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Be Brave, Bold Wino

May 7, 2009

Any idiot can plunk $30 or more down at a reputable wine merchant and walk away with an excellent bottle of wine. It takes a special kind of idiot to be able to achieve similar ends with a ten-spot. And it takes an unbridled optimist to even attempt the feat with a fiver.

Today, there really isn’t any bad wine.  Eric Asimov writes:
In fact, you won’t find much bad wine anywhere in the wine-producing world anymore. Science and technology have come too far for that. Bad wine nowadays is boring, characterless wine, and most cheap American wine is insipid.

Beyond science and technology, I have to believe the modern distribution chain also plays a role. The winemaker has to like the wine to bottle it. Then a distributor has to like it enough to carry it. And finally a retailer has to like it enough to buy it.

Plus, wine is being produced all over the world and more and more interesting wines are available. And I love a challenge. But to find good inexpensive wine, you need to know what to look for.

1) Geography
Forget about wine growing regions. It’s not important. Let’s think big picture. Is the geography large or small? For example, does the label say “Argentina” or “Mendoza”? Generally the wine from the smaller geographic area will be better.

2) Fancy Wine Words
There are a few phrases to look for on labels of wine that indicate it is generally of higher quality, and no, “reserve” is not one of these. They vary by country.

3) Winemaking Terms
It will be unlikely you come across a wine in this price point that is labeled “unfiltered”. But if you find one, by all means buy it. It indicates a serious and dedicated winemaker.

4) Vintage
Most of the wines produced for under $20 a bottle are intended to be consumed in their youth. Some might age well, but I wouldn’t count on it. The whites and rosés will age even less well than their red counterparts. So if you think you are getting an amazing deal on a 1998 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you’ve got another think coming.

5) The Physical Bottle
Some cheap wine will be from good wineries that have gone out of business, or from distributors who are closing up shop. Or perhaps an entrepreneur just was too optimistic. Some really unremarkable wine is put into thick heavy bottles as part of its marketing. But rarely will a proud winemaker put something good into a thin chintzy bottle.

Overall the best deals will come from wine regions you have never heard of and all manner of foreign sounding grape varietals. Be adventurous, and you will be rewarded. I promise.

I have been using this system for many years, and it has served me well at stores like Trader Joe’s and other discount close-out wine merchants. Yes, I have kissed my share of frogs. But I have found absolutely stunning bottles of wine for under $7 and even a few under $5.

Don’t give in to snobbery. All wine is just spoiled grape juice. Find something you like, and buy a lot of it. Then you can start to experiment with pairings.

But more on that later.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Panks permalink
    May 8, 2009 12:13 am

    Black Mountain, the “upgrade” from 3-buck Chuck at trader joe’s is a great red at $5 a bottle.

    • May 8, 2009 1:07 am

      I remember Black Mountain well. I drank it long before the more popular Mr. Shaw took the stage. It was one of my first Trader Joe’s cheap wine finds. Certainly, it’s an upgrade. Still, I think you can find more interesting bottles at the same price range if you branch out a bit. Definitely if you move up a dollar or two.

  2. Annie permalink
    May 9, 2009 4:28 pm

    mmmm.. Mendoza! There, I got a glance into the whole snobbery spectrum– from a family Bodega whose cave is a filled in swimming pool and whose ‘climate-controlled’ aging room consisted merely of a layer of foam core to ‘state-of-the-art’ technology. In the end, I suppose, it’s “all just spoiled grape juice,” but it’s the passion of the producer that comes through.

    Any interest in sharing your “special kind of idiot” discoveries? Or, would this just kill our own qwests..?

    I like the idea of trying the unknown suppliers and appreciate your starting criteria. My problem is, that if I find one that I like, not only will I not be able to stop my qwest to “buy a lot of it”, but I’ll forget which one’s I liked. I’m not organized enough or willing to commit to a personal database.

    Any suggestions?

    I found this interesting — the notion that for as long as humans have written, they’ve written about wine. Guess the same could be said for blogging.

  3. May 11, 2009 11:17 am

    I think someone should arrange a wine tasting party in which everyone brings a bottle of red under $10.

    • May 16, 2009 10:31 pm

      You arrange it for any night other than Friday, far enough in advance, and I will move heaven and earth to be there.

  4. Spencer permalink
    May 11, 2009 8:59 pm

    I need to add a few things here. A- great fuckin’ blog. B- I agree that snobbery gets you nowhere with wine, in that very enjoyable wine comes at all price points. I mean, a good pairing is really the goal here, isn’t it? And you can do that with $5 wines very easily. But I also believe that for $10-20 you can find some wines that are just better than less expensive ones, and worth the extra buckage. Last weekend we convened on the showroom and warehouse in Berkeley and they were having a big sale. I have to say that most of the wines I bought were $10-20. They have a “>90pt wines for <$20” section which is really good too. And look, I’m not going to drink a $20 bottle most nights, it’s not “sustainable”, to use the parlance of our time, which is why I think it’s a great idea to use the fussy’s guide to find good wines for less. But there are other nights where no $5 wine is going to suffice. And this debate goes on up the price chain… Also let me give a quick plug to, whom I have no affiliation with whatsoever, who sell only half bottles from all over the world and for all prices. I’ve had some delicious botltes from them for $2-3. Check them out, well worth it!


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