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.

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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.
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J.D., Kim, and Gwen tasting wine in Murphys, California last autumn.
  • If you find a bottle you love, buy a case. (And if you really love it, consider buying several!) 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. 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.

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 surprise 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.

More about...Frugality, Food

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graduateliving
graduateliving
6 years ago

Also – invest in decanter or aerator. It does wonders for letting the wine breathe, and it can make a $7 bottle of wine taste like a $15 bottle of wine. Our aerator (a Rabbit) was gifted to us, and we use it every time we open a bottle.

Michael
Michael
6 years ago
Reply to  graduateliving

Do they make aerators for boxed wine? 😉

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago
Reply to  Michael

The aerators I’ve seen are for serving– i.e. you put them over your glass and pour. Box, bottle, bag, doesn’t matter. But at $30 in Costco, I don’t know. I’m not unhappy with the wine I drink, I’d rather buy 6 more $5 bottles than a glorified venturi tube.

Also, I’ve read some chef does the same thing with a handheld mixer. Me, being a primitive, I’d just use a wire whisk. Or pour a small trickle from a height the way I’ve seen tea served in the middle east. Air is air, right?


EDIT: HERE

http://www.chow.com/food-news/116093/why-you-should-put-your-wine-in-the-blender/

Michael
Michael
6 years ago

“Try a lot of wine.”

I think this is the key. When you’re just starting out and have no idea what you really like, it can be costly and wasteful to just start buying stuff more or less blindly to figure out what you like.

Sample whenever the opportunity presents itself and make a note of anything that you especially like (or dislike). The wine party is a great way of making this happen.

Adam
Adam
6 years ago

For trying out a lot of wine, look at Groupon. Today alone I see two wine deals listed on my page, as much as 67% off.

Brian
Brian
6 years ago

This is one area of my budget I never spend any money on. I don’t like wine.

Pretired Nick
Pretired Nick
6 years ago

I find it fairly easy to find good wine for $10 or less. The only problem is the trial and error it takes to find it. I have a favorite right now that is $9.99. But once I can’t find that anymore, I’ll have bravely experiment until I find another favorite.
We’ve scored driving to Eastern Washington (40 miles from Seattle) and buying locally from winemakers.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

If you want to good cheap wine without the homework just visit your local Trader Joe’s. Awesome wines for about $5/bottle? A 3-liter box for $10? Yes please. Much better than Costco. The ones with the yellow price tags are the best values.

I asked a person working there how they got such low prices and she said they buy large quantities and pay cash upfront.

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
6 years ago

Total Wine and World Market generally staff experts who have tasted more wine than I can even imagine. When I want to serve something special, I go in there with a recipe and a price limit (usually $10 or $12) and have yet to be disappointed.

Andrew
Andrew
6 years ago

In vino veritas.

Charlotte
Charlotte
6 years ago

JD,

Whole Foods Market tastings is an excellent way to find great wines. In our neighborhood, wine tastings are every Friday for only $5 each person, you get to try 5-6 wines plus appetizers! A lot of our purchases are made at the end of that tasting. The best part, we get to meet with a lot of the same “regulars” since we go every Friday…lol!

In Portland, I think the Fremont location does it on Thursdays.

Cheers!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago
Reply to  Charlotte

Whole Foods? Taste maybe but don’t buy. Last spring I found a nice bottle of Robert Mondavi something something for $20 at Whole Foods. Walked across the parking lot and found the same exact bottle at Walgreens for $8.

Charlotte
Charlotte
6 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Good point. I’ll keep that in mind. However we usually buy $10 bottles, every few sessions so hopefully we did not lose a lot of money.

We buy a few from Trader Joe’s too.

Carla
Carla
6 years ago
Reply to  Charlotte

I’m always able to find inexpensive wine from Whole Foods. They are usually European and under $10.00 depending on the varietal though I do prefer domestic.

Sam
Sam
6 years ago

I was at a wine tasting event last night. I find that I really enjoy the organic wines with no added sulfites (keeps the headaches away). They do tend to be more expensive and you really need to drink the whole bottle as they don’t keep.

Agree that Costo has some great wines.

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
6 years ago

It’s all about Trader Joe’s.

A couple of good wine to recommend:

1. Cocobon: Amazing red wine for around $7

2. Tribunal: Another amazing red wine from TJ’s for about $9

3. For a white (I’m not too keen on whites but their two buck chuck Pinot Grigio is not that bad. It’s not too sweet either).

