Yes, I know it's a bit late in the decade to be mentioning Sideways still, but bear with me on this one. Remember the restaurant scene? The montage of bottles, their labels paraded across the screen (and before the protagonist's increasingly blurry field of vision) like contestants at a beauty pageant? That was my first glimpse of Sea Smoke, a wine that, up until then, I'd only ever heard about. One of those much-touted Cal Pinots that you just can't get.
Or so I thought. David Brown saw that scene, paid a visit to the Sea Smoke website, and signed up for the mailing list. "There was no waiting list at the time, and I got an allocation the first year. It's kind of an interesting system -- the allocation is based on what you've bought previously, as well as referrals. You get so many points for every bottle you buy and so many for every person you refer. They have levels -- C5 is the lowest, and C1 is the highest. Even at C5, I got a case of wine. I think I'll probably be a C3 this year. I bought my full allocation, and I referred probably a dozen people."
Not bad for a rookie, a guy who has been drinking wine for all of 12 months. Brown is 26; he moved to San Diego five years ago from "rural New Hampshire -- a middle-class country family that still drinks wine out of a box. I came out here for a change -- I've always felt like a big-city kind of guy, and I had family here."
Once in town, he met Chris Womack. "He's in the business, and he's a couple years older than I am. We became really good friends, and we started going to Wine Steals when it first opened. I was probably one of the first customers in there when they opened for lunch on their first day. Mike, who has been there since the beginning, opened a bottle of Opus One, and he gave me a glass for free. I thought, 'If people are this generous and this willing to teach others about wine, it can't be a bad hobby.'" He started tasting at the bar and bringing bottles home. "I still get wine there quite a bit -- they have some of the best prices around for stuff that you drink every day and one of the best attitudes around."
The Opus aside, Brown resolved to hunt bargains. "I said I didn't want to ever spend more than $15 on a bottle." That conviction lasted a full six months. "Then I started drinking the Sea Smokes and the Dunns. I started meeting people who were more into wine than I was. You go to dinners and you go to parties and you start tasting stuff that is incrementally more expensive -- sometimes, exponentially more expensive." He came up against one of the questions that plague the novice oenophile: "Does the quality increase proportionately with the price, and what's the level where it stops? I still haven't figured out quite where that is," but it's definitely enough to merit a $20 bottle of Sea Smoke Botella. "It's a pretty stellar deal, and you can't buy it anywhere. It's their least expensive bottling, but it's my favorite."
The occasion for Brown's Sea Smoke reverie is a lunch at the Third Corner, to which he has brought a bottle of the stuff. It's a generous gesture, one he thinks is entirely in keeping with the wine lover's ethos. "I just bought a half-dozen bottles of Turley from a guy on the board" -- the discussion forum at eRobertParker.com -- "who was sharing his allocation with people on the winery's waiting list. People are willing to share, and they sell their wine at list price. I really appreciate that."
Brown found the board through his friend Womack. Now, he keeps the board's Firefox tab open whenever he's at work in his home office. "It's probably one of the most valuable resources I've had in the past year," he says, and not only -- not even mainly -- because of collectors looking to share their allocations. "People are so willing to teach, and they do it without arrogance. Another recent purchase that I enjoyed was a 375 ml bottle of 2002 Louis Latour Chassagne-Montrachet from Vintage Wines. I had never had white Burgundy, only California Chardonnay. I thought, 'For $15, I'll try it.'" (Wineries take note -- half bottles are not without their virtues.) "I felt it was an amazing wine, and I went on the board and said, 'I had this amazing experience with a village-level white Burgundy. What can I buy that's similar and isn't going to cost me much more?' I got a list, and I've started working on it. I'll get pages and pages of recommendations from people. It's amazing."
Of course, the forum's members are all over the country (really, all over the world), and so Brown finds himself leaving the local market to find some of the bottles they recommend. "Most of the time, I buy my wine online, just because of availability. I shop a lot at Wade's Wines in Los Angeles. Also at Wine Exchange and K&L. I've done a fair amount of buying at Winebid and Winecomune, too." But he's also fond of the selection and the attitude at Vintage, and he's found some local gurus in the form of the shop's Friday afternoon tasting group. "Someone from the board invited me. There's a lot of making fun of each other, but it's a great way to learn. The last time I was there -- and this shows how little I know about Cabernet -- one of the guys brought a '95 Dalla Valle Maya. I was, like, 'It's good, but I don't know enough about it to say whether it was worth what it cost.' I've never tasted a French Bordeaux -- that's a path I'll probably stay away from until several more ratchets up the income ladder. I'm perfectly content drinking my $20 bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir."
Oregon, says Brown, offers the "earthy, Burgundian style" of Pinot that he prefers -- and he says this even as we make our way towards the bottom of the Sea Smoke, a true Santa Rita Hills fruit grenade, so extracted as to resemble Syrah at first approach. "I find that my palate is all over the place," he grants. So he buys from here and there, usually in lots of one to three bottles, stashing the gems in his friend's cellar. "I've got 87 bottles, and that's more than I can even think about drinking right now. I don't want to get much bigger than that. I only buy cases when I'm on lists -- stuff like Sea Smoke that's hard to find." There, the risk is minimized, "because -- and I hate to say it -- I know that if I don't like it, I can sell it." And if he does decide to sell, the board will be waiting.