Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Adventures in Wine Buying

This is the first guestpost by the honorable Deetrane, wine lover and pal extraordinaire:

I am honored to be a guest blogger here on the Brooklynguy blog. I will do my best to be a worthy Ed McMahon to Neil’s Johnny Carson.

Today I’m going to talk about how I buy wine. In my view, the less you pay for the wine, the better it tastes! Especially if it’s really high-end stuff. So what I try to do, ideally, is this:

- Buy pretty much only at auction (e.g.

- Spend no more than $25 a bottle

- Stick to the better vintages

- Stick to regions and varietals that I know I like, even if I don’t know the producer

When buying at auction, the key is not to get into a bidding war. There will always be another lot, so put in your maximum bid, and then go do something else. I also go after stuff that others seem to be avoiding, and I will sometimes buy in bulk.

There is certainly a down side to this strategy (like when you find out you just bought a case of wine that really sucks). But if you have decent knowledge of the better vintages in different regions, and you do a little research (I depend a lot on CellarTracker and WineZap), you can avoid winding up with a case of really terrible wine.

This obsession with finding steals (no pun intended – read on) can lead to some very interesting experiences, including brushes with criminals and law enforcement. Like last summer, when it occurred to me to look for wine on Craig’s List. Sure enough, a simple search for a few common appellations turned up the following post:

!!!2000-2001 Brunello, Barolo, Super Tuscan - $20-$20!!!

Hmmm. Whoever posted that had me right in their crosshairs. Right regions, right price, and two of the best recent vintages. I inquired, and a guy named Konstantin sent back a laundry list of ultra exclusive top Italian bottlings, such as 2001 Argiolas Turriga Isola Dei Nuraghi, 2001 Braida Barbera D’ asti 2001 Ai Suma, 2001 Colpetrone Montefalco Sagrantino, and countless Barolo’s, Barbaresco’s and Brunellos. I’d never tasted any of these wines, but some quick research on WineZap showed the average retail price for any of these bottles was about $60. I told him I’d take 3 bottles of the 2000 Marziano Abbona Barolo Pressenda, for $65.

The next day I met a tall, charming Russian guy named Konstantin on a street corner. The wine was in impeccable condition, still cool from being in a cellar. So the day after that, I called him up and bought all his Barbera’s! A few days later, Konstantin e-mailed to tell me about the other insane deals he could offer. Over the next 4 weeks, I continued to receive one or two e-mails a week from this guy, and met him 3 or 4 more times, each time purchasing 3-5 bottles for $20-$30 each. These meetings were very jovial, and we would chat amicably as he removed the wine bottles from his duffel bag. At one point he told me that he worked as a “wine rep”.

About five weeks after my first rendezvous with Konstantin, my buddy Kevin invited me to a restaurant called Esca in Manhattan, where he knew the sommelier. Esca is one of the exalted NYC restaurants co-owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, which include Babbo, Lupa, del Posto and the best (albeit way to $$$ for me) Italian wine store on the planet, Italian Wine Merchants. I’d been to Babbo once, and let’s just say that I spent the next six months obsessing over the Babbo cookbook and re-creating his melt-in-your mouth tripe alla parmigiana (until I noticed I was the only one eating it). I had also recently read the New Yorker’s in-depth profile of Dave Pasternak, Esca’s Bay Ridge-born chef and co-owner with Batali and Bastianich.

The second I entered the restaurant I was drawn to the ginormous wall of Italian wine along the back wall. I started taking stock of all of the wines Esca had that I myself had recently purchased for a song, courtesy of Konstantin and Craig’s List. I congratulated myself on my impeccable good taste!

Kevin’s friend the sommelier, who we’ll call “Frank” to protect the innocent, seated us, set down the wine list, and poured us a stunning glass of Soave (which until then had always associated with the supermarket jug variety). I disappeared into the wine list. I quickly noticed that not one or two, but ALL of the wines I had either purchased from Konstantin or been offered by him were right there on Esca’s list! They also happened to be the most expensive ones. Even I knew this couldn’t be a coincidence. I asked Frank if he purchased all of Esca’s wine from one wine rep.

