Today’s post is brought to us by our guest blogger, Julie. Julie attended Claremont McKenna in California, lived and worked in New Zealand and has traveled extensively throughout Australia and Europe. Here are her thoughts and recommendations for selecting the right wine for you.
Wine has always had an edge of intimidation to it. Go to a tasting and invariably the majority of people are milling about, glass stems clutched tightly in anticipation, nervous smiles and flitting eyes on every face. In between these incredibly uncomfortable people who should be having a good time, surrounded as they are by fine (free!) wine and fine (free!) food, there are the few confident and happy. These people are not necessarily sommeliers and connoisseurs. They have simply embraced a simple fact any good hedonist has to: wine is fun. Wine is delicious. And most importantly, wine doesn’t have to be scary. Neither does its price tag.
I have worked behind many different bars for quite some time with a wide variety of wine and beer. I believe in two truths: 1) you like what you like 2) the reason there are SO many different varieties, flourishing varieties at that, is because we do not all like the same things. There is no wrong or right when it comes to enjoying a glass of wine. People will tell you until they are blue in the face that you shouldn’t drink Chardonnay (ABC drinkers: Anything But Chardonnay) or that Merlot was destroyed by its own popularity (per Sideways). At the end of the day all that matters is that you are enjoying what is in your wine glass, or juice glass, if that’s what you have in the cupboard.
The first essential in finding an inexpensive option for wine is figuring out what it is that you like. Trends in region and grape are always changing, so it’s usually easy to find a cheaper option within whatever category is hot. For example, a sweet and fruity Sauvignon Blanc from the popular Marlborough region in New Zealand can easily be enjoyed for around $10. If you are willing to spend a few extra dollars but want to stay under $20, you can have truly delicious New Zealand Savs such as Villa Maria, Kim Crawford or Whitehaven Bay. There was a surge in Chilean reds as well, so if you like a good Cabernet but don’t want to spend beaucoup bucks, look into one of these. They are rich and strong as any Cab should be, without all the frills that a $70 and up bottle throws at you. Try Roots or Casillero del Diablo, either of which won’t break the bank if you don’t like it after all. If you are feeling wild, try a Carmenere. It has a little bit more bite than the traditional Cabernet, but you might just find you like it. Once again, if you hate it, throw the rest in a beef stew and start over at your local liquor store. And if you do like it, you are opening the door to a whole new genre of wine. Maybe you like the bitter reds, and it’s time to wander into Malbecs and the Spanish reds section… A whole new world waits behind every grape varietal! I do recommend buying at least two bottles when you are experimenting. There is nothing worse than getting home to enjoy a new wine, only to find you don’t enjoy it at all.
Trying new things is a great joy in life, but you have to expect to be disappointed some of the time. I have only had this happen a few times, however, and have learned very important lessons. For example, while trying out Italian reds I discovered that I do not like Chianti and that I love Montepulciano. Plus, now I get to say the word ‘Montepulciano’, and that increases my enjoyment of the wine tenfold. If you can, find a friend to go on this journey with you. Having someone else around makes it more fun and cuts your cost in half. You may find your palates vary from time to time too, so a bottle you otherwise wouldn’t even serve to the dog your friend might happily finish with dinner.
If you want to stay under $20 per bottle, there is essentially no end to the good wine you can enjoy. Fantastic wines are available at this price, and there is truly no need to go over unless you are buying a gift for someone and want to spend the money or are splurging on yourself just because. Half the fun of wine is discovering new wines! A good way try new wines is to think about food matches. Are you having a rich seafood dish? That’s a great excuse to look for a buttery Chardonnay! Grab a bottle of Simi or Toasted Head, both widely available, both affordable, and both dying to be drank while you crack apart that lobster. Did you make a divine pork dish? Or a vegetable stir fry? See which Pinot Noir is on sale. Oregon is putting out plenty of excellent Pinots, and if you can’t decide, grab a Mark West and call it a day.
Make your search for inexpensive wines a journey. Talk to your friends or your local wine room purveyor if you are intimidated at first. The intimidation will pass. Most importantly, don’t be embarrassed to either purchase or present a $14 bottle of wine. Trust me, you are going to look a lot stupider if you proudly present some $100 bottle that no one who cares enough to spend that kind of money would be caught dead drinking. Don’t waste your money. Just think, for one $100 bottle of wine, you could buy 6 bottles of $15 wine! That puts a smile on your face, doesn’t it?
That said, I do generally recommend spending more than $10 per bottle. On rare occasion you will find a drinkable wine on special under $10, but I will call it rare. I do have friends who drink wines in this price range (Pinot Grigio seems to be a particularly drinkable wine in this range, per its natural tendency toward sweetness), but I predict you will be disappointed more often than not by saving those few dollars. There are wines just over $10 I do enjoy. For example, I love a white Burgundy. These wines are made from the Chardonnay grape, but are dry, complex and incredible alone or with food. Louis Jadot is a very well known white Burgundy, and their Pouilly Fuisse is one of my all time favorites. It’s a fairly expensive bottle, however (on our beer budgets, at least!), so you can tone it down to their Macon- Villages Chardonnay and save yourself the cash. I also enjoy a Renwood Old Vine Zinfandel, but they make a less expensive bottle as well, that is simply not the Old Vine. If you find a winery that makes a wine that you like, they usually won’t let you down with a less expensive bottle. I find that if you like what one vintner does, you’ll like most of what they do. In the same vein, if you find one who makes a wine you hate, you won’t like their other wines, either. Winemaking is the same as any other art. Think of your winemaker as an artist or a writer, and you will see that it may simply be a difference in taste, as it were.
Finally, if it has been a very bad week, and you really don’t have the money to buy yourself a nice bottle of wine but you really need a glass, there is an answer to your prayer. The new best friend of every wino I have spoken with in the last year is here: Bota Box. That’s right. Boxed wine is back, it’s hot, it’s still cheap, and it’s totally drinkable. My initial concern was how I would drink it all in time. We all know that wine doesn’t last too long after you open it. What am I supposed to do with the equivalent of almost 4 bottles of red once I’ve opened it? Even I can’t drink that much in the 3 days a red usually takes to turn to a vinegar mess (well maybe I could, but shouldn’t..). Just put it in the fridge. It will be just fine. The Zinfandel is my favorite red and the Pinot Grigio is the better of the whites, as a cheap Chardonnay is a dangerous road to take. For $17 a box, there is no reason for you not to have a box of wine in your fridge at all times. In a pinch they even have what I call a wine juice box, which is the equivalent to 3 glasses of wine and costs only a few dollars.