losing article still provides some good advice about purchasing wine and I think you will find it interesting, even though it has not been judged to be of magazine quality.  Here it is and I hope you enjoy!

Buy – don’t be sold – your wine

We love convenience, especially as the pace of life seems to be speeding up.  We eat meals out so as not to have to cook them ourselves, or even shop for the ingredients to prepare them.  We have people clean for us, do our laundry, and some will shop at Aldi because they trust the premise that Aldi has made high quality, good-valued product choices for us, so we do not have to take the time to research or make those choices ourselves – just pick up bread, milk, chocolate, and even wine without regard to brand.

That convenience has extended to our buying of wine.  Winery loyalty programs tell us “not to worry mate”, just sign up and we will send you your wine of choice every year, regardless if it is a good vintage or not.  Or even easier, we will send you a mixed six-pack every six months.  You can stop by Wine Selector in Australian domestic airports, sample several, and if you like these wines, then trust them to send you wines in the future at price points they believe deliver good value to you.  Because many of us are unsure or intimidated in our wine knowledge, we let and even appreciate the wine sellers selling us what they think is best for us.

Buyers and sellers of wine have different purposes, which can be at odds with each other.  As buyers, we want to get great wine at a great price, have wine we can drink right away or lay down until the wine is more optimally drinkable.  Sellers of wine need to clear inventory and create cash flow every year.  Each vintage, they try to produce the best wine they can and be able to sell it at a price buyers can afford, but more often than not, this proves difficult due to challenging climatic or market conditions.

I have bought a lot of wine over the years and in review, have realized I have been suckered into buying decent wine which I was convinced by the cellar door manager was great wine at a great price.  But now that I have been able to taste and compare more wines, I have come to realize that wine varies greatly in quality vintage to vintage, vineyard to vineyard and wine maker to wine maker, but varies little in price.  For example, the 1996 and 1998 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons are far better than 1997 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons, yet the price upon release was about the same for most brands.

I have rarely purchased wine without tasting it first.  Through experience, I have come to know what I like in a wine.  But even if I have not tasted a wine, I can feel reasonably sure I am buying great wines at a great price, if I look at three features of a wine that make it better (or worse) valued than other wines:

  • Vintage (year the grapes were grown  
  • Where the grapes were sourced (often called terroir, or at least a component of terroir)
  •  The wine maker (not the brand, but the actual individual) 

Yes, it may be easier to let the wineries or distributors ‘sell’ you, but they are often pushing what wines are in inventory, regardless of vintage, and touting the brand, not the wine maker.  By combining a bit of knowledge regarding vintages, the source of grapes and who the wine maker is, you can consistently buy great wine at a great price.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Twitter:  Steve Shipley @shipleyaust;   InkIT Publishing @inkitpub

Great success with Wickman’s Fine Wine Auction

As many of you know, I have been clearing wine out of my cellar.  Once I had inventoried the total amount I had, and also realized that my tastes had changed somewhat over the last decade, I realized I needed to get down to a more reasonable sized cellar.  Plus I made a commitment to myself that I could not buy any more wine until I I had cut the cellar in half or down even further.

This is really a bad time to sell wine, as there are far more sellers than buyers and prices are quite depressed.  I have been fortunate to sell about 1,500 bottles direct to friends who know I have done a good job buying quality wines in the past and storing them well.  For the first 600 bottles I sold, I was getting between 90% and 120% what I initially paid for the wines.  Yet, my friends were getting a good deal as (1) I usually secured the wines at a better price point than they could have, and (2) I put some age on the wines and these were now some special wines not available through normal retail, or only available at higher price tags at auction.

I then move an additional 900 bottles by offering a 25% discount on the wines and sold quite a lot over a one-month period.  With the discount, I was now getting between 70% and 95% the price I had originally paid.  I also sold about 50 bottles through the Wine-Ark Exchange (now run by Langton’s), and got about 90% what I paid and had to pay an additional 12.5% commission over that (as did the buyer).  And the wines on the Exchange did not sell fast at all.  I think I have cleared about 35% of the wines and have been doing this for eight months now.

I had been following Wickman’s Fine Wine Auction for 18 months and was impressed with how much stock he moved and how he achieved the best buy and price point for buyer and seller.  I worked with Mark to go through my inventory, and he gave me an appraisal of the likely Reserve prices he would establish and the range each bottle would likely sell for.  I then packaged up 400 bottles to send to him for his October auction.

