A wine guide for frugal folks

Kim and I first connected on a wine tour 18 months ago. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that we’ve continued to build our relationship over glasses of chardonnay and (especially) Champagne. We enjoy wine, and we’ve had a lot of fun creating a shared wine library.

At the same time, we’re frugal people. We’re not willing to spend $50 on a bottle of wine. Heck, it hurts to spend $20 on a bottle of wine! No, we’d prefer to spend less than $10 per bottle, if possible — but we still want to drink the good stuff.

A highlight from our European vacation: Tasting wine and cheese in Paris!

It’s been three years since I shared strategies for wine-buying. With the holidays approaching, I thought now would be a good time to review my techniques, and to share the things I’ve learned since I last wrote about the subject.

Here are my top tips for buying wine:

Drink what you like

This is the most important rule of wine-drinking. There’s so much ink (and so many pixels) devoted to wine reviews and tasting notes that it’s easy to believe that certain folks are experts and you’re not. But here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter that Robert Parker loves a wine. Robert Parker is Robert Parker. What matters is what you like. If merlot tickles your pickle, drink merlot. Me? I never met a sauvignon blanc I didn’t like. While everyone else is drinking red, I’m drinking white because I like the tart taste and the crisp finish.

Visit your local wine shop

Most metropolitan areas will have a store devoted to wine. Some places — like Portland — have dozens. If you like wine, spend a little time there. Get to know the staff. Let them know what you like. They can be a valuable resource for discovering new wines — and for getting unexpected discounts. (Note: Some places sell wine and spirits and beer all under the same roof. That’s not allowed in Oregon (except for a couple of test stores in a recent pilot project. Wine shops only sell wine.)

Try a lot of wine

Whenever we’re at a party, we’ll try the wine. When we go out for dinner, we sample new wine. (Kim has taught me the art of asking for a taste before ordering a glass. In the past, I would have thought this was tacky; but she’s convinced me it’s not just acceptable, but smart.) By drinking a lot of wine, we’re able to expand our palates and discover new favorites.

Watch for cheap tasting opportunities

We’re fortunate to live in the Willamette Valley, where there are dozens of wineries, some of which offer free (or cheap) tastings from time to time. (Plus, when we visit Kim’s hometown in northern California, we taste wines in nearby towns.) And sometimes on a Friday or Saturday, we’ll check to see if local wine shops are offering tastings. Remember: Even if you have to pay, the tasting fee will usually be deducted from any purchase you might make.

J.D., Kim, and Gwen tasting wine in Murphys, California last autumn.

If you find a bottle you love, buy a case

 Most wines are meh. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. But every so often, you’ll discover a wine that makes your taste buds tingle. And rarer still, there’ll be a wine that both you and your partner enjoy equally. When this happens, take notes. Snap a photo of the bottle. Take this info to your local wine shop and find out what it costs to buy a case. And if you really love it, consider buying several! Kim and I have done this with great success. In our 18 months together, we’ve found three bottles that we both enjoy and one that we truly loved.

Host a wine party

One fun way to discover new wines is to host your own tasting. Gather a group of friends, each of whom brings one or two bottles and something to snack on. Devote a long afternoon/evening to sampling the different varieties. You can make this more fun by doing a blind tasting and having everybody jot down notes about each wine. We’ve done this with wine and with whiskey, and we’ve had fun both times. (Please note that this gets very sloppy by the end of the process. That’s part of the fun.)

Be patient

Learning about wine and building a small wine library takes time. There’s no rush, especially if you don’t drink many bottles. It’s better to slowly build a quality collection than to have a bunch of wine you’ll never drink. If our stock dwindles, it dwindles. We have some old standbys we know we like, and we can always pick them up, if needed.

Use an app

There are a variety of web- and phone-based apps for exploring wines. We’ve been beta-testing Wine4.me, which allows us to track bottles we enjoy, while also recommending new wines to try.

Where to buy wine

Once you’ve discovered a wine you love, one of the challenges is finding a cheap place to buy it. Prices can vary drastically from one store to the next. (Kim likes a particular sparkling wine; she uses its prices as a kind of barometer for how expensive any given store is. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Whole Foods isn’t a cheap place to buy your wine…)

Trader Joe’s is a fantastic source of decent low-priced wine. TJ’s is famous for Charles Shaw, better known as “three-buck Chuck” (“two-buck Chuck”, if you live in California). These wines aren’t great, but they’re passable. Best of all, they cost less than a buck a glass. But did you know Trader Joe’s has many other wines that cost less than five dollars per bottle? At that price, there’s little risk in trying a bottle to see if you like it.

Costco is another surprising source of wine. This warehouse store doesn’t have a huge selection, but its buyers carefully curate the limited number of bottles available. You can generally be sure that anything you buy will taste good, even at the lower price points. And some of the more expensive bottles ($15 or $20) are excellent.

Consumer Reports provides periodic recommendations for “best buys” of mass-market wine. Last week at her dental office, Kim found an article in Sunset magazine that ranked the best wines out of 3,000 their expert panel tasted. She brought home the section that listed the best bottles under $12. (Every year around Thanksgiving, I take the list of wines recommended by CR to Costco and Cost Plus. I’m usually able to find a few bottles of cheap, good wine.)

Finally, here’s a very important tip: Like any food product, wine is only a value if you drink it. We waste a ton of food in the U.S., and that includes wine. Don’t buy so much that you won’t use it. I visited a frugal friend’s house recently and spent some time in the basement. She had a couple dozen bottles of wine, all of which were covered with dust. Some of the bottles were very old — and not because it was wine that needed to age. I’m guessing a lot of that will go to waste. A bargain isn’t a bargain if it doesn’t get used.

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