Standing in front of rows and rows of wines to choose from is a daunting task, and it is not made easier by the slim pickings in the reasonable price range of $15 or under.
Armed with a little philosophy, the task becomes, if not easy, at least less daunting.
Never forget that wine production is a business like any other. As such the most popular items are the most expensive; although not always the best.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have become the wine catch phrases that most of us are comfortable with. This has made the demands for these wines so high, that it is all but impossible to find bargains made from these grapes. See why cheaper wines are not always a bargain.
Instead turn to the huge variety of wines made from less popular grapes. An extra bonus is that nearly all non Cab and Chard grape varieties are better with food than the heavier and more popular Cab and Chard.
For Red Wines:
Zinfandel, and I don't mean white. This grape is all but native to California (it probably came from Italy where it is now hard to find) and produces a huge range of styles, and prices. Nearly all of the under $15 versions are worth trying.
Pinot Noir is rarely found under $15, but a few are, and as such should be sought out.
Syrah is gaining in popularity, and unfortunately, price. While lesser labels are available for $15, nearly all are worth trying, and most worth going slightly above your $15 mark.
Mouvedre, Nebbiolo, Grenache and other varietals you may never have heard of are starting to make their presence known. Try a few.
Plain old Red Table Wine, without a specific variety listed often offers great value. Imported versions tend to be less of a bargain, no matter what their price, because of the cost of shipping, and the damage to the wine from the shipping itself.
For White Wines:
Sauvignon Blanc (Fume Blanc) is one of the most food friendly white wines, and is available in a huge variety of styles, almost all of them affordable.
Chenin Blanc is all but forgotten in the US, and it has no one but the American Winemakers to blame. Too often sweet out of balance (although I am a fan of sweet Chenin, when it is not cloying) this wine is disregarded by many. Try a Vouvray from France, or a dry Chenin Blanc from the Pacific Northwest.
Riesling is certainly one of the finest white wine grapes on the planet, and yet it is shunned in the US for being sweet. Debate on the sweet drinking habits of Americans aside, not all Rieslings are sweet. From the Pacific Northwest and the vineyards of Germany come many tart and refreshing Rieslings that are exceptional with food, and lighter in alcohol than the powerhouse Chard.
Gewurztraminer is more often slightly sweet when made in the US, and bone dry when it comes from the Alsace region of France. Great to sip, or with lunch, this spicy white deserves your attention.
Pinot Blanc is up and coming. Its dry crisp style, often with no aftertaste, is a real crowd pleaser, and appropriate with a wide style of foods. Alsace, France is the unquestionable home of this grape with a good variety of choices in the under $15 range. The domestic versions may be more expensive, but are worth experimenting with.
When a label states the grape variety, it must be between 75 to 100% of the stated variety (depending where in the world it is made). When that grape variety stated is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay, economics plays a major role.
These grape varieties are the most popular, and their fruit the most expensive. In order to produce a well priced version of one of these varietals, corners must be cut.
Where blending with an unspecified grape is allowed (Primarily the US, especially CA) that grape is certain to be the cheapest one that the winemaker can find. Too often Thompson Seedless for white or Flame Tokay for reds. Yes, supermarket grapes.
Another, and even more common way to cut corners is press wine. The first juice from the grapes, that needs little to no urging is Free Run, subsequent pressings yield juice of lessening quality. By adding back in these press wines the winemaker can make a wine that is legally what is stated on the label, without being the quality generally associated with that grape variety.
In wines, as in life, if it seems too good to be true, it is not true.
Buying wine can be a risky business. Every year there are new vintages to chose from, and new producers to discover. Even if you you know what you want to buy, how can you be sure that the bottle you pick, is the best one in the stack? Here are a few tips and tricks that will help to reduce some of the risk in buying wine.
Is the bottle lying down?
For bottle with corks in them (and maybe even screw tops) it is important that the wine be stored on its side. This keeps the cork moist, and even in those wines that have screw caps, it may help to keep air from entering the bottle. Air, or more exactly, oxygen, is the enemy of wine (it will turn it brown and make the taste fade, in exactly the same way a half eaten apple would).
Some stores do not store any of their wines on their side, and other stores may stand a single bottle upright so you can see it better. Try to always pick a bottle that has been resting on its side. Only buy wine that has been standing up, if you are reasonably certain that it has not been that way for more than a few days (e.g. the store is so busy that the wine doesn't stay on the shelf long).
Wine is pretty robust. It can take extremes of heat or cold, as long as they are not for too long of a duration, and as long as these temperatures do not fluctuate.
Beware the bottle of wine that is heated up, and then cooled again, especially if it happens regularly.
When you are buying wine in a store, look at the windows. Is the wine stored close to a window, or where the sun could hit it at some point in a day? What about other heat sources like the exhaust from the beer coolers? If the wine is at risk either buy a wine from a safer location in the store, or pick another store.
