In Search of Good Cheap Wine

Ignore cheap Pinot, stock up on Malbec and other rules of bargain hunting from F&W's Ray Isle.


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When I stepped through the doors of the Super Buy-Rite Wines & Liquors in Jersey City, New Jersey, the difficulty of my mission really hit me. Standing there, gazing out over the store's 30,000 square feet of bottle-laden shelves, I thought to myself, This is ridiculous. How on earth is anyone supposed to figure out which bottle to buy here?

Of course, people shopping for wine face the question of what on earth to buy every day, whether in a megastore or a suburban supermarket, many of which stock several hundred different wines. It's one reason people find wine daunting, and rightly so. If stores stocked several hundred kinds of soup, we'd find soup daunting, too.

I was in Jersey City because I'd decided that the best way to help regular wine buyers come up with a strategy for finding values would be to become a regular wine buyer myself, shopping for choices in the $15-and-under range. I'd forbid myself to draw on the reams of wine info I've crammed into my brain over the years. There'd be no buying anything I already knew was a value. In fact, there'd be no buying anything I'd ever tasted before. Instead, I'd choose what happened to catch my eye, or a bottle that fit a category that non-wine-savvy relatives and friends of mine—people who didn't taste a couple of thousand wines a year—had told me they liked. I gave myself one out: I could ask someone in the store for advice.

And because wine stores in New York City, where I live, are not particularly representative of what's available in the rest of the country, I skipped town. My first stop was Stew Leonard's Wines in Farmingdale, a village in Oyster Bay, Long Island. My friend Bob—not a wine guy at all—has long maintained that Stew Leonard's has a great wine selection. Good enough for Bob, good enough for me.

Stew Leonard's proved to be exactly the sort of place I was after: a big store in a shopping center, a kind of miles-of-aisles of wine. I pretended that I was shopping after work on the way home, a pretty common situation, and gave myself 20 minutes to find three things: a couple of Malbecs, several Pinot Noirs and a few bottles of anything else that looked interesting.

What I discovered fairly quickly is that turning off your inner wine geek when you're in a wine store, at least if you're me, is not an easy task. I ran into this problem right from the start, when I started poking around the American Pinot Noirs. Essentially, our dialogue went something like this:

Inner Wine Geek: Those cheap Pinots are probably bulked up with Syrah.

Ray: Be quiet.

Inner Wine Geek: Look, bargain Pinot, just by the nature of the grape, is not going to be good.

Ray: Shut up, shut up, shut up!

Stifling the IWG, I picked out three bottles of Pinot that seemed promising, based on the handwritten tags affixed to the shelves suggesting these wines were staff favorites. (One thing to be aware of: While some handwritten "shelf-talkers" are from store staff, others are written by the salesperson who represents the brand.) I also bought three bottles of Malbec, using the same strategy. I thought about asking one of the floor clerks for advice, but they were all clustered at a bar at the back of the store, doing a wine tasting. Whatever. I was in a hurry. As an afterthought, I also bought a liter-size bottle of Italian red that was sealed with a ceramic cap, like a bottle of Grolsch beer. It was intriguingly weird, and I figured regular-wine-buyer Ray wouldn't know a thing about it.

From Stew Leonard's, I went to Bargain Liquors in Rockville Centre, New York; from there I headed south to Pop's Wine and Spirits, in the town of Island Park. I bought several dozen bottles of wine altogether, enough to draw at least a few conclusions. The first—more an insight, really—was how easy it was for even a wine professional like me to find bottles I had never heard of before in my life. Seriously, the ocean of wine out there makes the Pacific look like a puddle.

I also discovered that my inner wine geek, regardless of how much he knew about wine, was not always right. Although when it came to bargain Pinot Noir, he was correct: The bottles I ended up buying on my shopping expeditions were all a waste of money—insipid, dull, even actively unpleasant.

