Befriend Your Sommelier: The Types of People Every Wine Collector Should Know

befriend your sommelier

Negociants, like Louis Jadot, can be a source of reliably good wine at reasonable prices. Image source: Flickr CC user Dominic Lockyer

I grew up in a California winemaking family, and through this network, I got to know dozens of winemakers in Napa Valley and Sonoma. One of these social connections earned me a free weekend stay at a house on a beautiful California vineyard. Without this complex social web, I would have never had the opportunity to stay on the estate and sample some of its wines for free. But the connections you make with peers and wine experts can do more than get you a weekend on an estate. Making an effort to get to know certain types of people in the wine world can make a big difference to your collection.

Essential Contact #1: The Sommelier

It’s tempting to go to a fine restaurant and pick wines from the list that you already know you enjoy, rather than gambling on a new wine. When you do this, you miss a huge benefit of quality wine lists: being introduced to something you would never have otherwise tried. This is where sommeliers can help. A study found that sommeliers have a larger role in the wine business than they’re given credit for by critics. Researchers conducting the study found that restaurant customers only made their own wine selections, without the help of the sommelier, about 20 percent of the time. Customers asked the sommelier for help 38 percent of the time, and the sommelier spontaneously offered up essential advice about the wines they loved 42 percent of the time. The role of the sommelier is to give you new perspectives on wine that you never thought you would enjoy. Sommelier Maurice Dimarino says that if you’ve ever come across an arrogant sommelier, it’s because they’re immature and have forgotten the role of sommeliers as teachers.

When you find a quality sommelier at one of your favorite restaurants, don’t be afraid to make friends and start a conversation. Dimarino says that he was once introduced to a restaurant guest as “the sommelier” on staff, and the guest responded, “What part of Somalia are you from?” Dimarino never judged her for this honest mistake, and today, they are close friends. He has since taught her a great deal about wine. Befriend your sommelier and you’ll have someone you can bounce ideas off of for your own wine collection. If you love Oregon Pinot Noir, your sommelier friend might point you in the direction of some fine New York Pinot Noir to give your collection more variety. Talking to sommeliers about the wines they love has the potential to broaden your horizons and improve your collection.

Essential Contact #2: The Negociant

Wine negociants seek out the best grapes from a particular region, then bottle and market the wine to distributors. Most negociants work with small-scale farmers who would otherwise find it extremely difficult to bottle and sell the wines they grow without the help of larger-scale winemakers. A negociant’s job varies; sometimes, they take unprocessed grapes and then ferment, barrel, and bottle them. Other negociants bottle wine that is already processed by farmers. Their impact on the wine market is obvious, but what can negociants do for you? Having a trustworthy negociant in your network means getting high-quality wine bottles for relatively low prices.

However, it’s not accurate to say that all negociants sell purely non-collectable wines meant to be drunk immediately. Fine Burgundy estates like Jadot, Drouhin, and Bouchard Pere & Fils sell highly sought-after wines, and they are all negociants (although some, like Jadot, also grow their own grapes as well). Trustworthy negociants will sell only quality wine, with little, if any, focus on selling as much wine as possible. Start your negociant network by researching negociants in the wine regions you most enjoy. Next, look at where these negociants source their grapes, and how these grapes are grown.A good wine negociant will give you precise information about the grapes and how their wines are shipped. After finding a negociant you trust, stay in contact with as many representatives from the company as possible. You’ll get the best price on bottles and could be one of the first to hear about new wines as they’re released in the future.   

Essential Contact #3: The Wine Cellar Analyst

A home wine cellar won’t run itself; if you have a wine cellar in your home you need a quality wine cellar analyst on your side to help you make the most out of your space and wines. Wine cellar analysts, like those who work for Vinfolio, dedicate their lives to expert wine storage and wine collection organization. These analysts can either visit your home cellar in-person or take a look at your storage space via an online video chat session. From there, these experts give you useful pointers about how to organize your cellar and eliminate some of the risks of home wine cellars, including temperature control problems or poor humidity.

An analyst will start by looking at your storage space as a whole and determining whether your temperature controls are in working order, whether you need more space for the bottles you own, or whether you can improve your storage space with tools like compact wine shelves. Vinfolio’s experts go one step further, logging all of your bottles into the VinCellar app so that you have access to your entire collection online. By far one of the greatest benefits of getting to know a cellar expert is getting insight into which bottles will be worth something 10 years from now, and which bottles are likely wasting your time. If it’s been a few years since you’ve organized your cellar from top to bottom, it’s time to find a wine cellar analyst to get your cellar in shape.

Essential Contact #4: The Wine Appraiser

Now that you’ve organized your wine cellar, you need to contact a trusted wine appraiser. Appraisers give you an accurate idea of what your collection is worth, and make the insurance process far easier to navigate. If you haven’t appraised your wines in the past two years, and something should happen to your bottles, your current insurance policy might not cover all of the damages, especially if you’ve added thousands of dollars’ worth of wine to your cellar recently.

To find a wine appraiser you can trust, ask your fellow wine collectors who they use for their own collections first, before you turn to online reviews or the phone book directory. You can ask how trustworthy the appraiser is, and get detailed reviews from your peers. Next, make sure that your potential appraiser is ASA-certified, or has an equivalent certification in the field. You should never try to appraise your wines yourself. To start, most insurance companies won’t accept your DIY appraisal if you’re applying for a new policy. It’s also difficult to objectively assess the worth of your own wines. For instance, you might see a bottle of DRC selling for $20,000 at a single auction, but if most bottles of that DRC vintage sell closer to $13,000 at most other auctions, this is closer to the real worth of the bottle than the $20,000 estimate. Quality appraisers can tell you what your bottles are truly worth, making it easier for you to resell those bottles on the market later.

Essential Contact #5: The Wine Class Teacher

As a wine collector, it’s easy to get trapped in your comfort zone, never veering away from your favorite California cult Cabernet or your treasured white Burgundy. When you take the time to talk to a qualified wine instructor through WSET or other formal wine education programs, you might learn something new about wine and expand your collection in the process. Taking a wine class is a great opportunity to pinpoint your wine knowledge blind spots under the direction of an instructor. Wine instructors are willing to answer any questions you might have about wine, no matter how basic the question, without judgment.

Another benefit of getting a formal education is getting to know other students in class. You can host tasting parties with other wine students that will give you valuable insight into which new wines you enjoy. Especially if you have few friends who share your passion for collecting wine, taking a class and getting to know other wine lovers can be a valuable experience. Even if you know a great deal about wine, WSET has advanced classes catered to your needs. You can learn how to write better tasting notes or how to identify the wines that you enjoy in a blind tasting. Wine is a constant learning process for everyone, and you are never too old or too experienced to prioritize your wine education.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.

At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most
treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of
passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles–we love sharing a great
glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a
Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.