“No way,” he replied. “I source it all myself. I don’t get more than one or two wines from the same importer. It’s taken me three years to develop this list.”

I suspected as much. This wine list is a form of Esca’s DNA. Try finding any another one like it anywhere. I felt a bead of sweat forming on my forehead.

“Kevin,” I whispered. “I’ve been buying Italian wine from a guy on Craig’s list.”


“Every single bottle is on this wine list!”

“So what?”

“Frank just said that he put this list together from scratch, and gets it from all over the place. Plus, I’ve been making the wine buys on a corner one block away from here! Something is definitely wrong. The wine has to be coming from this restaurant!”

“Should we tell Frank?” Kevin asked.

We really should, I thought. Although he was leaving the restaurant in a week, it was the right thing to do. He’s the wine buyer, and at the very least he’d be curious. When Frank returned to the table with a quartino of Friuli (another revelation), I started to explain that I had purchased many of the same wines on his list at very low prices directly from a wine rep whom I’d met on Craig’s List. When I told Frank how much I was paying, he was dismissive.

“Those bottles are hot, they’re stolen. My cost is at least double that.”

Aw, crap. At that moment I realized that my good fortune was about to end. It was over.

The wines had to be coming from Esca, and we had to tell Frank. The wines were simply too unique and diverse – there was no way that Esca’s wine list could have all of the same wines on them, not to mention that they were all among the most expensive. I couldn’t NOT say something. Frank was Kevin’s friend, and he would be the one to get in trouble. Plus, the spectre of Mario Batali loomed large – he was my hero!

Kevin called Frank back over and I pointed out each wine that I had bought, and for how much. Frank asked me to describe the person I was buying from. I described him as a tall Russian with a shaved head. Howard’s eyes narrowed and he looked straight at me. Speaking in an eerie staccato, as if he knew what was coming, he asked in a rising voice,

“What. Was. His. NAME?”

When I said “Konstantin”, Frank’s face went white with shock and I thought he was going to explode.

“HOLY @*&%! He’s the other manager here!”

Frank did an awkward, spasmodic little wiggle as he digested this information, then quickly regained his poise. It just so turned out that this was Konstantin’s night off. Can you imagine if it had been any other night? What are the odds?!!! Frank then called one of Esca’s co-owners, Simon Dean, back to the restaurant. Simon and I went to a computer in the cramped office downstairs, where I was easily able to call up Konstantin’s numerous advertisements on Craig’s List.

Soon, the place was abuzz. Pasternak quickly surmised something was up and kept coming out of the kitchen, looking askance at me in my cargo shorts, and at Kevin, who really wasn’t dressed much better. Frank kept the quartini coming and told me not to worry. Simon patted me on the back and said how much he appreciated what I did and that they never would have known had I not come in. I offered to give them the wine back (what was I thinking?!!!). Simon politely demurred. Phew.

TO BE CONTINUED…featuring the NYPD, a sting operation, and the answer to the most important question: did Deetrane get to walk away with his hot wine???


Anonymous said...

wow! double wow! this is a great story, and what a cliff hanger. i'm almost mad that i have to wait to read the rest, no i am mad. ah well, as my wife says "hunger is the best sauce!" especially if you've got a bottle of wine to go with it!

having a guest blogger, great idea! thanks for bringing someone else to the party brooklynguy (aka neil, did he disclose your secret identity?)

Anonymous said...

Just you wait, Paul. It keeps getting weirder.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are reimbusred properly for coming forward. Sometimes it is not so easy to become a good citizen

Anonymous said...

I lost $5,000 worth of wine (mostly Sine Qua Non) to this guy. The bastard.

Brooklynguy said...

Hey Coyote,
That SUCKS. I hope he gets deported to Russia too, and then says something nasty about Putin.