Which cheap wines are really good? Here’s how to say it
- December 3, 2022
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This story is part of Home Tips, CNET’s collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
To put it bluntly, there are cheap wines and there are valuable wines. Cheap wines may only cost you a few dollars, but their quality is, well, questionable. Value wines, on the other hand, can range in price from really cheap to quite expensive, but they will more than deliver at any price point. Cara Patricia is a sommelier and co-owner of DecantSF in San Francisco and recently shared some valuable wine buying tips via email. “If (the price) seems too good to be true, it is,” she said. “Wine can be cheap, but it has its price.”
Finding wines that represent excellent value can be challenging even for educated wine consumers, which is why people like Patricia have jobs they love. (Pro tip: Corks over screw caps don’t necessarily mean better wine.) Wine is a huge category that people like sommeliers and other wine professionals devote their lives to.
As occasional wine consumers, we’re not expected to know everything or nothing, yet we sometimes feel intimidated when asking for help. At some point in the last few decades, the prevailing attitude seems to have emerged that wine knowledge is a requirement for urban adults. But what’s a worldly adult to do when it sometimes feels like we only have to describe our wine preference in one word, “dry,” and the only financial strategy we have when buying wine is to choose the second cheapest selection ? (Note: This isn’t often the best bang for your buck.)
Patricia’s wine motto is “drink for yourself,” and DecantSF is known for its laid-back approach to connecting people with wines they’ll love, without a hint of pretentiousness. As a women- and queer-owned company, inclusivity is paramount at DecantSF, including when it comes to budget issues. With Patricia’s wine expertise and consumer-friendly attitude, here are seven strategies on how to buy the best value for money wines.
(We also get the rundown on how much you can save shopping at Trader Joe’s and Costco, and whether it’s cheaper to buy toilet paper and housewares from Amazon or the grocery store.)
“You won’t find a wine expert in a big specialty store,” said Patricia. “Shop at boutiques where the experts are” and you will have access to a wealth of knowledge honed over many years of study, evaluation and most importantly, wine drinking. Even wine professionals often have a tight budget. “Go into a store and ask for staffing suggestions within your budget,” Patricia advised. “If you’re looking for wines under $25, ask employees about their favorite wines because that’s probably what they drink most at home.”
“At DecantSF, we blind taste everything before we put it in the store, and the area that’s hardest to blind taste is our most affordable wines,” said Patricia. “We really want these wines to offer more value and deliciousness, so we’re very selective about what we bring. We fill our own houses with these wines, so they must be good!”
A good local wine shop offers expertise. Many also run weekly or monthly curated tastings so you can taste before you buy.
Ariel Skelley/Getty Images
But local isn’t always an option. If there isn’t a reputable wine shop in your area, you can peruse our list of the best online wine clubs and best alcohol delivery services for 2022.
Know your price
You have every right to your budget and should never feel unsure about what to spend. Every day, wine professionals deal with people whose budgets are in the double digits as well as people whose budgets are in the tens of thousands of dollars. Either way, they’re ready to play matchmaker and take great pride in matching people to the right bottles with budget considerations in mind.
Some local wine shops like DecantSF offer deals and discounts on wines when you join a membership program.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a restaurant sommelier and shop owner, it’s get to the point and be honest about what you’re looking for,” said Patricia. “Be open about what you want,” especially if you’re working on a tight budget. For example, she suggests starting with something like, “I’m looking for a red wine under $30. I have already enjoyed wines like X, Y and Z and would like something similar. Do you have any suggestions?” You’re more likely to have a positive wine shopping experience if you open with honesty.
Wine apps and websites are a great way to compare prices and make sure you’re not overpaying. Try one of these three free wine apps to make sure you’re not being exploited.
Avoid trendy wines
“Be wary of fads, Instagram favorites, or outrageous marketing,” Patricia said. A disproportionate amount of marketing dollars are spent on only a fraction of the world’s wines. (Looks at you, Whispering Angel.) Most top wine producers prefer to keep their dollars in the vineyards and wineries, making great wines. They rely on their own tasting rooms, sommeliers and wine shops to do the marketing for them based on genuine enjoyment of the wines rather than expensive advertising and influencer sponsorships. “There’s often a premium surcharge on the coolest or hottest wines,” says Patricia, “and you can tell when a lot of money goes into marketing instead of into the product.”
