Drinking on the Cheap: Wines

So, you need to buy some wine. You’ve been invited to a dinner party and asked to bring a bottle of wine, or you want to buy a decent bottle for a friend. Problem is that you don’t know anything about wine (we can help with that) and while you don’t want to spend $80 on a nice bottle, you don’t want to look cheap either. Well, good news! You can get good wine without blowing a day’s pay. The number one rule about wine (contrary to what the fancy-pants “connoisseurs” would have you believe) is that it doesn’t always matter what the wine costs.

Where does one find these awesome cheap wines? Anywhere from your local grocery store to BevMo!, Trader Joe’s, Costco, or Target.

BevMo! is great if you don’t know what you want, because they have a little blurb about the wine on the shelf tags, with descriptive words like buttery, fruity, or earthy and a rating from Wilfred Wong, their own personal taster (who seems to have good taste in my experience). These descriptions usually try to embrace the experience of the wine, not necessarily exactly how they taste, so I would suggest going for whatever sounds good to you. BevMo! also has a pretty knowledgeable staff, so talk to them if you need help—they answer questions from novice drinkers all day, so no question is too weird for them. Their 5-Cent Sale is fantastic and available at most branches at least twice a year (plus there’s always a rotating selection of valid 5-Cent wines on their website), so you can buy one bottle that looks good and get the second for 5 cents. I like this sale because it’s a little easier to justify buying a $20 bottle when you get two for $20.05.

Trader Joe’s gets the overstock from wineries making room for new bottles, so their wines are awesomely priced. They have the famous stereotype-crushing “Two-Buck Chuck” Charles Shaw wine that’s now, contrary to the nickname, $2.50. Charles Shaw does make great award-winning wines, beating out higher-priced competitors, and it is a great, reliable wine for a dinner party. I probably wouldn’t give it as a gift though, since it is well-known for being an inexpensive wine.

Now that you know where to go, what the heck kind of wine should you get? It’s always good to match the wine with the food being served if you’re buying for a dinner party or event. Rule of thumb: white dinner wines with fish and lighter foods; red wines with red meat and hearty foods; and, leave the syrupy dessert wines for after dinner. A great website to bookmark is WineToMatch.com, where you can enter a description of your meal, and it will recommend wines to pair. Chardonnay (a crisp and sometimes buttery white), Pinot Noir (a lighter, fruity red), and Cabernet Sauvignon (a dense red) are good go-to wines for gifts, because they’re so popular and easy to find. A few good labels to look for are Yellow Tail (ignore their silly commercials), Sterling Chardonnay, and Ravenswood Vintner Blend series. [For more information on the different types of wines check out: "Wines: Understanding that Shit."]

It really boils down to what you like. Taste everything, and don’t be afraid to buy a bottle just because you think the label is awesome or it’s got a fun name (especially if it fits with your fellow guests’ or gift recipients’ sense of humor). If it looks good, go for it! Keep a wine journal, or a list of wines you’ve tasted, and write down what you thought of them. Find a wine you like and use that as your go-to. Your own favorite wine will make a great gift to give: it might be something they hadn’t tried yet and it makes the gift a little more personal. You may not love every wine you try, but at least if you stick to the less expensive ones, it’s not a big loss and you can always use it for cooking!

Photo by Sara Slattery

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