shopping on a budget

“I’ll bring a bottle of wine!” you text a friend, looking forward to seeing them after work. Sure, it sounds like a good idea until you’re standing there, in front of…is this 700 wines? 7000? Thoughts arise:

I think I like Cabernet

But what if the food doesn’t go with Cab

Why is this one $8 and this other one $48? Are they so different? WHY IS THIS ONE $8 DOES IT HAVE SOMETHING WRONG WITH IT 

If you’re sticking to a budget, the long and short of it is…there are few red wines that will reliably taste nice under a $10 price point. And fewer still will be Cabernets. We’ll go into why in another post, but keep this rule in mind: if it’s inexpensive and from a region that has some prestige to it, like France, Spain, California, Italy, Argentina, Australia…you’re getting the lowest quality they’re allowed to produce. It IS possible to find a delicious, dry, complex red for around $10, but it likely won’t be a Cabernet, and it might not be from a place you immediately recognize as a wine region.

My experience: under $10 is much harder than under $15. 

For instance, I really enjoyed a Tannat from Uruguay a few weeks ago. Different grape from a region with weather not unlike Argentina (it has a bunch of coastline, which is what grapes grown in hot weather like). I had to be open to something different, and although I’d had a few Tannats before, it was a leap into the unknown. For $12, it was worth it.

So, when you’re sticking below $15, don’t be afraid to try something new. If you like reds, here are a few varieties you might experiment with:


Merlot (still recovering from Sideways)


Vinho Tinto (Portuguese red wine)






These examples range from big and fruity to more complex and lean. If you’re used to one style, definitely try something that contrasts with it. Don’t blow your palate out by only drinking dark purple fruit-bombs. There are cherry-hued wines that have all kinds of stuff going on that pair well with a much broader range of foods than some of the bigger (Cab, Syrah, Malbec) varieties.

If the wine is bad, bring it back, especially if there is a fault (corked, oxidized, acetic, aka like vinegar). Wine merchants need to know if there are problems! They will not be mad at you!

White wines give you many more options. Speaking bluntly, it’s easier to adjust/cover up/mitigate faults that occur in the vineyard or the winery with white wine. For instance, it’s generally served quite cold- most people, in fact, drink white wine straight out of the fridge. Doing so creates a sharper, more extreme flavor profile- so if there are any subtle weird or disagreeable flavors lurking in that ice-cold Sauv Blanc, you won’t discover them until the wine warms up a bit.

As an aside, when I was working in the wine shop, lots of people would come in asking for unoaked Chardonnay. They’d had negative experiences with wine that tasted too woody, too vanilla-y, etc. And it is true, that depending on the oak (American will impart round, vanilla, coconut, creamy notes, while French tends towards spice and warmth), you can get some heady non-grape flavors, but most of the inexpensive super oaky stuff is actually being used to cover up crappy wine. If you’re the winemaker, and you have a Chardonnay that is way too acidic because you harvested at the wrong time? Throw some oak on it! THEY’LL NEVER KNOW *evil laugh*

What I’m getting at is that if you think you hate oaked Chardonnay, there’s a good chance the wine that gave you that impression wasn’t going to be very nice to start with. They just couldn’t cover the issue up with barrel aging- or more likely, staves or chips. Barrels are hugely expensive- so many producers will line their steel tanks with thin planks of oak or pour oak chips into the already-fermented juice for all or part of the aging process.

I’m just saying- don’t give up on oaked white wine!

Another thing I noticed at the wine shop: people want Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. Over and over again. The same brands, bought by the fistful, without considering any of the other varieties. And indeed, there is something to be said in these trying times, for the simple enjoyment of a product that reliably gives you pleasure.

As the tiny wine devil on your other shoulder, hear me whisper: but what if there is more to enjoy?

You can get a hell of a lot better quality wine for under $15 if you’re going with whites or rosés. Some of my favorites:

Picpoul de Pinet


Vinho Verde (literally “green wine”; mostly from Portugal, slightly fizzy)

Pinot Gris (P. Grigio grapes, just from somewhere other than Italy)



Riesling (wonderfully dry from Alsace. The German stuff is sweeter)

Don’t think of white wine like I used to: as red wine with all the good stuff taken out. There is richness and depth to be had, especially if you’re eating really savory food. Spicy, fatty cuisine loves to be cut with tannin or acid. I’ll pair Indian flavors with Chardonnay and Vinho Verde and Mexican food (especially nachos or tostadas) with fizz or Muscadet.

Last, know that there is no shame in having a budget. There is a difference between cheap wine and affordable wine, and knowing the difference saves money, heartburn, and hangovers.

It’s meant to be enjoyed- and even for those of us who are super into it and do things like critically analyze expensive examples and talk about noses and bouquets and terpines, it’s all for a singular purpose: to distinguish the things that make wine taste good, so that we may experience those things yet again.






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