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The Best Cheap Wine Store Ever

January 24, 2010

It has been over a month since I have written a Best Ever post.  I checked.

For a moment I was a little concerned that I had been going to that well just a bit too often.  Maybe that’s because yesterday I was at the Albany Soup Swap, for which I made The Most Delicious Split Pea Soup in the Known Universe.  And while I suppose that’s not a “best ever” claim, the level of puffery is sufficiently similar.

So I am feeling OK about my title.  Except in fact the best cheap wine store ever was a grocery store.

Maybe soon New Yorkers will be able to buy wine in grocery stores too.  I wrote about that earlier this week on the Guilderland blog.  It’s a local issue, so I’m not going to get into it here.

What I am going to do is talk all about the joys and challenges of cheap wine hunting.

The name of the grocery store is Grocery Outlet.  And to be honest, it’s a little sketchy.  They had gritty boxes of Kleenex tissues imported from Africa, moments-to-expiration boxes of non-dairy creamer, and knock-off brands of breakfast cereal.  We affectionately called the store Groce-Out.

Yet the store had a varied customer base ranging from the single mom with three kids in tow buying bug-juice with food stamps to the man in the BMW with the Burberry scarf buying cases of wine.

I suppose it wasn’t really a wine section but rather a place where wines went to die.  Really, they were already dead.  Small distributors and importers sometimes go out of business and need to sell off their inventory.  In one case, the vintner-owner of a small well-regarded winery actually did die, and his widow sold everything to the buyer who would take it all – in this case Grocery Outlet.

There were some wines from upstart wineries that for some reason or another couldn’t find distribution.  Wineries that had excess production could ditch the bottles taking up space in their cellars.

And sometimes there was something horribly wrong with the wine.  Maybe it had been stuck on a truck in the hot desert sun for a week in the summer.  Or in some cases the wines were way way past their peaks.  Some of the wine was just mass-produced plonk.  And some was simply awful.

The challenge was figuring out what would be good.

And there were some handy tricks to culling down all the wines in the store to form a short list.

1)    Regional appropriateness: I’ll consider the cabernet franc from the Loire, but maybe not the sparkling wine from Ohio.

2)    Regional specificity: In general I’d rule out wines made of grapes from an entire state or nation.  If the label said Mendoza it would make the list, while I’d pass on Argentina.  I’d take the bottle that said Dry Creek Valley and leave the one that simply said California.

3)    Quality controls: I’ve talked about this before.  The French have A.O.C.,  the Italians D.O.C. The fine print on the labels is filled with useful information.

4)    The bottle itself: Wineries may put crap wine into nice bottles (to make it seem nicer) but nobody is going to put good well-made wine into crap bottles.  Crap bottles are made from thin glass – you can feel the difference in your hand.

5)    The label: Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Labels with celebrities and animals are marketing gimmicks. Good wine needs no such tomfoolery.

6)    The vintage: Wines do not last forever. Some fade dramatically in a year. I’m not buying a 2009 Beaujolais Nouveau in 2010.  And in general I would not buy a sauvignon blanc that was more than two years old.

I heard stories of people who would buy a bottle of each of the wines that looked promising, bring them back to their car, and do an impromptu tasting in the parking lot.  Then they’d go back inside and buy cases of the best wines.

My method required a bit more technology.  I’d call ADS from a mobile phone in the store, and he would look up my short list on the internets.  Many times these wines were barely written about at all, thus their inclusion in the wine graveyard.

And even with all the research, sometimes you just get a stinker.  There was the $25 bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva they had for $5.  Both bottles I bought were terrible.  And sometimes one bottle would be bad, but the other one would be good.  This was probably the greatest learning experience of all.  Next week I promise to talk more about this, because now I need to wrap this up.

But nothing was better than finding those $30 bottles of wine for under $10 and very good wines for closer to $5.  Part of it is being a cheap bastard. But the other part is the joy of the hunt. And it was in the course of the hunt that I inadvertently learned a lot about my prey.

What I need is some new hunting grounds.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010 12:02 pm

    Dang, it’s a west coast only thing. I would totally love to check out a GO. They sound freaking amazing – like a food-filled Big Lots.

  2. ddk permalink
    January 24, 2010 7:37 pm

    I recently moved out west (from the capital district), and I was told in my first month here that the Grocery Outlet was the place to go hunting for wine bargains. I honestly still haven’t been there myself; I’m too enamored with being able to buy wine in the grocery store. Hopefully New York will make that happen soon.

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