Monday, February 16, 2009

The frugal couple considers wine, part 3

I asked some of my oenophilic friends to suggest drinkable wines that cost $5.99 or less. One friend responded, "I don't think you can get wine for $5.99 that you would really enjoy drinking. I'm not being snobbish, it's just that things have gotten so expensive that my favorite cheap wines now cost real money."

Another friend referred me to this depressing little article, now three years old, about cheap wines from Trader Joe's, in which the author spent $43.23 on 12 bottles of wines and invited 12 friends to a tasting party. Apart from "the evening's surprise, ... Portugal's sparkling-white Espiral ($3.99)"--"one sip of the soft, subtle effervescence was enough to convert a soda- and carbonation-hating panelist"--most wines drew dismal if hilarious comments. For example,
Bull's Blood, aka Hungary's Egri Bikaver ($3.99). Dark red, with a peppery, wet-skunk finish, the Bull's Blood smells like the crabapple tree in grandma's backyard, one panelist offered. Others were less charitable. Real bull's blood is probably nicer. This is like bull's blood boiled with piss and vinegar.
I refuse to be intimidated. If a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, most of us would have to slog through a lot of foggy, gloomy meals if we refused to buy cheap wine. I'm looking for enjoyable house wines, not nectar of the gods. I like the attitude of Ron from Illinois: "I must admit you are challenging my wine snobbery by asking for recommendations under $6. But I can do this."

Yes we can!

I'll post some recommendations today, and more as they come in. Please let me know your favorites, and I'll post them too.

1. "Think Spain," advises Dennis from Maryland. Roger from Illinois suggests going to Binny's web site and looking for Vinos Sin Ley, especially M4 Bullas ($5.99). According to Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, "The name Vinos Sin-Ley means 'wines without laws.' ... These cuvees are produced by an array of serious winemakers who wish to have their own personal projects apart from those of their employers and to not be bound by the various D.O. regulations." Roger adds, "This Spanish label has not been around very long but has produced many inexpensive--$6 - $12--bottles that are very tasty and often highly rated. The best values are often snatched up quickly and more likely to be found on the vendor's web site. Worth seeking."

2. "Try Caputo's," says Ken from Illinois. Billing itself as a cheese market, it also carries an interesting range of imported groceries, fresh baked goods, and wines at astounding prices. He swears he found a Fattoria Poggiopiano Chianti Classico 2001, which usually sells for $15.99 or more, for only $4.99 or $5.99, as well as a Rosade Furlane Colli Orientali del Friuli Pinot Grigio, hard to find in the U.S. at any price but running about £10 in the U.K., for perhaps a dollar more. "Caputo's is home to several more superbly priced, decent drinks, including a reasonable Dolcetto and a Rosso di Toscana," Ken writes.

3. Go for reliable cheap labels, many friends suggest. Some recommendations:
  • Trader Joe's Charles Schwab Chardonnay, $2.99 ("has won some decent awards")
  • Trader Joe's French Market Sauvignon Blanc, $4.99 ("slightly citrussy")
  • Trader Joe's Honey Moon Viognier, $5.99 ("goes well with Asian food")
  • Napa River Chardonnay, $5.99 ("quite good")
  • Jacob's Creek Chardonnay, $5.99 if you know where to look
  • Yellow Tail varietals, $4.99 - $5.99 ("uniformly drinkable")
4. Drink more whites. At the grocery store as in restaurants, white wines often cost less than reds for comparable quality. But if you want reds, you can always...

5. Watch for bargains... Trader Joe claims not to have sales, but they occasionally buy a winery's last few cases and sell the bottles for amazing prices. Or they promote something quirky like Oreana's Question Mark (pictured above), a spicy blend of syrah and cabernet sauvignon that belies its $5.99 price tag.

6. ... especially online. This morning I ordered six bottles of Roger's recommended Vinos Sin Ley M4 Bullas from Binny's website. It should be available for pickup tomorrow, no shipping charge. Binny's posts weekly specials, and this week one of our favorites, Gnarly Head Zinfandel, is $7.99 instead of the usual $8.99. Sam's Wine is featuring wines under $10.

7. Get a handsome carafe, like this one from Crate & Barrel ($19.95). Serve your favorite cheap house wine along with your favorite comfort food (pasta! stew! pizza!), and enjoy.

De gustibus non est disputandum.

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