Mark was also insistent about the provenance of the wine to ensure it has only been stored under the best conditions.  He asked me to take pictures of the how the wine was properly stored, and provide the history of where I bought and stored the wine.  For 95% of my wines, he gave me the second highest rating he has.  Had I worked harder, and pulled from my files the purchase records of the wines I bought direct from the cellar doors and their receipt in Wine-Ark (where I store all my wine), I expect I could have got the highest provenance rating he had for about 85% of my wine.

Mark then sent me a final listing of Reserve prices and while lower than I was hoping for some of the wine, it was clear that he knew the market far better than I did and how to move the most product in a tough market.  Therefore, I went with his recommendations (except in one case for two bottles which did not sell BTW!).

For the one-week auction, I was amazed at the results!  We sold 56% of the wine at an average price of $44 per bottle.  I had evaluated my stock overall at $50 per bottle and it is true that Wickman selected and was trying to move some of my more expensive wine, but overall this was still a great result.  And I sold almost $10,000 of wine in one week, which would have been far harder and taken more effort to sell doing it myself.  I was hoping to move between $2,500 – $4,000 worth and did far better than that.  And I still have the November auction to sell most of the rest.

I am definitely looking forward to the results of the November auction, and may also look at sending Wickman another 150 – 200 bottles for his auctions starting up again in 2013..  It is very tough selling wine in today’s market and receiving a good price for it, but Wickman understands the market extremely well and certainly knows how to move wine!  I had far better results than expected because I trusted in him and his knowledge of the market.

If you need to move some serious volume and have been having trouble with Langton’s, or other big-named players, then I suggest you give Wickman’s Fine Wine Auctions a call!

Why I think Chataeu D’Yquem is the best wine in the world

Many people believe that Chateau D’Yquem is the finest wine in the world and it is difficult not to agree with that assessment.  For starters, the French classify their wines according to an appellation rating of Premier Crus and Grand Crus of First, Second, etc. growths down to Village and Table wines.

In the top tier are such stars as Lafite Rothschild and Haut-Brion, and a few others.  However, only one wine in the world has ever been given a ‘premier cru superior’ and that is Chataeu D’Yquem.  I was first introduced to the wine by my great friend, Michael Axarlis, when four of us were out drinking one evening.  We had the 1997 vintage and it was truly magnificent.  Several months later, it was Deanna and my 9th anniversary and we celebrated by having a bottle of the 1997 and then tried the 2004 for comparison.  It was sinful to drink the 2004 that early – most Chateau D’Yquems should be laid down for 20 – 50 years or bought for the next generation.  We then found a few bottles of the 1997 and the 1998 vintages at a ‘reasonable’ price (it is also one of the most expensive wines in the world!) that we now have in our cellar.

Thomas Jefferson also proclaimed it as one of his most favorite wines and purchased a lot of it for himself and the White House when George Washington, and then he,were President.

In total, we have have drunk 7 bottles of Chateau D’Yquem in our life, including 4 of the 1997 vintage (a great year!), one from 1998 (which we just had for our 11th anniversary, and the 2004 vintage which was part of our 9th anniversary.  But the greatest bottle of all was the full bottle we bought and shared at Deanna’s 40th birthday party.  As Deanna proclaimed, “It’s like having sex in my mouth”!

Now I will be a bit more restrained and just say that it is the best wine I have ever had, and I will tell you the reason why it is different from all other wines that I drink.  When I open a great bottle of wine and pour a bit into the glass to ‘nose’ it and taste it to make sure it is OK, I am often taken by the great bouquet the wine has and how it seems to fill my senses.  But with EVERY bottle of Chateau D’Yquem I have ever had, my reaction to ‘nosing’ the wine is one of a physical reaction and pure elation.

My nostrils flair and my chest starts to pulsate.  (I could graphically compare this to another experience where this happens, but will pass for now!)  The intense pleasure of smelling a Chateau D’Yquem actually overwhelms my body which is no longer under my direct control.  It is like my body has struck a perfect harmonic motion with the universe.

While I have had some truly great wines over the years, it is only Chateau D’Yquem that does that to me and it has done it EVERY time.  These pictures (the two immediately above) have been taken from our 11th anniversary dinner (a few weeks ago) and the vintage is 1998 which was not a great year (by Chateau D’Yquem standards!).  However, it was still a remarkable wine.  At our 9th anniversary dinner when I did this with the 1997 vintage, I brought the glass to my nose about 15 times in a row and the physical reaction occurred each and every time.

