14 Ways to Drink Well on a Budget

Finding a good wine buy is relatively easy if you know where to look. Here are my top fourteen inside scoops to drink well on a budget. By the end of this post, you’ll be a savvy wine shopper well on your way to finding the latest wine bargain.

1. Bottom shelves: If you are heading to a store, my first rule of thumb is to stay away from the retailer’s bottom shelf. As tempting as the prices may be, most wines found here are not what I consider good values. There are exceptions to the rule (meaning some producers don’t deserve bottom shelf placement but for whatever reason, you’ll find them there), but you’re better off looking for wines which are placed above the knee.

2. End of bin specials: When I worked retail, this is where I placed discount stragglers to make room for new products. But be careful—not all wines placed in the bin are good deals. Some stores use them to dump wines that are past their prime. Do your research before buying.

3. Case discounts: Some states in the U.S. offer discounts on case purchases. Before buying, make sure the bottle price is right—some stores mark up prices to make up for the discount, meaning you might get 20% off the case but the wine was actually 20% more than the market price. Above all, taste the wine before you buy it.  If you’re not sure what style of wine you like, head to a wine event, winery or store—many offer tastes for a nominal charge (and sometimes free). LocalWineEvents.com is a good place to find events happening in your neighborhood. The bottom line–it is much better to know what you like before purchasing a case of something you don’t like.  Do you live in a state that doesn’t allow tastings or wine events? Write to your state representative.

4. California dreaming: If you think California wine is out of reach when on a budget, think again.  You will find good bargains coming from Lake County, Lodi, Anderson Valley, and the Central Coast. These regions offer excellent varietal wines well within the budget of the average consumer. Some of my favorite ‘out of the ordinary’ producers include l’Uvaggio di Giacomo, Michael & David, and Peirano Estate from Lodi, or Husch and Handley from Anderson Valley. A recent find, Four Vines Zinfandel sourced from Amador County, Lodi, Mendocino and Paso Robles, happens to be a tasty wine at $12 a bottle. Likewise, there are many known inexpensive staples—look no further than Bogle, Hahn, Estancia, Meridian, Bonterra, Hess, and Concannon, which offer consistency in quality and price.

5. Don’t cry for me Argentina: This country will win your heart for its colorful and eclectic mix of varieties paired with some of the best quality to price ratios (QPR) in the world. Malbec is king but don’t disregard Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo. I’ve found some kick butt deals such as the Monteviejo “Festivo” Malbec Mendoza ($10), Noble Malbec or Torrontes ($12), Dominio del Plata “Crios de Susana Balbo” Torrontes ($12), and the Clos de Chacras Cavas de Crianza Malbec ($12) — all good selections at reasonable prices. Good, everyday drinking wines such as Alamos, Dona Paula Los Cardos, Alta Vista, and Bodega Norton are also great deals. Spend a few more dollars and treat yourself to a Lamadrid Bonarda Reserva ($14), or the Clos de los Siete Mendoza ($15). But if you are looking for something outside of the box, listen up for an insider scoop. The influence of Italian immigrants has brought sizable plantings of Italian varietals to Argentina. Right now, they are hard to find in the U.S., but as plantings grow and exports increase, expect to see Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese on your retail shelves.

6. Spain! Seek Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell and Albariño, but don’t forget about the little pleasures of Mencía and Godello from the Bierzo region. Another Spanish region I would recommend touring is Navarra. Rioja in the Ebro River Valley overshadows smaller DOs like Navarra, which is experimenting with a number of grape varieties and styles. Many of the Bordeaux blends are superb—concentrated and delicious at a fraction of the cost of neighboring wines found from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. If you are looking for another secret, think Cava. A visit to Spain would not be complete without tasting some of their great bubbles coming from the Penedès region—excellent quality at a fraction of the price of a good French Champagne.  Is it good? Absolutely. Try these on for size.

7. Yes, Australia: As Edward Ragg stated in a previous post, Australia makes the most reliable entry-level commercial wines in the world. You can find many good $10 wines, including Penfolds Limited Release “Koonunga Hill Seventy-Six” Shiraz-Cabernet, d’Arenberg “Stump Jump” Shiraz McLaren Vale, St. Kilda Chardonnay, Paringa Shiraz, Morse Code Shiraz Padthaway and Rolling Chardonnay Central Ranges.

