Berger: Finding dependable advice on wine

Buying wine at a grocery store or even a neighborhood wine shop can be frustrating for a number of reasons.

Besides mediocre storage and the generally poor selection, we usually have to deal with clerks who may not even be old enough to taste wine, let alone suggest something to go with your mac ’n’ cheese.

Queries usually are answered with a shrug. At one grocery chain location recently, a woman asked about a particular white wine that was on sale. The “wine guy” said he didn’t know much about it, but “we haven’t had any complaints.”

Nice recommendation.

Another way to get a wine recommendation is to frequent only those wine shops that have knowledgeable sales people. But some communities are so limited in stores that qualify, and some stores try to up-sell buyers. And some clerks are no help at all. Pitfalls abound.

Going online can be marginally helpful, at least in terms of explaining different wines. For instance, it’s nice to find out that a Chinon is a red wine from the Loire Valley made from Cabernet Franc. But unless your local store carries one, such information is only academically interesting.

Reading the scores of wine magazines or newsletters also can be somewhat helpful, but scores for wines that typically sell for less than $15 are generally moderate, which is not helpful. (Want a zinfandel that gets a score of 84?)

Moreover, no magazine I know of tells you specifically how such scores were arrived at. Are scores a result of a wild guess after one sniff and one sip, with knowledge of the wine’s price? Or was the evaluation double-blind?

So where to turn for sage wine advice?

Since 1982, when I founded an international wine competition, I have grown increasingly supportive of such events as a guide for both wineries and consumers. Each group can learn important facts for making and buying better wines.

Wineries can learn how a series of judges view their wines in a setting where they are not affected by the price of the product or how much gold is sprayed on the label. And they can learn where they fit in relation to other wineries that make the same varieties.

And consumers can get a frame of reference on the best wines by seeing how professionals view wines about which they know only the aroma and taste.

Since competition wine judges are not affected by knowing various brands, they can approach each wine as objectively as possible. And although wine judges do have their prejudices, the fact is that in most competitions, three or more judges sit on a panel and discuss each medal candidate from various standpoints, such as varietal character, balance, food compatibility, typicality, and overall enjoyability.

And the final medal is a result of negotiation and compromise.

Usually, a major wine competition with qualified judges results in gold medals for wines that exceed being just very fine, and silver medals are awarded to wines that fall just short of that more exalted rank, but which can represent an extraordinary value.

There are occasions when expensive wines get “only” a silver medal, but these can be simply wines that are in transition, waiting for a bit of time in the bottle to develop secondary characteristics.

Wine competition results can be your best guide toward getting a good bottle of wine at a fair price.

Wine of the Week: 2012 Argento Chardonnay, Mendoza, Reserva ($15): Tropical fruit and citrus notes greet the nose, and the mid-palate is medium-rich, with a layer of oak to add richness. But the wine’s dry, nearly austere, finish is terrific with seafood. Argentina is better known for its Malbec, but this attractive white is an excellent value.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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