The holiday season is upon us, the time of year for family, friends, food — and wine. Yes, it’s true, I associate the holidays with alcohol. It never used to be this way (probably because I didn’t drink), but for the past five years, I’ve spent late November stocking our wine rack.

There are several reasons for this:

  • From mid-November to mid-January, the local supermarkets have huge wine sales.
  • Every winter, Consumer Reports lists holiday wine bargains. In the December 2010 issue, for example, they suggest 22 “best buys” between $4 and $15 per bottle. (Most are in the $7 to $10 range.)
  • Our circle of friends seems to have more dinner parties during the winter than at other times of the year. When we gather, we drink wine.

For a long time, I used the shotgun method of buying wine. I went to the store and bought bottles at random, usually based on whether I liked the label. (No joke!) Nowadays, however, I’m more methodical. I’m reluctant to buy a wine I haven’t tried before; I mostly buy wines I know I like. And I try to get them for as little as possible.

Hunt for wine bargains!

Drink what you like
My top tip for saving money on wine is to buy what you like. When you buy a bottle blindly, there’s a chance you won’t enjoy it. Buying bad wine is like pouring money down the drain. But if you stick with old favorites, wine can be an excellent value.

How can you tell what you like? You have to experiment. Wine recommendations should be treated like movie reviews: They can give you a general idea of what you’re going to get, but your actual reaction will be intensely personal. To know for sure, you have to taste a wine.

When you find something you really like, write it down. For me, this only happens about once a year. When I taste a wine that knocks my socks off, I immediately send myself an e-mail so I won’t forget. After doing this for the past few years, I’ve developed a short list (of four wines) that I’d actually like to have on hand.

There’s no need to keep elaborate notes (unless you want to). I’m an unsophisticated wine drinker. Oaky? Fruity? Full of tannins? Heck if I know. Some people are serious about wine, and that’s fine. For me, though, wine is fun. Eating a good meal while sharing a bottle of wine is a bonding experience. Wine brings people together. And it does that just as well at $8 a bottle as at $80 a bottle.

Note: Blind taste tests have shown repeatedly that neither wine experts nor average joes can tell the difference between fine wines and cheap wines. Price is no guarantee of quality.

Finding wine bargains
As much as I love it, wine can be expensive. It pains me to spend $25 on a bottle of something to drink. So I don’t — not if I can help it. Instead, I keep my eye out for wine bargains. Here are five ways I save money on wine:

Supermarkets sometimes have huge wine sales

  • Wait for a sale. Yes, wine goes on sale, especially at supermarkets. Between now and the end of the year, Safeway has tons of wine marked down for the holidays, including “30% off wines priced $20 or more”. (This is true in the Portland area, anyhow.)
  • Buy in bulk. Many grocery stores offer discounts if you buy several bottles at once. Safeway, for example, gives shoppers 10% off if they buy at least six bottles. Combining this with the 30% discount I mentioned above, you can buy a $20 wine for $12.60 — or a $40 wine for $25.21. (I’m using Safeway as an example because that’s our local supermarket and I know their policies.)
  • Order by the case. When you find a wine you like, stock up. Ask your local wine store or supermarket if you can order a case of the stuff — and ask if that’ll earn you a discount. My friend Paul, for example, recently found a tasty pinot noir. At $24 per bottle, it wasn’t something he could afford, though. When the local Fred Meyer put the wine on sale for $10 a bottle, he bought a case. By doing so, he got an extra dollar off the sale price, saving him a total of $15 per bottle!
  • Shop at a warehouse club. Most Costco stores have a fine selection of wines at reasonable prices. I’m sure other warehouse stores do, too.
  • Check discount stores. I’ve had several GRS readers tell me that they buy their wine at ding-and-dent stores, such as Grocery Outlet or Big Lots. (Here’s an article that explains how Grocery Outlet can sell good wines for cheap.)

I’m sure there are other ways to buy wine for less, too. Consumer Reports, for example, is a fan of buying wine online. (Their wine shopping tips include advice for buying via the web.) And I’ve always wondered if it might be possible to get a good deal by buying directly from the winemaker. If you have tips for saving on wine, please let me know.

Further reading: If you’d like to learn more about wine, check out the Consumer Reports wine buying guide. It’s a short intro to the types of wine and when to drink them.

Putting theory into practice
So, how do I put these tips into practice? That’s easy to answer since I’ve been doing so for the past couple of weeks.

First, I do 90% (or more) of our alcohol shopping at the end of the year, when the best bargains can be had (at least here in Portland). We stock up during the holidays, and then don’t worry about alcohol for the rest of the year.

When I start my holiday wine shopping, I check to see if I’ve noted any favorite wines over the past twelve months. This year, for example, I had two: the Graffigna Centenario malbec and the Domaine de Ménard sauvignon blanc. I don’t know where I drank these, but I liked them enough to make a note to myself. So, I headed to a local wine shop and ordered a case of each. (Along with cases of two past favorites.) For less than $8 a bottle, I now have wines I know I like — enough to last a year or more.

Wine invoice
Once each year, I place a big wine order, which lowers my costs.

Next, I stopped at Safeway to buy some pricier wine. (We usually take this to parties; I don’t mind giving expensive wine as a hostess gift, but I can’t bring myself to drink it at home. Is that weird?) Using the sale I mentioned above, I bought six bottles regularly priced $20 or more. I paid a total of $96 for wines that would normally have cost $150.

Finally, after Thanksgiving, I’ll carry the latest issue of Consumer Reports with me on a trip to Costco. If I find any of their recommended wines, I’ll buy two or three bottles of each.

This brief burst of wine shopping will keep us stocked for at least a year, and will save us money to boot!

A brief word about booze

Wait for sales on booze.It’s more difficult for me to give advice about beer and booze. I don’t drink beer, and I’m under the impression that each state has different rules and regulations for the sale of distilled spirits.

Here in Oregon, for instance, liquor stores are under the oversight of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which tightly regulates how and what they can sell, and at what price. Because prices are controlled by the state, shoppers can visit the OLCC website to download a price list and to see current specials.

My guess is that in most places, it pays to be patient. If you have favorites, wait until they go on sale. When they do, stock up. For instance, I’m a fan of Scotch whisky, and like to have my favorites (Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin) on hand. Rather than pay full price for these, I wait until they’re marked down, then buy two or three bottles. Recently, for example, I found Caol Ila discounted from $54 to $50 a bottle. I bought two bottles to tuck away for the future.

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