Saturday, April 18, 2009

I am a budget wine crusader. You should be, too.

Good wine is a necessity of life for me.
~ Thomas Jefferson
It's good for your heart, it's loaded with antioxidants, French women drink it daily and stay thin, and it tastes so, so good. What's not to love about wine?

And why aren't you drinking it more often? If you do drink it often, then just consider yourself part of the choir as I preach on.

Far too many people are intimidated by the very idea of wine, either because they don't know much about it, or because they think the only good wine is expensive wine (not true). Or if they aren't intimidated by it, they're unimpressed with it, because they've just grabbed random bottles on sale at the supermarket without understanding anything at all about wine.

While you don't need to take a sommelier course to become a savvy wine buyer, a little know-how will lead you to some good wines, and also give you that great lightbulb moment when you realize that you can get some very good wines for under $10 a bottle, and some spectacular wines for $20 or less. Gone are the days when anything under $10 sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Boone's Farm and jug wines; it's easy to find drinkable wines for bargain prices if you're armed with just a little knowledge. But you need to be willing to try, and you'd do well to learn a little about basic varietals and the countries that produce the best versions of them. The three things to remember are read, taste, and take chances.

Read. It's easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of information out there--in books and on the internet--so try to find one good comprehensive source. I highly recommend Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible, which is truly encyclopedic (and a hefty 900+ pages), but also very reasonably priced. The link I provided takes you to Amazon, with their oh-so-affordable price of $12.97, a considerable discount off the cover price. MacNeil covers all the varietals--the different wine grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay--and all the major wine-producing regions around the world. Within those chapters, she also covers the major producers in each area as well as some of the more notable wines for each. Her writing style is fun, passionate and knowledgeable, so it makes for an easy and enjoyable read.

Robert Parker, one of the most respected wine critics in the world, has published a good glossary of wine terminology on his site; read it A to Z. And more specifically regarding budget wines, look for Robert Parker's "value list," published in his Wine Advocate (usually in late August). His recommendations on that list are reliably good wines that won't clean out your bank account. A summary of his 2008 list is here. When you're at your local wine store--or, if you have one in your area, Beverages & More--pay attention to the hang tags on the wine shelf. Most wine merchants post the positive ratings their wines have gotten, so pay attention to them; they're usually a good guide if you're at a complete loss for what to buy.

Taste. I was very fortunate to live in northern California for a few years, and took full advantage of my location to visit as many tasting rooms as possible at local wineries. Visiting a winery's tasting room is great fun, and you should ask the tasting room staff as many questions as you can think of regarding the varietals they produce in general, and their winemaking process specifically. Most of them are delighted to have an engaged, interested customer, and you can learn a great deal from these people--I certainly did. Wines are being produced all over the country now, so it's highly likely there's a winery within easy distance from your house. And if there isn't, call around to your local wine merchants and high-end supermarkets, because most of them offer regular wine tastings. You'll probably have to pay a nominal fee, but that's usually refunded if you make a purchase. As with visiting tasting rooms, it's a wonderful way not just to taste good wines, but--even more important--to find out what you like. You'll begin to learn, by taste, the characteristics of the major varietals, and understand why certain wines pair better with certain foods.

Take chances! So you're standing in front of that infinitely long shelf of red wines at Cost Plus World Market, most of them are under $10, and you haven't a clue which one to buy to go with dinner. Even the most novice-y of wine novices can make a safe guess (and safe purchase) for a bottle of wine. See that Spanish red blend with the hang tag showing an 88 rating by Wilfred Wong for $7? Go for it. It's highly unlikely you'll pick up a bad bottle of wine; it should at least be drinkable, and you may be pleasantly surprised and stumble on a real winner. And if you just absolutely hate it, re-cork it, put it in the fridge, and use it when you cook. As you take more chances, both your knowledge and your confidence will grow, and before you know it, you'll be a confident wine consumer who sidles up to perplexed-looking strangers to offer a "you know, this one's quite good--we had it with dinner last week, and loved it!"

I firmly believe the world would be a better place if everybody drank a glass or two of wine every night. We'd almost certainly be healthier, and probably a little happier, too. The quality of budget-priced wines has improved dramatically over the last 15 years, so you're almost assured a drinkable bottle if not a stellar bottle, even if you paid no more than $7 dollars for it. I'll continue to share specific bargain wines that I come across, and as this site expands in the coming months, I'll add special sections with my own wine notes I've compiled over the years on my favorite varietals and producers. We may all be cutting back and eating at home more often during these leaner times, but with good wines at pauper's prices, we can still dine like kings in our own modest little kitchens.

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