Note: If a wine has been heated and cooled it may show signs of it. If the foil around the cork is loose or damaged, and/or if there is sticky residue, the wine "pistoned" at some time in its life. This means that when warm the wine expanded, pushing out the cork, and when it cooled, it contracted and sucked the cork back in. This can allow bacteria and oxygen into the wine, which will reduce the flavor, if not completely spoil it.
Light is often overlooked as a source of potential damage to wine. Some wines are bottled in dark (or blue) glass, which can help to protect against light. Many more wines are bottled in clear glass, which is cheaper, and easier to recycle. If you are buying a clear glass bottle, try to pick one that is in the dark as much as possible. It is unlikely that the light in a store will cause great harm (unless it is direct sunlight), but this is one of the things you can do to minimize the chances of risk.
Cork types and Screw Tops
I have been warning you against environmental factors, but all of them together do not pose as great a risk as the simple cork. There is a nasty bacteria that likes to live on corks, and it can ruin the taste of wine. The bacteria is hard to detect, and hard to get rid of, so any cork can be at risk.
In an attempt to stem the tide of this off aroma/flavor (called simply enough "corked, or corky" wine) winemakers the world over have experimented with alternative closures. There are synthetics that use no cork at all, and composites that use cork that has been chopped or ground, and reformed. Both of these do a great job of eliminating the potential of a corked wine, but neither is as good at creating a tight seal as natural cork; or screw tops. Recent, and rather exhaustive, testing has shown that the modern screw cap may be the most superior wine closure of all (for wines meant to age for 5 years or less).
The screw top of today has little resemblance to the simple caps used on jugs of indifferent wine. These screw caps use the latest technology to ensure a perfect (hermetic) seal. This keeps the wine fresh, the fruit lively, and the color from browning. As I write this, several major players in the US wine business are adopting these new screw caps, in place of cork or cork alternatives. Not only do they work just great, you don't need to drag a cork screw on your picnic.
When you open your next bottle of wine, look at the cork. If it is an expensive bottle of wine the cork should be very long, and made of natural cork. For all other wines, the cork should be a composite (it looks like it sounds) or a synthetic cork. If you are buying a simple "ready to enjoy" style wine, and they are using natural cork, the odds are you will find at least 1 out of 20 bad bottles.
Note; The smell of a corked wine is like a slight musty smell that some equate with wet cardboard. It is not uncommon for a wine to have the smell, and for the cork to smell fine, or even the other way around. In a restaurant always taste the wine, this is specifically what you are looking for. If the wine is bad (in a restaurant) you should be able to send it back.
Choice of stores
Specialty wine shops have the advantage of a knowledgeable staff. This is an invaluable resource for trying new wines. Once you have determined that you enjoy the wine, and start to buy it regularly, you may want to shop around for a better price.
Discount wine stores sell a lot of wine. A store that sells a lot of wine will turn the stock over faster, and there will be less of a chance that the wine has suffered. This is a great place to buy a case of your favorite wine, but the staff's suggestions may not be helpful. Do your exploring in a specialty store.
Grocery stores can be a great source for local wines when you are traveling. They usually only carry the more modest selections, but can have a wide variety. This is true all over the world. They tend to store their wines standing up, and their staffs are rarely knowledgeable, but if you are careful, you can do well.
Wine clubs have the advantage of exposing you to new wines on a regular basis. The choices are usually rather limited, and can sometimes be wines that are chosen for economy (they got a great deal) than because of quality. Look at the club's offer carefully, and compare it to going to your local wine specialty shop. If the club still looks good, then by all means give them a try. Most clubs ship wine, and they may not ship to your location, be sure to check first.
Buying wine directly from the winery is a great way to get wines that may not be available any other way. The prices are rarely as good as a discounter, so make sure you take advantage of what the winery has to offer, and avoid wines you can get anywhere. A hidden advantage to buying wine directly from the winery (besides the fact that the winery makes a great profit) is that the wine is almost always in better shape, compared to a store, when you get it home. This is true even if the wine is shipped (where available).
I ran an wine auction company for several years, and I have mixed feelings about them. Auctions are one of the few places to buy older wines. Unless you can physically inspect the wine (and know what to look for) you have little to no idea of the condition of the wine. If you are looking for a special wine or vintage, an auction may be your only hope. For the most part auctions should be considered venues for those that have experience, or deep enough pockets to gain experience. Charity auctions usually are the worst of the lot, with prices going for many times the value, so remember that a charity auction is about charity.
Wine futures (a term for pre-sales) are something that many have heard about, and few have experienced. These tend to fall into two classes. Either the wines being sold at future are well established, and are expected to greatly appreciate in value; or, the wines are made in such small quantity that futures are the only way to obtain them. I personally enjoy the latter, buying hard to find wines that are made in tiny quantities. Perhaps after all my readers have made me rich and famous I can chime in on the former, buying futures as an investment, with more personal experience. the conventional wisdom of buying wines as an investment, is that it is not often a great investment, unless you plan on drinking the wine, rather than selling it.