8. Pinot Noir might reign in Oregon, but their whites shine in brilliance and value. Try a Pinot Gris from King Estate, A to Z, Elk Cove, Ponzi or Bethel Heights. These are some of the best value whites on the market today. They are floral and elegant—and have the goods to deliver a lively food pairing with enough versatility to serve as an aperitif. There are also some good buys in Oregon Rieslings.

9. Chile: Four and a half centuries of wine producing experience means something! They’ve travelled a bumpy road from time to time and they are still experimenting and learning new vineyard and winemaking techniques, but Chile offers great values. Cabernet Sauvignon reigns king, accounting for nearly half of the total acreage planted, but right now, you’ll find the best deals on white wines. A few good finds around $10 include the Viña Cono Sur Chardonnay Casablanca Valley, Viña Falernia Sauvignon Blanc Elquí Valley Reserva, Bodega y Viñedos O. Fournier Sauvignon Blanc, and the Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc. If you prefer reds, try the Viña Santa Ema Cabernet Sauvignon, or Veramonte Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

10. Washington: The wine industry in Washington state has made great strides over the last decade to produce quality wine. In terms of price, many are out of reach for the average consumer, but there are still some good values out there, especially if you search for wines from the Columbia Valley. Some more resent finds between $9-12 include the Castle Rock Chardonnay or Syrah. If you like Chardonnay, try the Caterina—or for Riesling, go for Chateau Ste. Michelle, Charles Smith or Milbrandt. Hogue is a good staple wine, and their Gewürztraminer and Pinot Grigio are great deals. If you prefer reds, try the Waterbrook Merlot-Cabernet blend or Snoqualmie’s Merlot.

11. Dining out: Here are a few insider secrets to get the best deal when dining out. If you are dining alone, don’t assume your only option is to buy a glass of wine. This is where the heaviest markups exist, so opt for a half bottle if the restaurant offers it. If you are dining with a larger group, buy the bottle—finding the best deal is understanding the formula behind restaurant pricing. In most restaurants, markups decrease as the wholesale prices increase, which means inexpensive bottles are priced three to four times its wholesale cost, whereas, expensive wines are priced maybe one (or two) times its wholesale cost. Here is an example:

Wine #1                                   Wine #2                                  Wine #3
Retail = $12                            Retail = $22                          Retail = $41
Restaurant List $36              Restaurant List $44            Restaurant List $54

My advice is to find your preferred price range (say $36) then opt for a wine that is $8-10 above your preferred budget. I’m not advocating going above your budget—what I’m saying is that you’ll get a much better deal staying away from the least-inexpensive wines on the list. Go with one appetizer instead of two, and select a better wine—you’ll be happier, believe me.

Insider secret alert: ask your server/sommelier to recommend some lesser-known producers. Restaurants usually have special connections with these folks especially if the restaurant is near a wine producing region. Marc and I have found some unique (and inexpensive) finds we may not have otherwise found had we not asked for the sommelier’s advice.

Another suggestion is to bring your own bottle (aka BYOB). Remember to call ahead and ask if the restaurant allows it (not all states and restaurants do) and ask what their corkage fee is—some are hefty ($20+) so do your homework and figure out if it is worth it. Another word of advice—don’t show up with a wine they have on their wine list–or an inexpensive Two Buck Chuck.  As for tipping, there are no hard rules for BYOB. If the staff is cordial and offers good wine service, I offer the sommelier/server a taste and tip accordingly. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll run into surly service (servers have been known to frown upon BYOB).  In this case, I pay the corkage fee and no more.

12. Trader Joe’s is another option you might want to consider. They have some good deals, but the selections and quality are sometimes inconsistent. Head over to Jason’s wine blog for some suggestions.

13. Online Deals: Try Wine.com GROUPON Wine Deals or Wine Spies. But remember, shipping wine can get expensive. Coast-to-coast shipping can easily add $30+ to the case price so make sure you know the final cost before clicking that “buy” button. Shipping can easily make or break a good bargain.  Even worse, you might live in a state that doesn’t allow wine shipments. If that is the case, write to your state representative!  And before you buy, compare prices through online sources like winezap, wine-searcher and vinquire—I’m sure there are plenty of iphone apps that could do a little comparison shopping as well.

14. Rely on your friends, family & trusted sources to find good deals; use online social communities to seek new wine finds and sales, like Deals from the Vines.  And if you are looking for more suggestions, check out some of our best buys. To date, we’ve cataloged over a hundred good values under $10 If you are willing to spend a little more, dig a little deeper to find sixty-five additional recommendations which are sure to please.

What are your suggestions to drink well on a budget? I know there are plenty more…what’s your advice?

~Pamela Heiligenthal