I don’t know that many twentysomethings willing to pay more than $20 for a bottle of wine—on the regular, at least. Most of my friends and I hit up the liquor store and grab something in the $15 range, potentially based on which bottles fill sale racks, are on the way to the cash register, and don’t look totally janky.
Maybe we’ve found a brand that tastes decent for a good price (for awhile for me, it was $12 Gnarly Head reds from California), goes down smoothly enough, and produces the chill buzz we’re looking for. I assumed terms like “fruit-forward,” “barrel-aged,” and “cork taint” were reserved for uppity snobs and characters in “Sideways.”
That is, until I was enlightened on a recent trip to Franciacorta, Italy, a hilly, beautiful region east of Milan that’s home to more than a hundred family-owned vineyards. Wedged between the historic city of Brescia and Lake Iseo, Franciacorta features a uniquely moderate climate and soil that’s ideal for growing grapes that are used to produce super-high-quality sparkling wine. (Some refer to Franciacorta as the “champagne of Italy.”)
There, I was treated to tours and tastings of at least a dozen Franciacorta varietals, each drier, more delicious, and more effervescent than the next. And when I came home to my modest Brooklyn digs and sipped that same bottle of Gnarly Head, let’s just say what had originally passed as good was now demoted to a mere “eh.” But my budget hadn’t changed a bit. So what was this freshly snobby wine drinker to do? There had to be some hacks that would allow me to drink good wine on a shoestring.
Turns out, as long as you have the time and interest in tracking down quality wine, you don’t always have to pay a ton. “Entering a wine shop is like going into a library, and that’s why you shouldn’t be in a hurry,” says Marina Tonsi, owner of Franciacorta’s Corte Bianca winery. “The bottles must be studied and browsed through, and the pleasure of discovering a new wine is part of the experience.”
It also helps to know a little bit about what you’re looking for—even if it’s just asking the store owner what type of white he recommends to go with the fish you’re cooking for dinner. “Think about the situation where you’ll be drinking this wine,” says Paolo Pizziol, director of Villa Franciacorta winery. “The ideal thing is to choose an eclectic wine that can be drunk in different circumstances and, even better, combined with a diverse selection of dishes.”
Ahead, check out 10 more helpful hacks for picking a better-quality bottle of wine without coughing up a ton of cash.
Avoid Wines in Sunlit Areas.
While those bottles on prominent display by the window might look tempting in the store, be careful about picking a wine that you know has been exposed to direct sunlight, says Diletta Cavalleri, marketing and communications manager at Cavalleri winery in Franciacorta. Strong, regular exposure can cause a reaction in the compounds that compromises the integrity—and flavor—of the grapes. Most wine store owners will know this and presumably rotate the bottles in the light, but still, good to know if you don’t want to risk it.
Don’t Let Looks Fool You.
“Remember that labels are designed to catch your eye, so if you’re not a wine expert, don’t simply go for the cutest label design,” says Giulia Balzarini, owner of Enrico Gatti winery. “At least read the information written on the bottle and ask for help—or google it—if there’s anything unclear.” Oops, I’m definitely guilty of having grabbed a bottle simply because it was in my price range and looked nice—because not all labels have helpful descriptions! About that…
Pay Attention to Where It’s From.
The most important thing on the label isn’t the pretty words that tell you a wine has notes of chocolate and blackberry—it’s the location. “A good wine and trustworthy producer will clearly state the geographic region that the grapes are grown in, even if there’s not much more detail on the label,” says Emily Molinari, beverage director of New York City’s Eataly Downtown. “It should give you an appellation such as Provence for rosé, Willamette Valley for reds from Oregon, or Franciacorta for bubbles from Italy. If the location isn’t specified, sometimes grapes can come from all over the country or even multiple countries—and that’s the sign of a winery that’s more committed to quantity than quality.”
Even if a label is sparse, know how to interpret what small bits of intel you can get from it. “You should be able to find at least some info on there; if it’s a grape, find another bottle with the same kind and see if there’s more of a description,” says Molinari. “If there’s a country on there, think about where it is. If it’s a generally cold-climate place—think France, Germany, northern Italy—the wine will be on the crisp and acidic side. If it’s from a warm climate—Australian, California, South Africa—the wine will be more fruity, with softer tannins, and usually higher alcohol.” And if you really can’t find a thing on the label, don’t buy it. “Better to be in the know than left in the dark; if an employee can’t shed some more light on the wine, skip it,” she says.
Break Out of Your Comfort Zone.
OK, so you know how I told you I liked the Gnarly Head reds, so I just bought them every time? Don’t do that. “The most important thing is to taste different kinds,” says Cavalleri. “The more wine you taste, the more you understand your own tastes, and the choices become easier.” Molinari seconds that. “Wine-buying newbies might have a tendency to pick one wine and stick with it—but when you find a wine you like, instead try a wine from the same producer, or another producer from the same region to broaden your horizons a bit. Even better, flip over the wine bottle and see who the importer is. If you can find another bottle by the same importer, you can feel good about the standards of quality being consistent.”
Go to an Actual Wine Store.
It helps to be able to consult staff who know what they’re talking about, which you’re likelier to find at a wine store with a liquor section than a liquor store with a wine section, says Molinari. “Find a place with knowledgeable staff that’s passionate about the wines they sell. These are the people that get to taste the wines before they hit the shelves and they will be able to find a match for you,” she says. “Just don’t start the conversation with your budget—instead, talk about a wine you had that you like, and when they start to suggest wines, steer them to the $20 or under price point.”
Look to Sale Racks for Good Deals.
I figured I’d find out that buying bottles from sale racks was a bad idea, but it turns out it’s not! “Don’t fear the sale items,” says Molinari. “Wine distributors who sell to wine stores and restaurants have to be weeks and months ahead of the game with moving inventory, so there’s a good chance the wine they discount is still drinking nicely, just that the next vintage is right around the corner.” So feel free to grab that discounted $10 bottle of would-be $17 Cabernet.
Learn From What You Don’t Like.
The term “bad wine” is subjective, so it’s up to you to figure out what kinds of wine aren’t your thing so you don’t waste money on them in the future. “If a wine is just not to your taste, give it to a friend or cook with it,” says Molinari. “But catalog in your mind what you don’t like about it: Is it too oaky? Dry? Fruity? Use your likes and dislikes to tell wine store employees what your style is. Equate it to your likes and dislikes with food—just because you don’t like beets doesn’t mean that they’re bad or that someone else won’t love them.” Good point.
Buy Your Favorite Wine in Bulk.
Just like most foods, wine is cheaper when you buy a lot. “Split a case with a friend!” says Molinari. “Wine stores usually offer a discount on mixed cases of wine. Also, if you’re a creature of habit and could literally drink the same rosé every day in the summer, pick up a case. It’s an investment at first, but you’ll be spending the money anyway, so you might as well spend less up front.”
Every Once in Awhile, Splurge.
Even if the wines you buy every day are under $15, from time to time treat yourself to a pricier (and nicer) bottle. “I encourage everyone to add a $20 to $40 bottle to their to-drink lists,” says Molinari. “Lots of us will spend $12 on a serving of green juice, right? A $40 bottle of wine breaks down to $10 a glass. Think of it like your wardrobe. You have a bunch of sweaters and they keep you warm alright, but you have that one 100 percent cashmere one that you splurged on, and yes, it’s just another sweater that keeps you warm, but damn, do you feel like a million bucks wearing it. That’s your $30 bottle of wine.”
Originally published September 2016. Updated September 2017.