Chateau D’Yquem is a unique wine in terms of the labor that goes into making it, combined with the perfect location to be able to grow the grapes.  They use a Botrytis Semillon and have 11 pickings over 21 days.  This is much more labor intensive than most makers of a Bortytis Semillon desert wine which have one picking when they think most of the grapes have enough botrytis on them.  With Chateau D’Yquem, each grape is ripened almost to perfection, and not an average of the entire batch of grapes, with some being too ripe and others not ripe enough.

We only open a bottle to celebrate very special occasions, but have great joy when we do.  I have drunk many outstanding wines in my day, but nothing makes me pulsates like Chateau D’Yquem!

Wine Snob versus Wine Enthusiast – which one are you?

I must admit that I have a true avocation for wine.  I enjoy wine on its own, with food, and to share with friends.  I also enjoy reading about wine and learning more about how it’s made, where it is best made, how to buy and store it, and how to drink it.

Over time, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the exquisite and multi-dimensional nature of wine and it has become an important part of my life, but no more important than my faith, my job, my friends, my passion for reading on a wide variety of topics, and a general zest for life overall.  I have been able to achieve a deeper experience and understanding of the wines I drink, and that has enhanced some of my other experiences.  For example, we are having a chicken and mushroom risotto for dinner tonight.  My wife makes a really good risotto (you can view the chopped-up chicken and mushrooms below)!

With the chicken, Parmesan cheese and mushrooms, I knew I wanted a rich, aged chardonnay to go with it.  I selected my last bottle of the 2003 Saddler’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay. (Look at the beautiful golden color of a perfectly aged white wine!)  I did so because I have had a few bottles previously and felt it would pair beautifully with a chicken and mushroom risotto, and I also knew the bottle should be drunk in the next few years and I did not want to wait too long or it might go off.  Fortunately the wine was perfect and I am drinking some as I write this posting.  We paid $10 per bottle for the wine as Saddler’s was trying to clear older inventory and we bought the last 8 bottles they had.  But it drinks like a $130 bottle of Penfolds Yattarna or a decent Montrachet.  This turned out to be one of the best buys of my life!

As you can tell, I put a bit of thought into buying the wine in the first place and also when to drink it and what food to drink it with. Some people would claim “I take my wine too seriously, so I must be a wine snob”, but I hardly think that is the case.  To me it is a natural passion or avocation as I mentioned, much like others have a passion for working out or art or literature.  Because I have developed a bit of knowledge over the years, it has become much easier to select a good (and good valued) wine to go with an everyday dinner.  And I put more thought into the wines that match up with dinners when we host our “Single’s and Strays” dinner parties, have friends over, or a special birthday or anniversary.  (BTW, all birthdays and anniversaries are special!)  But then, most of those events become special occasions and lifetime memories.  Does that make me a wine snob?  I don’t think so.

I discussed this with some other wine aficionados and we felt that a wine snob had the following characteristics:

Wine Snob

  • They bragged about the excellent wines they had, but never found the opportunity to share the wine with friends or to give a bottle to a friend
  • They want to have you admit to them having a superior knowledge of wine over you – they are as uninterested in sharing their knowledge as they are their wines – they just want to ‘show off’.
  • They talk a great deal about how much they have paid for expensive wines, and seem to only drink expensive wines

Whereas a wine enthusiast, we felt, had the following characteristics:

Wine Enthusiast

  • They are happy to share wine, either by contributing a bottle, or by asking all who share to chip in for a special bottle of wine, or by setting some rules to have each person bring a bottle according to the rules established
  • They listen to others and want to learn and also share their knowledge and are excited to help others develop an appreciation of wine and mature as a wine drinker and possibly collector
  • They get as much and even greater pleasure out of finding a ‘cheap’ but great wine and would rather drink that than an expensive bottle of wine

We have two friends who are studying to become international Masters of Wine (MW).  An international MW costs about $200,000 to buy, taste and compare wines to develop an internationally acclaimed palate and ability to compare and describe wines to others.  (There are only about 475 MWs globally!)  They are also professional wine judges (in addition to their full-time jobs), but in no way are they wine snobs.  They get great excitement over finding a Canberra (ACT, Australia)  Sangiovese for $20 per bottle and a Marsanne for $15 which they have introduced us to.  A wine snob would not even try a wine from Canberra, yet alone a wine under $20.  We have had a 9-hour lunch at their house (he is French, she is Australian – what can I say?) and we bring over wines we really want to share with them and they pick out wines they really want to share and introduce to us.  These wine may be in the $10 – $20 per bottle range or they may be $40 – $60 per bottle, but it does not matter – what matters is sharing our wine, our knowledge and our friendship with each other.

