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Advent-tures In Holiday Wine: A Wine Advent Calendar Primer

by Jessica Ried

Sightings of Costco’s wine and beer Advent calendars began as early as September this year but ALDI is upping the ante by announcing that it is designating November 4, 2020 as the first annual “National Advent Calendar Day” to commemorate the release of the first of its 20 (!) calendars (not all wine). ALDI appears to be staking a claim of ownership over the holiday Advent tradition, but there are plenty of retailers across the country jumping on the bandwagon, so there should be availability regardless of your geographic location (at least in the U.S.).

For wine lovers, it may seem too good to be true: 24 different wines to be sampled over the course of the holiday season - what could go wrong? With it looking exceedingly likely that we’ll all be sheltering-in-place for the rest of this year, could it make sense to pick up the offerings from multiple retailers? But before you start stockpiling wine Advent calendars like a mid-March shopper hoarding toilet paper and anti-bacterial wipes, you might want to hear from someone who has been down this road in the past…

I Tried Three Wine Advent Calendars In 2019. Here’s What I Learned.

Wine Advent calendars have been around for several years in the U.S. but they really went mainstream in 2018 when ALDI brought their already-popular-in-the-U.K. version to the States where they sold out in minutes. Rumors suggested that each of their stores only received two of these coveted calendars, and since the retailer does not offer an online purchase option, only those willing to arrive at the crack of dawn were lucky enough to snag one. ALDI’s scarcity model attracted a lot of publicity, creating a demand that would remain pent-up until the 2019 holiday season.

The release date of ALDI’s 2019 version (11/6/19) made its way to wine lovers’ calendars everywhere as soon as it was picked up by the press. Given the hype, it’s unsurprising that other retailers jumped on the bandwagon, including Costco and Binny’s (a Chicagoland beverage chain), hoping to cash in on the feeding, or should we say drinking, frenzy. When these other versions showed up at local retailers ahead of the ALDI launch date, it seemed foolish not to hedge bets and pick them up. Fortunately, ALDI significantly upped their stock levels in 2019, although that did not prevent people (this writer included) from lining up hours ahead of time on the day of release. Even with a two-per-customer limit, most stores sold out quickly.

Lesson #1: If you decide to join in this new spin on an old holiday tradition, plan ahead to avoid missing out and having to wait another year to participate.

So it was that this wine enthusiast found herself with not one, not two, but three wine Advent calendars in 2019. While the prudent thing might have been to open the calendars each day and pick ONE bottle to try, perhaps stashing the others away for the cold months of January & February, where would the fun be in that? But, trying all three each day could potentially result in consuming a lot of wine - more wine than anyone should consume on a daily basis (particularly for 24 straight days).

Lesson #2: If you plan to share your adventures on social media, be prepared for your friends to make comments ranging from jealousy, to judgement, to concern for your health.

There may be such a thing as too much of a good thing, and with more than one Advent calendar, you are looking at a lot of wine. While tasting three wines a day might not sound like much of a challenge (heck, it might sound like a lot of fun!), when you’re faced with styles and/or varietals that aren’t among your preferences, day after day, it can actually become… tedious? Keep in mind that there will be three more bottles on deck the next day… and the day after that… for 24 days. You may find yourself thinking more about the logistics of consumption than the enjoyment of it.

The ALDI and Binny’s versions each offered up 187ML screw top bottles (1/4 a typical wine bottle, a little over a 6oz serving) and the Costco bottles were each 350ML. Drinking all of it each day would be the equivalent of a bottle of wine! Fortunately, the Costco half-bottles came with standard corks. This allowed for the use of a Coravin (a device that uses a needle/probe to inject gas into the bottle and release a small amount of wine into a glass while keeping the rest of the bottle fresh indefinitely) so these wines could be sampled and tasted without actually opening the bottles. That left two servings (screw top), plus the “taste” (via Coravin) per night. With a little judicious spitting, the occasional dumping, and a little sharing with friends and family, the adventure can be manageable as long as you don’t have any other wine you hope to consume over the course of the month.