However, orange or amber wines are wine trends worth looking for for a great value choice.
Trendy wine can cost you more, especially when it’s in its trendiness. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid them altogether.
Wines from Georgia
Get out the card
Becoming a sommelier has a lot to do with geography, which is another good reason to put it to work for you when it comes to finding inexpensive wines. You don’t need to know every minor wine region, or even every major wine region, but you can do yourself a favor by learning a few key regions for the styles or varietals you like best, and then getting to know their neighbors.
“Look for regions that are slightly outside of the famous regions,” Patricia said. “Maybe Sancerre is getting a bit pricey, but there are a lot of nice Sauvignon Blancs from Touraine to try. Prices in Napa Valley are crazy! Let’s try something from the foothills of El Dorado instead.”
Madroña is just one of many great wine producers you’ll find in the foothills of El Dorado.
Vineyards of Madrona
It can also be valuable to learn which New World or other up-and-coming regions produce similar wines to some of the heavyweights, as these are often places that beat for their price. If you love great Cabernet Sauvignons from Bordeaux or Napa Valley, look for great reds from Chile or Washington State to save money without sacrificing quality. Opulent Chardonnays aren’t limited to France and California either, with gorgeous, wallet-friendly expressions borrowed from Australia and South Africa.
Look for entry-level wines
The world’s most famous wine producers became this way because they made some of the world’s most iconic wines that command top prices. But these are very rarely the only wines they make, and most offer bottles sourced from broader, less expensive wine regions than their top cuvées.
“Love dry Grosses Gewächs Riesling but can’t shell out $100? Try a dry dry Riesling from the same winery at a quarter of the price,” said Patricia. ‘Wish you could afford Puligny-Montrachet? Try your favorite producer’s Bourgogne Blanc, which can often be a blend of released fruit from younger vines.”
Dry Riesling is similar to the dry Großer Gewächs Riesling but at a fraction of the cost.
As well as taking a broader look at the wine list, sampling less famous grapes from very famous producers can also be a smart financial strategy. “Try different varietals from famous producers,” said Patricia. “Love a specific Barolo? Try their Barbera d’Asti and get the same great winemaking with a different grape that costs a lot less to produce.”
A few wine shops have membership deals that are worth checking out. “There are usually discounts for members, and you get a lot more variety in each period than you would as a member of a winery club,” Patricia said. “For example, members of DecantSF Bottle Clubs receive a 10% discount on reorders of wines sold at clubs, waived corkage fees on in-store bottles, free wine flights, discounts on classes, advance sales, and other perks.”
When it comes to online wine memberships or subscriptions, she advises healthy skepticism. “Stay away from online-only wine clubs that want to make you an ‘investor,’ or use an algorithm quiz instead of a sommelier to match your preferences, or guarantee a case of wine for way too cheap,” he said Patricia. “These are often the lowest quality wines, made from mass-produced fruit and exploited labour, blended and bottled under fancy names. You might as well buy from the bottom shelf at Walmart.”
Nothing beats a great local wine shop, but if your area lacks one, a sophisticated online wine club will do the trick.
However, if there isn’t a reputable wine shop in your area, we’ve reviewed some online wine clubs for you with CNET’s Best Wine Club for 2022. Some online wine retailers like Wine.com also offer introductory offers for first-time buyers, and Last Bottle regularly offers marathon buying weekends, all of which can be a great way to stock up.
Buy in bulk
Buying in bulk is a time-honoured, money-saving strategy, and it certainly doesn’t stop at wine. “Buy more, save more,” said Patricia. “For example, DecantSF gives a 5% discount on six bottles, or a 10% discount on more than 12 bottles.” You can also save on shipping or delivery by stocking up on wine multiple times throughout the year instead of each one Occasion that requires one to buy a bottle. Large format bottles like magnums or even wine in boxes – yes, I said it – from reputable manufacturers can also save you some money.