Customers often ask me, “What is your favorite wine?”  — to which I reply instinctively, “I don’t have a favorite wine but there are things that I commonly look for when choosing a wine…”

I remember my first “Ah Ha” moment with wine back in the mid-eighties when the staff at a local restaurant asked me to pick out a bottle from the wine list for my birthday. Naturally I looked for the most expensive bottle I could find ($50.00 restaurant price.) I didn’t know much about wine but at the time and I associated price with quality (something a lot of people never move beyond). I had high expectations, and as I poured the dark red liquid from the bottle into my glass the smell of wet stone and earth filled the room. I took a sip and the flavor of dirt, saddle leather and dark fruits filled my mouth. I was transported somewhere into the distant past and I felt connected with something ancient and all knowing. It was a privilege that I had never experienced up until then. The wine was a La Mission Haut Brion, a Bordeaux wine from Graves, and I had no idea of the estate’s pedigree and reputation, but I felt connected to that place. The wine took me there. From that point on, that experience was my reference point as a dilettante wine lover on the beginning of a journey that would last my lifetime.

What’s my point? It’s that there are two types of wines out there: wines that bring pleasure, accompany a meal and provide a reliable, predictable experience; and then there are wines that speak to you on a much deeper level and connect you to something much larger than yourself. This is the wine world at present moment … a world that most consumers are unaware of for the most part.

Yet just below the surface there is a serious struggle going on between the small mainly estate-bottled wines produced by small family businesses, often represented by quixotic wine importers who have more passion than business acumen and the more dominant corporate brands produced on a larger scale and backed by lots of corporate financing and even more marketing. The latter tend to be produced by a consistent formula to achieve very predictable results, often test-marketed by research and development teams.

Typically these wines produced in this manner are good and deliver reliable results with a wine from Australia being similar to a wine from South America being similar to wine from California. Like all business decisions, the owners of these wineries or brands are looking for a return on their investment and often times make wine by a formula designed to achieve those results through high wine scores from the experts (another institution that I subscribed to religiously as a young enthusiast but eventually learned to detest.) I suspect that many of these wineries would actually like to make wine differently but like all status quo the idea that “everyone else is doing it” and the fear of rejection is so high that it’s much safer to carry on as normal.

As you may have guessed my passions lie with the other camp (and I suspect your curiosity and desire for authentic experience has brought you here as well.) The wine world is no different that the revolution that’s taking place with food in this country. Wines produced by small farmers and families and brought to you through quality reputable importers are always much more interesting than their larger counterparts. It’s like the difference between a meal produced for five people vs. one produced for a banquet of two hundred. (Granted that both chefs are talented and of equal experience.) The small one wins every time.

So you’re asking me, “Conrad, I’m ready to take wine to the next level but it’s all so complicated and how will I ever know which wine to try?” Easy, I say. Learn to shop for wine by the back label. There you’ll find the name of the importer/ supplier who went to the trouble to select for you only the best small producers that met their criteria for quality. You might not always get what you were expecting but what you will get is a genuine real wine that will transport you to the place it comes from. Think of it as a mini vacation without having to put up with those awful airlines and customs officials. Now you’re saying to yourself, “But how do I know who is a reputable importer or supplier?” Again, I say easy. Just start with a few of the ones I’m about to recommend to you and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to savvy wine buying.

These are some of the folks (but by no means all of them) that I find to be on the cutting edge of what’s great in the wine world right now. (And by that I don’t mean commercially). These are importers you can trust day in and out to bring you beautiful wines that speak of place and personality. Many of them are produced organically or at least sustainably, and most rarely command the high price tag of the trophy wines. What you will get are wines that you find yourself coming back to time and time again. I promise you…

Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchant

”This endeavor started in 1977 as a humble, one-man retail operation located in New York City but very much outside the mainstream of the wine business. The objective from the outset was to work as directly as possible with growers who were dedicated to producing limited quantities of the finest quality wines and who shared their passion for “terroir”, that ephemeral “sense of place”. These producers supply wines from almost every viticultural area of France, a broad range of wines from Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardy and the Valle d’Aosta in Italy, the high mountain area of the Valais district of Switzerland and a unique Cava from Spain’s Catalonia. The wines are selected for concentration, purity of flavors, and clarity of expression.”

Louis/Dressner

“Louis/Dressner Selections is a portfolio of over 100 vignerons in the Mâconnais, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Loire, Bugey, Jura, Languedoc-Roussillon, Southwest and Champagne regions of France; in Piedmont, Friuli, Veneto, Tuscany, Sicily and Puglia regions of Italy and in the Douro of Portugal. We also work with two Spanish producers, as well as a Croatian and a Slovenian! We are a partnership of Denyse Louis, a native Burgundian, Joe Dressner and Kevin McKenna. Collectively, we spend nearly nine months a year in Europe working with our growers and selecting wines for importation to America. We have no brands. We are not looking for them. We do have a group of fanatical growers who are doing their best to make wines that are original because they are honestly crafted. These might seem old-fashioned, but in the present context it is almost revolutionary….”

Terry Theise Selections

“If it is true that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, Terry Theise has been there and back. A brief perusal of his writing makes it quickly apparent that the man has no reservations about conveying his thoughts and feelings on wine, life, sex, philosophy and general cosmology. In Terry’s world, it’s all inter-related. So, without further ado, we encourage you to jump headlong into the wonderful world of Terry Theise German, Austrian and Champagne Estate Selections. Prepare yourself for a psychotropic experience. The Theise Manifesto – Beauty is more important than impact. Harmony is more important than intensity. The whole of any wine must always be more than the sum of its parts. Distinctiveness is more important than conventional prettiness. Soul is more important than anything, and soul is expressed as a trinity of family, soil, and artisanality”

Weygandt-Metzler Importing

“Since 1987, Peter Weygandt has been an importer of French wines and has gained a national and international reputation for the quality of his selections and his portfolio of top “boutique” French wines. In recent years he has expanded his portfolio to include Italian, German, Austrian, Australian, Slovenian and Spanish wines, more than 120 producers in all. One of the small specialty importers with impeccable credentials as well as a great palate, the unassuming gentleman, Weygandt, does as fine a job as anybody in the business, culling out great wines from France and Australia. His low profile personality rarely generates much noise for himself, but he does not have to, given the impeccable quality of his portfolio.“