Lesson #3: Prepare for the volume of wine that’s involved or be prepared to dump some down the drain.

You probably need to like wine a lot in order to love one of these calendars, but if you are really into wine, then this might not be the game for you. Most of the wines were what might euphemistically be referred to as “inoffensive,” “crowd-pleasing,” or in the current vernacular “glou glou.” The selection included a lot of overlap, including 10 red blends, 9 rosés (including 2 White Zinfandels), 8 Sauvignon Blanc, 6 each of Chardonnay and Prosecco, and 5 each of Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz. While there were a few lesser-known varietals, such as Colombard, Viognier, and Carignan, the selection was not likely to expose you to “new” varieties or styles, as you might be expecting from a 24-day sampler. If your tastes tend to lead you to less mainstream grapes (such as Petite Sirah) or the more exotic (Valdiguié, anyone?), you are likely to be disappointed.

Lesson #4: You are less likely to discover unfamiliar, let alone exotic, wines if you are a fairly “serious" wine-enthusiast.

This is also not the place where you are likely to find the next great undiscovered producer from a well-established appellation. In fact, most wines were “regional” in nature - wines that fall into either Europe’s PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) or “table wine” classifications - rather than the higher level “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) or non-EU equivalent (the “names” you recognize like Bordeaux, Rioja, Chianti, Napa Valley, et al). However, the majority of the wines came from the top three wine-producing countries of the world - France, Italy and Spain; the rest came from countries with well-established wine industries, if not all from well-known regions within those countries. This aspect is perhaps where these assortments provided their most useful service: introducing the drinker to regions producing good, value-priced, quaffable wines. While Costco’s half-bottles were generally from the 2018 vintage, the quarter-bottles from the other retailers were non-vintage, allowing winemakers to blend from different years and potentially work toward a consistent flavor profile year-over-year. For those trying to discover styles they might like, this consistency is a positive selling point.

Lesson #5: You probably won’t find a bottle that tastes like a $500 bottle of Château Margaux, but you may find some good value wines from less-familiar regions, producing table wines with consistent flavor profiles.

With 24 (or 48, or 72) different bottles, you might be thinking there would be a lot of variety. While there were a few interesting wines (the Sentido de Boro 2015 Tempranillo from the Costco collection really stood out) overall, the bottles could best be described as a sea of sameness. Looking back on my tasting notes, it would be nearly impossible to distinguish one Prosecco from another. Almost all of the whites were pale lemon, with citrus and apple notes, as well as the obligatory grapefruit aromas in the Sauvignon Blancs. The red wines tended toward red and/or black fruit with a dash of liquid smoke. Most were moderate alcohol, leaning to a more international, Old-World style, although many of these same reds were fruit-forward like you’d expect in a New World wine. For the ALDI wines, it didn’t matter much whether you enjoyed the wines or not since there was no way to track down what you sampled: the wines were specially labeled as “Festive Collection,” making it impossible to repurchase anything you enjoyed (a missed marketing opportunity, in my opinion).

Lesson 6: Don’t expect to find your next “house wine,” at least not in terms of a specific producer, but you might find a region or style to explore.

Should You Join In The Cheer(s)?
There are certainly things to like about wine Advent calendars, including the opportunity to get out of your day-to-day drinking habits and try something different that you might not otherwise consider. Some, such as Costco’s, include companion tasting guides online that add to the experience. Overall, it is probably worth the effort to investigate which ONE suits your tastes and lifestyle, since having multiple versions brings with it a litany of logistical challenges not the least of which is coming up with appropriate food and wine pairings every day. But, as long as you understand the limitations, they can be a lot of fun.

Final lesson: Most wine Advent calendars will give you at least a general idea of what is inside so be prepared to put a little work in to find and get the option that is right for you.

About the Author

Jessica Ried - Jessica Ried is a wine enthusiast, Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) and Level 3 WSET. She grew up in San Francisco with convenient access to Napa and Sonoma to fuel her passion. She now lives in the Chicagoland area and continues to pursue knowledge of oenology… and as of writing this piece, has already purchased two 2020 wine Advent calendars.