I therefore, prefer to call myself a ‘wine enthusiast’, not a ‘wine snob’.  How about you?

How much should a good bottle of wine cost?

The first answer is “Probably more than you are paying for it!”  However, there is such a glut of good wine on the market, and far too many grapes being produced that the cost of a good bottle of wine is relatively inexpensive.  Of course, now that the Chinese are becoming significantly more prosperous in this – the “Year of the Dragon”, and believe they have or are acquiring a taste for good wine, they are buying up the very top end of the market which will certainly push up prices for that segment.

The Chinese are also buying up a lot of wineries and parcels of land that produce grapes around the world and more wine will find its way to China over the next several years.  This will reduce the global glut somewhat.  But by looking around, you should still be able to buy very good wine for under $10 per bottle and even cheaper.

The average bottle of wine in my cellar is around $40 – $50 per bottle, but then I have some truly great wines in my cellar, and many of them have 10 – 20 years of aging built into them so I have a large stock of great wines which are drinkable today.   Yet, I also have a large number of outstanding wines I paid less than $20 per bottle for.  I have very few wines I paid over $100 per bottle, as I find it is just not worth it except for very special occasions to drink a bottle of wine that expensive.  You just do not need to.

Blake Stevens, in his recently published book (which I have reviewed) “Still Stupid at Sixty” has a Chapter entitled “Don’t Overindulge in Passions”.  The point of the chapter is that we can get carried away with our passions and really overspend because we want to treat ourselves to the very best.  He believes that for most things that can be purchased, for the very, very best (measured as being 100% of possible capabilities and quality – assuming you can actually measure these traits at all!), you are paying 10 time more than if you accepted an alternative that was at 99% and that still costs 10 times what the alternative at 95% of capability and quality would cost.  He says this applies to jewelry, stereo systems, and wine among other things.  It is easy to spend $1,000 for a bottle of wine and for that price, it better not just be excellent, but it should also be rare and have collectible value.  But I can find wines for $100 per bottle that almost all people would say was as good or better than the bottle that cost $1,000.  And I could buy bottles of wine for $10 that many if not most people thought was as good or nearly as good as the bottle for $100 or even $1,000.  I think this is true and it is why I have very few bottles anywhere close to $1,000 per bottle (Only two which were used for my wife’s 40th birthday party!).  Do not overspend on wine!  I believe for most people, they do not need to spend over $20 per bottle and there are a number of annual reviews by wine critics that recommend the best buys you can get for under $20 per bottle.  This is a very safe way to buy wine that you know will not disappoint when you open a bottle or bring one to a party.

Two years ago, we did a tasting comparing wines that were made half of the Shiraz grape and half of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape.  We tasted a line-up of Penfolds Bin 389 with vintages from 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998 and a Wolf Blass Grey Label from 1996.  The Penfolds Bin 389 would have fetched $35 – $50 when they were sold and more now.  The Wolf Blass Grey Label was bought for $16 per bottle (I am so glad I bought 3 dozen of those, but I only have one bottle left!).  However, the group of very discerning wine palettes that evening pick the Wolf Blass as the best wine, even though it cost half or even a third of what the Penfolds Bin 389 vintages cost.

An American friend of mine who had been living in Australia for two years at the time had dinner out with my wife and me and another colleague visiting form the US.  I brought two bottles – one white and one red – to the Indian BYOB restaurant we were eating at.  After finishing both bottles and still having a decent amount of food to eat, my American friend who had been in Australia for two years and I went to the bottle shop next door to get another couple of bottles.  I asked him if he had any favorites he wanted to drink and his response was “Steve, when I arrived in Sydney two years ago, I decided to pay about $30 per bottle and I thought the wine was really good, so then I backed off to about $25  – $28 per bottle and still thought it was really good and then backed off to about $20 per bottle and it was still really good.  I am now down to about $8 per bottle and still think it is really good!  Therefore, you pick something out you like!”

Like I said – and especially in Australia – you can get some really good wine for under $10 per bottle.