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Lessons From Two Wine Tastings

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At least once a year, I like to attend a wine tasting at Sotheby's to remind myself that there is no shortage of multi-hundred-dollar wines that I don't like. On a recent Thursday evening, when about 30 bottles were opened ahead of Saturday's Nov. 14 auction, I sidled up to the red Burgundy table to try various offerings from the 1996 vintage (which was a celebrated one). I had a dry and tart Clos Vougeot, which can be bought online for about 200 dollars, and was left thinking I wouldn't pay a tenth of that. That night, which was heavy on French offerings, only an Italian wine, a 1990 Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello, stood out. On Saturday, a nine-bottle lot sold for $1,573, but I've had Brunellos that sell for a quarter of the price that I've enjoyed more. (I still remember fondly, however, a 20-odd-year-old Caymus Special Selection Cabernet I had at an earlier pre-auction tasting.)

I highly recommend wine enthusiasts attend pre-auction tastings at Sotheby's and Christie's, if they have the opportunity. They're not heavily advertised--you have to monitor the houses' wine departments online--but there's probably not a better or cheaper way to sample a wide variety of fine wines. Thursday's event cost $75--roughly the price of the cheapest of the bottles they opened.

Since taste is so personal, it's foolish to rely on the ratings systems and descriptive gibberish of professional critics.

On my first go, several years ago, I was intimidated by the surfeit of power suits scribbling down tasting notes and worried I'd mispronounce a French chateau's name when I approached the demure pourers for a taste. But the staff is friendly. And for every captain of industry like the Charlotte man I met on Thursday, who loudly declared to Sotheby's vice president Jamie Ritchie that he was prepared to pay double the estimated price for a particular lot, there's a first-timer like Niki Lin, a young businesswoman with dreams of opening a wine bar. Most people swallowed and didn't spit.

The following night I went to another tasting. Though it was held in a Park Avenue ballroom, it was more of a populist affair, organized by the owners of Bottlenotes, an online wine community that hopes to become a Pandora for the wine set, matching member's unique tastes to corresponding wines, co-founder Kim Donaldson told me. The event featured affordable offerings from around the world--the Bordeaux-style blends of Lebanon's Chateau Musar stood out--and a younger demographic. The entrance fee was as much as for the Sotheby's tasting, which seemed a little steep, but then a lot of nibbles also were provided.

Since taste is so personal, it's foolish to rely on the ratings systems and descriptive gibberish of professional critics. Tastings--with the more bottles on offer the better--are a good way to find wines you like, and, just as important, wines you don't. With that said, let me offer an inexpert recommendation, an affordable red wine that's my home staple--Pago Florentino, 100 percent tempranillo, from the Spanish region of La Mancha. It can be found most places for about 15 dollars, and I guarantee you'll like it.

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Paul Wachter is a writer based in New York and the co-founder of AgainstDumb.com. He has written for The New York Times MagazineThe Nation, and Eight by Eight.

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