I like to think that the reason people ask me for advice on buying good, affordable wines is because of my spot as the Budget Wine Reviewer over at Moms Who Need Wine, and not because I'm a cheap alcoholic.
Because I am a cheap alcoholic, but I also give good advice. I like to think so, anyway.
Now, I realize that a lot of people are probably intimidated by wine shops, or you have snobby wine friends (like me) who can recognize swill a mile away. (Though, if your snobby wine friends really are like me, they'll drink it anyway once all the good stuff is gone. Swill wine is like Natty Light beer, which we used to drink as college freshmen after we went through all the actual good beer.) But rejoice! There is no reason to be afraid of wine shops. Here, in a nutshell, is how to find a good wine without breaking the bank.
1. Figure out your budget.
There are plenty of quality wines out there for $15 or less, so I usually go with that. Once you have your price cap in place you'll know which wines to quickly weed out.
If you really want to splurge, or if you're buying Pinot Noir (more on that later), I'd say go as high as $20, or even $25. But you really shouldn't go higher than that. Even by New York City standards you can get very good wines for under $20, and definitely under $25.
2. Figure out your color.
A red is not like a white which is not like a rose. And none of those are dessert wines or champagne.
A good way to know what color wine you want is the circumstances you're buying for. Dinner? There are some rules about what goes with what - like white wine with fish, red wine for tomato-based sauces - but my rule of thumb is the heavier the meal, the heavier the wine. So, rack of lamb with baby potatoes would get something in the heavier reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, but mushroom risotto would go with something lighter, like a white wine or a Pinot Noir.
If you're unsure of wine heaviness, check out RackWine's chart of wine heaviness.
You can also go by the weather, or season. A lot of wine drinkers stick with reds in the cooler months and whites in the warmer months. Personally, I can and do drink red wine year-round. (My June review for MWNW will be on that subject.) Pinot Noir is a great summer red, as is Shiraz. Shiraz, while heavy, is spicy and stands up well to grilled meats.
If you're going to a party or to someone else's dinner and you don't know what will be served, Merlot is a great all-purpose red, while Sauvignon Blanc is a good all-purpose white.
3. Know your region.
A lot of wine regions grow the same grapes but have vastly different wines. A Malbec from Chili, for example, isn't going to taste a lot like an Argentinian Malbec.
Just because a country puts out a certain type of wine doesn't necessarily mean it's any good. I love Spain and Spanish wines, but I stick with what they do best: Tempranillo and Granache. California is good at producing heavier wines like Merlot and Zinfandel, so that's where I go for those.
Here's a good easy primer for finding out which countries produce which types of wine.
A Note on Pinot Noir:
Ah, Pinot Noir. The elusive princess of the wine world. A good Pinot is hard to find. A good Pinot for under $15 is damn near impossible. If you're out to buy Pinot I highly recommend you keep your price cap at $25, otherwise you'll only set yourself up for disappointment.
So now you're in the store. You know your price cap, what type of wine you want, and which region to look in. After that it's pretty much a guessing game unless you ask for help. Now, the average liquor store that happens to stock wine probably won't have many experts on hand to help you. In that case, it's best to stay away from the bargain bins and sale racks. Those are wines the store can't move, probably for a good reason. Just pick a label you like and hope for the best.
But, if you're in a proper wine shop you can probably assume the employees have tasted most of the wines they sell and can help you. You don't even need to sound like you know what you're talking about to avoid sounding stupid; it's what they're there for. Give them your price cap and what color you want, and let them help you. (Though, I would suggest shaving a dollar or two off your price cap. I have never ever said, "$15," and actually gotten a $15 wine; it's usually $16 or 17.)
If you do ask for help, be prepared to answer questions about taste. Do you like sweet wines? Fruity wines? Heavy (full-bodied) wines, or light wines? Don't know what any of those mean? Use the phrase, "I want something highly drinkable." Works every time.
And if you're really, really too shy to ask for help and you just want to pop in, get your wine, and leave, Andrea Immer Robinson's motto is "Wine and Food For Everyone." Her website has some great resources to help you. There is also Wine Enthusiast's Wine Pairings page, which lists some meals and which wine goes with them, or the Bryson Wine Page's Wine Tutorial.
Good luck and l'chaim!