Swirl n’ Spit

Swirl n’ Spit

Welcome to the Bottom

By Heather Irwin

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at the bottom shelves of the wine stores lately. It’s where they put the appallingly cheap stuff–down by your feet, so one must risk the twin evils of plumber’s crack and being called a tasteless tightwad in order to procure that elusive $5.99 bottle of drinkable Cabernet. Being a frequent but mostly broke wine drinker has its challenges.

Like a six-year-old in the cereal aisle, you can’t help but want the good stuff, placed conveniently at eye level. “Mommy, I want the $18 Russian River Pinot! Please! Please? Can I have that $32 Cabernet? Pleeease!”

But the pocketbook prevails. “Not today, dear,” your inner mother sighs, as you reach down below for the slightly irregular, moderately dusty stuff on sale. Aw, Mom.

But it’s not all bad news. There are some actual steals down on the bottom shelf, some wonderful everyday wines that you won’t feel guilty pairing with Lean Cuisine or leftover meatloaf. Here’s what to look for:

Good begets good: If a winery only makes cheap wine, be suspicious. If a winery is known for higher-end wine, but comes out with a value-priced label, you’ve got better odds. One recent find is the St. Francis Red. St. Francis, known for its excellent Cabernet and Merlot, offers this blend for just $11, and it is terrific.

Shop cheap: Large grocery stores, Costco and Cost Plus often have sales and deals on their lower-end wines, making a $15 to $18 bottle a steal, especially if you buy six bottles or more.

Study up: Wine Spectator and other wine publications feature wines for $15 and under. They taste a lot of stinkers so you don’t have to.

Know thy grape: Though it’s never a sure thing, look for growing regions where certain varietals do well. The Russian River is known for Pinot Noir. Zinfandel and Cabernet like hot weather. Santa Barbara makes great Chardonnay. An Alaskan Cabernet is probably not going to be all that great (ah, but ice wine, that’s another story). At the same time, be open to exploring new regions. The Central Valley of California is making some amazing Pinot and Syrah at reasonable prices.

Blends, baby: The least expensive wines are usually blends of different grape varietals. Try a red table wine, instead of a single varietal like a Zinfandel. Also, be open to wines that come from, say, Sonoma County, rather than a single vineyard.

Be a grown up: If you’re over 21 and under 40, and a woman who shops at Trader Joe’s, you’re being targeted hard by winemakers. Lifestyle advertising is usually misguided. I recently tried a wine called Twin Fin that’s marketed directly toward young, urban, hip California types. The winemakers themselves are young, hip, urban types. I was seduced. The wine was undrinkable. Look for wines that are about wine, not about marketing.

Plan B: When buying cheap wine, you have to be willing to just dump the bottle if it sucks. If it smells like fish, it’s not drinkable. If it smells like a wet dog, it’s not drinkable. If it tastes more like a tequila shooter than a glass of wine, it’s not drinkable (though I’ll still probably drink it). Wine should smell and taste like wine, no matter how cheap it is.


From the September 28-October 4, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.