On the other hand, the IWG, who admittedly is slightly jaded, would have advised me that affordable Malbec is usually quite uninteresting. My response now is that it depends on what you think is interesting. If full-flavored, capably made, appealing wines that you can buy for a song strike you as interesting, then affordable Malbec's great. I bought four I'd never tried before; all were fine. Cheap, too. Did they offer the esoteric intellectual pleasures of an oxidative "orange" wine, aged in urns buried under the Friulian earth of northern Italy? No. But most people don't want esoteric intellectual pleasure, at least not when they're wondering what will go with the roast chicken. They want a glass of wine that tastes good, and Malbec is a go-to choice, no question.

Another surprise was that two of my favorite wines were ones I bought partly because they had animals on the label: the 2009 Lab, a smoky Portuguese red from the Lisboa region, near Lisbon, adorned with the silhouette of a Labrador retriever; and the 2010 Chat-en-Oeuf, a $9, medium-bodied, zippy Grenache Blanc blend from the Languedoc- Roussillon in France (the name is a play on Châteauneuf-du-Pape) with a simple line drawing of a cat sitting on an egg. What can I say? The drawing was charming and clever. What lesson I took away is harder to pin down. I still think most "critter" wines—those sold by virtue of the cute penguins, wallabies, lemurs or other adorable creatures that adorn their labels—are about as inspiring as a fast-food hamburger. The Lab and Chat, though, came from family-owned companies and smaller importers. Maybe the takeaway is that just because there's an animal on the label doesn't mean the wine doesn't have soul.

And so, finally, to Super Buy-Rite in Jersey City, which reaffirmed my belief that a helpful, informed staff person can't be beat when it comes to finding good value wine. While I was checking out with 11 bottles, the clerk at the register pointed out that if I bought one more bottle I'd have a full case and thus be eligible for a 10 percent discount. "The discount's going to cover the cost of the bottle, so you might as well do it," she added. Excellent advice. I asked her if she'd had anything recently in the $15-ish range that was really terrific, and she asked me in return if I'd ever had Château Hyot. It was a red Bordeaux, from the largely overlooked Côtes de Bordeaux region; she'd tried it the week before at an in-store tasting. It was $15 on sale. "I thought it was great for the price," she told me. I bought it, took it home, pulled the cork and poured a glass.

"So what do you think of that?" I asked the IWG.

"You know," the IWG admitted, "I can't say I know much about it, but that is a surprisingly good bottle of wine."

Ray’s Best Cheap Wine Finds

Cheap Wine Picks

Cheap wine picks from F&W's Ray Isle. Illustration © Alex Nabaum.

2010 Chat-en-oeuf Blanc ($9)

This southern French blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Roussanne and Marsanne is bright and refreshing, with lots of zesty citrus-tangerine fruit. It's made by Boutinot, a family- owned company based in England.

2010 Bain’s Way Chenin Blanc ($10)

Mysteriously good, given that it's produced by a South African cooperative that makes the bleak claim of being "a one-stop production solution." The wine is both succulent and crisp, with lasting nectarine flavors.

2009 Casa Santos Lima Lab ($9)

More proof that Portugal is a growing source for full-bodied red wine bargains. This one comes from the Lisboa region, about 30 miles north of Lisbon. Aside from the Labrador on the label, it feels deeply Portuguese, all dark plum and spice notes.

2009 High Note Elevated Malbec ($10)

This was my favorite of the affordable Malbecs I bought—bright, sweet blackberry fruit and a touch of spice. This Argentinean red would be an ideal barbecue wine.

2009 Château Hyot Bordeaux ($15 on Sale)

Like most affordable Bordeaux, this is Merlot-based (the region's most widely planted grape variety). It was a great recommendation by the sales clerk: From a superb vintage, it has ripe currant fruit and firm tannins.

2010 Purato Nero D’Avola ($11)

A smoky Sicilian red, full of ripe blackberry notes, this wine is also as green as can be: USDA-certified organic, with a bottle that's 85 percent recycled glass and a label made from recycled paper.

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