IMAGE: Taylor Schefstrom
For many people, going to a restaurant and trying to pick a bottle off the wine list is an exercise fraught with fear, resentment and the occasional prayer. Being in the wine business and having an eye for the bargain bottle, here are my 10 tips for getting the most bang for your discretionary dollar:
1. With all the quality wine from around the world available at affordable wholesale prices, there is no reason every restaurant shouldn't have at least three or four bottles on their list for $30 or less. Unless they take us for fools—which many do. If you see a wine list devoid of such deals, you can assume you're getting hosed, whatever you order.
2. Buy your wine by the glass. It's a great way to try things you normally wouldn't, and for the cost of a bottle off the list you can have three or four different glasses. Caveat: If you don't see any glass pour under $10, then assume you aren't getting the best value.
3. When it comes to European wines, head south. Southern Italy and the south of France (the Rhône Valley, Languedoc and southern Burgundy regions of Macon and Beaujolais) offer oceans of delicious wines being exported to the U.S. at great prices.
4. For Italian wines, I'd love to drink nothing but Barolo and Barbaresco from the Piedmont region. My budget doesn't allow that indulgence, but I happily settle for Barbera from the same region. It is perhaps the most food-friendly red on the planet, and should be able to be had for around $30.
5.If you're in the mood for white wine, forget overpriced, over-oaked, food-unfriendly American chardonnay. Grüner Veltliner from Austria and Muscadet from France will provide perfect accompaniment to your meal with their focused fruit and crisp acidity.
6. If you have to drink American red, look to the "other" red grapes (i.e., not cabernet, not merlot) like syrah, grenache, zinfandel, petite sirah and blends of the aforementioned. Usually stuffed with bouncy, mouth-filling fruit and much ease of consumption, these can be good deals.
7. The country killing it in bang-for-the-buck is Spain. Look for wines from the lesser-known regions like Bierzo, Campo de Borja, Navarra, Toro, and Jumilla for satisfying old-vine reds.
8. Communicate. If you feel a good rapport with your server, ask what they like on the list and give them your price range. If they can't come up with any suggestions, you're in the wrong restaurant.
9. Bring your own bottle and pay the corkage fee. If you've been saving a special bottle from home, most places will gladly pour it for you for a $10-to-$20 charge, which I find more than fair. There are, however, a couple of rules to follow: (a) Don't look at the corkage as a way to "beat the system." Don't grab some $10 red from your local store just to save a few dollars (a $20-plus bottle is fine). As much as I want you to save money, that is being a cheap ass in the worst way. (b) Check with the restaurant to see if the wine you're planning on bringing is already on its wine list. If it is, leave yours at home.
10. In your town, or if you find yourself in a strange town, ask a local independent wine shop which restaurants they feel have good wine lists for value. Hopefully they know a thing or two about what's happening food- and wine-wise in their city.
Bonus tip: If it's bubbles you're seeking, get a bargain fizz with a glass of prosecco from Italy or cava from Spain. It ain't real Champagne, but it is pretty damn satisfying!
Bruce Bauer owns VINO wine shop (137 SE 28th Ave., 235-8545, vinobuys.com, closed until late November) and blogs at wineguyworld.blogspot.com.