From Ralphs:

1. Magistrate Cab Sauv.

2. Berringer Private Reserve Cab Sauv.

From Anywhere: The Yellowtail Reserve Syrah is amazing.

retireby40
retireby40
6 years ago

My dad drinks a bottle a day and he has been having good luck at Riteaid. He likes Malbec from Argentina. They are good values and the $10-$15 bottles are not bad.
I think a bottle/day is too much, but ….

Dear Debt
Dear Debt
6 years ago
Reply to  retireby40

I love Malbec! I also have a friend who drinks a bottle a day. I couldn’t do it, but she says it’s her thing.

heather
heather
6 years ago

def consider picking up a copy of the brown bag wine trials – great buys in that book.

Jen
Jen
6 years ago

The pinot grigio is the best buy for white at trader joes. I usually like chardonnay and the pinot grigio is way better. I will have to look for the other $5 wines next time I’m there. I wish we had a Total Wine close by, they are so knowledgeable there. Great store.

Judy
Judy
6 years ago

If you’re located in California, Washington (state) or Arizona, there’s Beverages & More (BevMo, for short). It has periodic 5-cent wine sales, so you can purchase one bottle at the regular price and get a second bottle (of equal or lesser value) for a nickel. The sale applies to a different selection of 400-500 bottles each time, so you’ll be able to try a lot of different wines. During the last sale, we were able to score a case of our favorite everyday wine for around $70. Depending on your state’s alcohol shipping laws, you can have the sale wines… Read more »

Darlene
Darlene
6 years ago
Reply to  Judy

I love BevMo for trying new wines. The 5 cent sale is a great way to try new wines….and now they allow you to mix and match so you don’t have to buy 2 bottles of the same wine to get the 5 cent deal. I try to set a limit of $12.95 per bottle – so buy one at that price get another for 5 cents and you have $6.50 per bottle. Cheaper than my Costco and a bigger selection. My most recent trip to BevMo during their sale – total of 6 bottles for $34.62 – $5.77 per… Read more »

Carla
Carla
6 years ago
Reply to  Judy

I sure do miss BevMo (originally from California). I had no idea Oregon liquor laws was so strict prior to moving to Portland.

Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten
6 years ago

An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
Benjamin Franklin

Island Girl
Island Girl
6 years ago

I also like to keep it between $10 to $12/bottle. I’ll have to try Trader Joe’s. They just opened one near me. Thanks for the tip!

Dear Debt
Dear Debt
6 years ago

I love wine! Malbec, Cote du Rhone, Tempranillo, Reisling. I am markedly more of a red than a white wine drinker and I think it’s easier to have a “passable” red than white. Based on this, I don’t mind 2 buck chuck. But I have also had fantastic wines from TJ’s and spent $5-$10. We are so spoiled in Portland. There are wineries Silverton area, Dundee and here in PDX. I would also suggest joining a wine club if you find a winery that you really like. It saves you money, you get free tastings and they have events for… Read more »

Jameson Lopp
Jameson Lopp
6 years ago

I can’t believe no one has mentioned making your own wine at home! I’ve been making wine for over a year – it’s incredibly simple – about 4 hours of labor spread out over a month produces 30 bottles of wine. My total cost per bottle (I re-use empty bottles my friends donate) is $3 – $4 and the wine tastes like $20 retail wine because it’s so fresh.

If you want to learn more, just visit your local home brewing store!

Mrs EconoWiser
Mrs EconoWiser
6 years ago

Seriously, I always buy my wine at Lidl. It’s 3 to 4 euros per bottle and tastes great. I’m a fan of the Pays d’Oc series.

mike
mike
6 years ago

Two Words! Craft Beer. I have never enjoyed most alcohol including wine and beer but now the vast varieties of beers and blends are just off the hook. I am constantly trying new beer every chance I get. I usually can get a quality 6 pack for around $7 and no more than $10 which I would say is more than equivalent. Also the alcohol content can be quite high if that is your thing. Given a 6 pack is over 2 liters which is close to 3 bottles of wine worth. If you really want to expand your palate… Read more »

Marie
Marie
6 years ago

I don’t like wine. I want to; I’ve tried a zillion kinds, both expensive and cheap, but I just don’t enjoy the taste. I have recently found that I love fruit lambic beer, though. It has a crisp sweetness without the nasty ‘edge’ that wine has, and the fruit flavors just explode on the tongue.

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago

If you live near Portland, there is a store called everyday liquidators at 146th and stark in SE Portland. Not only are they a frugal store for food, they have a ton of wines 3 for $10. Sometimes the really nice ones are $5 a bottle. One time they got some for $1 a bottle. Great place to try a bunch, but no guarantee on getting it again.

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