I know a husband and wife who get up at six every morning to take long walks in the woods together. Another couple I know spend hours together in their garden. My husband and I like to look for bargains on wine lists. In fact, few things make us happier than finding a wine that's underpriced and overlooked. It may not be as poetic as a shared predawn walk (my husband's idea of hell) or as elemental as tilling the earth (ditto) but our tightfisted hobby has made us sought-after dining companions in certain circles. Or, as one friend remarked, "I wouldn't have the nerve to order a wine this cheap without you."
Mind you, this same friend isn't ashamed to look for bargains anyplace else. She shops every sale at Bloomingdale's and unabashedly redeems grocery store coupons. She doesn't even mind asking a wine merchant to recommend "something good under $20 a bottle." So why does she shrink when confronted with a sommelier?
My friend, like many people, assumes that if she orders a cheap wine, she'll be treated badly. (I can think of several French restaurants where this would be true.) What she doesn't realize is that expensive wines can make someone look stupid too. For example, I know a man so determined to be thought a sophisticate he only orders wines labeled "reserve." While he may be a marketer's dream--"reserve" can mean something or nothing, but it always, always, raises the price--this policy has meant he's missed out on some pretty great stuff. After all, some of the world's best wines don't feature the word "reserve." Château Latour Reserve, anyone?
That's the problem with locating bargains on wine lists: It requires knowing something about wine. It's not like reading a menu, where anyone who's been down a supermarket aisle knows how much pasta or chicken costs. The menu, by the way, can be a good indicator as to whether or not you'll find many buys on the wine list. If roast chicken runs north of $25, the odds are against your finding a good wine at that figure.
Although my sommelier-shy friend is a teacher and presumably knows the value of a good education, she doesn't want to learn about wine. Like many people, she thinks it's too hard. And so she orders the same wines over and over--Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot--often paying a premium for her obstinacy. If only she'd do a little studying, I tell her, she could easily go bargain hunting on her own.
Get to know obscure grapes
I'd suggest, for starters, that she familiarize herself with unfashionable wines like Soave and Beaujolais, and learn the names of unpopular grapes like Aglianico and Gewürztraminer. A rule of thumb: The more difficult a grape is to pronounce, the cheaper the wine is likely to be.
Instead of red Burgundy, I'd recommend ordering Moulin-à-Vent. Made from Gamay, not Pinot Noir, this wine is the biggest of the Beaujolais crus, and can be, in many instances, richer and fuller-bodied than many Burgundies. In Italy, alternatives to overpriced Barolos and Barbarescos abound, including other Piedmontese reds like Dolcetto and Barbera, not to mention Aglianico, the star red grape of Campania, which produces a wine many call "the Barolo of the south." All three were once considered lowly, second-rate grapes but, thanks to some of today's top producers, are now accorded the same care and attention as more "noble" varietals. The wines they turn out are lush and concentrated--and unlike Barolo and Barbaresco, are (mostly) ready to drink right after release.
I could go on and on with my list of alternatives. Such as bypassing California Merlot in favor of Australian Grenache--a grape that's got all the plush, sexy fruit Merlot is said to have but so rarely does. Chardonnay drinkers should switch to barrique-aged Soaves. Leading Soave winemakers are working hard to combat their region's reputation for mediocrity, and the prices they charge for their rich, complex wines will seem like a steal to oak-obsessed Chard fans.
Memorize a few good vintage years
I would also insist that my friend learn about vintages. Anyone who mastered multiplication tables as a fourth grader can and should memorize a few years. For example, it's useful for Tuscan-wine drinkers to know that 1997 was a great year for Sangiovese, while 1998 was outstanding in St-Émilion. After all, unlike the fourth grade, there's pleasure to be had in knowing the right numbers. (Fourth-grade dropouts can always consult vintage charts.)
A wine from a good vintage isn't necessarily going to be much more expensive than a wine from a bad one (unless the vintage is really, really bad--but I'll get to that later). In fact, Bordeaux has famously jacked up the prices of its en primeur wines (those purchased as "futures") regardless of whether the vintage is good or bad. However, wines like Bordeaux, Chianti and Burgundy tend to be high in acidity and/or tannins and can be particularly disappointing in off years. The faults are magnified in a bad year, since these wines rarely have enough fruit to cloak the tannins or cover the acidity.
Look for a good producer in a really bad year
That said, a great producer can make excellent wine even in a truly bad year. And sometimes, if the year is exceptionally awful, the wine may be a bargain. My husband and I dined recently in a fancy Boston restaurant--an Old World French place, with a wine list to match. It wasn't an easy place to go bargain hunting; in fact, the only interesting bottle we could find under $100 was a white Hermitage from J. L. Chave. Now even though Chave turns out what are arguably the greatest white Hermitages in the world, this bottle was from the 1993 vintage. You'd have to work pretty hard to find a year worse than 1993; in fact, wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., called the vintage "appalling" and gave it a score of 58. As it turned out, the wine wasn't bad; in fact, it was interesting. It may have lacked fruit, but it did have lovely mineral notes and a surprisingly long finish. The sommelier, who stopped by for a taste, told us, "I hoped someone would order this wine."
Get to know bargain-minded sommeliers
I've actually found quite a few sommeliers interested in bargain wines. Boston and Washington, D.C., seem to be particular strongholds, perhaps thanks to large university populations (academics, after all, are notoriously underpaid). In suburban D.C., the restaurant Bilbo Baggins's best-seller is, remarkably, a $28 Gewürztraminer. At the Blue Room in Cambridge, wine director Deanna Briggs steers her customers to cheaper wines--she offers 50 under $30--because, as she says, they allow her to be "more adventurous" in her recommendations.
New York, where I live, is more of a challenge. Maybe it's because of the New Yorkers themselves, who either dine on expense accounts or are so accustomed to spending a lot of money on everything that they're suspicious of wines that look like a good deal. For example, although Stella, a small Soho restaurant, offers one of the greatest wine bargains in town--all bottles are half price till 7:30 with reservations--it hasn't exactly been overrun with customers. According to the waitress who uncorked my terrific Trevor Jones "Boots" Grenache at the terrific early-bird price of $14.50, only a few people have taken advantage of the policy.
Maybe it's that New Yorkers don't bargain hunt for their wines in New York. Perhaps, like my friend The Collector, they travel to Paris. When I called The Collector to ask him about his bargain-hunting experiences, he began raving about a lunch he'd had late last fall. He and six friends (all men) had flown across the Atlantic to have lunch at Troisgros. They'd paid $650 apiece for nine courses and 14 bottles of wine. "A steal," said The Collector. I was dubious. A high-three-figure lunch didn't sound like a steal to me. "I'll fax you a list of the wines," The Collector replied.
The list was, in a word, staggering; it featured some of the most famous French winemaking names in the world. There was Raveneau Chablis (two vintages), Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux (four vintages) and multiple vintages of Coche-Dury Meursault. And so on. Fred Shaw, of Manhattan's Tribeca Wine Merchants, who deals with this sort of stuff every day, calculated their total worth to be about $13,000. Or $1,857 a person. That meant The Collector had saved just over $1,200, or the price of three round-trip coach airfares (though The Collector never flies coach).
I called The Collector to concede the bargain-hunting championship. Yet, I wondered, was it really fair to compare a great Grenache for $15 to grand cru Burgundy for a few hundred dollars? Hadn't The Collector ever ordered a really good wine that was truly cheap? "All the time," he answered. "Whenever I eat out with my wife."