How to Enjoy Wine On A Budget

The subject of wine doesn't come up nearly as often as it should here at Casual Kitchen. And I'm long overdue to write an article about how this often expensive beverage can still be enjoyed even in the most frugal kitchen.

Many frugal food enthusiasts hold the misconception that you can't enjoy the pleasures of wine without spending a lot of money. And then there's the other side of the coin: too many wine snobs can't bring themselves to enjoy wine unless they spend a lot of money.

Guess what? Both sides are wrong. Good wine can be surprisingly cheap, and cheap people can enjoy good wine.

The goal of today's post is to help you develop a taste for good, inexpensive wine. I'll share some of the best tips and ideas we've come across here at Casual Kitchen so that you too can enjoy the pleasures of wine without killing your budget.

It's Highly Likely That You Can't Tell
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal quoted a 2003 study by the Oenonomy Society of the U.S. that argued that "80% of wine drinkers can't distinguish between regular and reserve bottles of the identical wine." And at a recent proceeding at the National Academy of Science, there was an equally embarrassing study in which "test subjects were given what was billed as cheap wine and expensive wine. As measured by brain activity, they thought the costly wine gave the most pleasure." Despite the test subjects' perceptions, however, both wines were exactly the same.

The point is this: it's highly likely that you, and almost all of the people you know, can't tell the difference between wine that's really good and wine that's merely decent. And very, very, very few people (like well less than one percent of the population) have a palate that can tell the difference between really good wine and truly great wine.

As much as we all like to think we have refined and highly tuned palates, the truth is, we don't.

Two Buck Chuck
This is not to say that there isn't any difference between, say a glass of Two Buck Chuck and a glass of Bordeaux from Chateau Lafite Rothschild. There most undoubtedly is a difference. But the question is, is pleasure you derive from drinking one 500 or 1,000 times greater than from drinking the other?

Interestingly enough, Two Buck Chuck wines (otherwise known as Charles Shaw Wines) have won some prestigious awards in major wine competitions over the years, yet again giving the lie to the claim that inexpensive wines are by definition low in quality.

Experiment with Blind Tastings

The best way to drive home this very point is to host your own blind tasting. Invite four or five friends over to your home and ask each friend to bring one expensive bottle and one inexpensive bottle of similar wine. Cover all the bottles with paper bags and do an honest, blind tasting.

You will be shocked at the results. And don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that all the wines will taste the same. I'm simply saying that your preferences will be surprisingly uncorrelated to the prices on the wine bottles, and you'll likely prefer some of the lower-priced wines to some of the higher-priced ones.

Slaves to Wine Spectator
Believe me, this is really good news. No longer will you have to slavishly buy only wines with a 92 or higher score in Wine Spectator Magazine. Instead, you can see what wines are offered at a deep discount at your local wine store and, keeping an open mind, be pleasantly surprised by something new, different, and not rip-off expensive.

Oh, and if you have any friends who fancy themselves as budding oenology experts, be sure to invite them to this blind tasting too. When it's all over, everyone will have a humbler--and more realistic--sense of how finely tuned their palate is. And of course everyone will have a really fun evening too.

If you think you're at risk of becoming a mindless wine snob, a blind tasting could be the best thing that ever happened to your wallet.

Value and Price Are Often Completely Unrelated
Way back in this blog's life, a commenter left this comment regarding one of his coworkers:

I recently asked a coworker who's renowned for his wine collection whether he could recommend any good value wines under $30 a bottle. His reply: "I don't even cook with anything under $30 a bottle."

Aside from this being one of the most asinine things ever said, it also proves that people can grievously confuse price with value. If this guy can tell the difference between over $30 and under $30 wine in, say, a batch of my Risotto or my Casbah Curried Chicken, then he either has the best palate on the face of the earth (unlikely), or he lets others decide "quality" for him by setting high prices (highly likely).

Don't let others define for you what you like. It's the best way to avoid being separated from your money. Think of all the instances where people confuse price with value to their detriment (Jaguar cars? Le Creuset cookware?). Often, there can be an extreme lack of correlation between price and value.

Start a Tasting Group
One of the best ways to enjoy many different types of wine at very little cost is to start a regular wine tasting club. You'll want to have at least four or five members at each session to insure that you will have a solid selection of wines to try. You can set all sorts of parameters for what wines to choose--from the highly specific (Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand) to the highly general (red wines, dessert wines, sparkling wines, or just wines, etc). Establish a reasonable guideline for prices and let the fun begin. We'll discuss wine tasting groups in much greater depth in a coming post in this series.

Try Wines From Other Countries
There are a lot of factors that can make the best wines from some countries a relative bargain. Labor and growing costs in countries like Chile or Argentina are much lower than in France or the USA. On top of that, changes in currency values can at times make a given country's wines extraordinarily inexpensive. Laura and I were recently in New Zealand, and we took full advantage of the fact that the New Zealand dollar had fallen to about half the value of the US dollar. Heck, it was as if the entire country was having a 50% off sale, so we drank everything we could! We found several really good wines selling at prices below US$10 a bottle.

Mixed Cases
The next time you visit a wine store or a winery, ask if they offer a full-case discount. Quite often, wine-sellers will give discounts of up to 15% if you buy a full case of wine, and even more often they will let you mix and match bottles. Instead of buying just a bottle or two, do your wine shopping for the next several weeks by buying a full case at a big discount.

Buying Wine in Restaurants
This article wouldn't be complete if I didn't say a few words about ways to save money when you are buying wine in a restaurants. The short (and not exactly helpful) answer is: don't. Wine and alcohol are almost always the highest-margin products in the restaurant business, and mark-ups for wine in a typical restaurant can be as high as three to four times the retail price.

However, if you still find yourself considering a restaurant purchase of wine, I can still suggest two strategies to help limit the damage to your wallet.

First, you can consider buying two kinds of wine by the glass and sharing them with your dinner companion.

A second strategy is to buy the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu. Not only is it almost always a legitimate bargain, it also reveals one of the most clever profit-maximization techniques used in restaurants today.

What exactly is this technique? Well, have you ever bought the second cheapest bottle of wine on the wine list? I sure have, but since doing the research for this article, I won't do it any more. Remember, diners resist buying the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu--after all, that would be cheap, wouldn't it? So restaurants, banking on this tendency among their customers, do a clever bait and switch: they take an inexpensive wine, mark it up massively, and sell it as the second cheapest item on the wine list. The restaurant makes a ton of profit on what seems like a bargain, and you spend more money that you should have on a wine that's overpriced.

And remember, unless they hate their customers, no restaurant will put a crappy wine on their wine list.

Readers, what other money-saving wine tips can you think of that you'd like to share?
Stay tuned for the next installment of Casual Kitchen's series on wine: How to Start a Casual and Inexpensive Wine Tasting Club.

Related Posts:
27 Themes and Ideas for Wine Tasting Club Meetings
Why You Should NEVER Use "Cooking Wine"
Countdown: The Top Ten Low-Alcohol Drinks
How to Make a Tequila Sunrise
How to Make Your Own Inexpensive Sports Drink

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Amanda said...

My sister-in-law is particularly good at finding tasty, inexpensive wines--I tend to ask her to choose something, because I know it'll be good.

The other thing I like to do is talk to the owner of a local liquor store. He is very well-versed in many products and does a great job of recommending just the right wine within my price range (which is often under $10). He also will give me (and anyone else of age) a taste--which is important, and helps HIM understand what I like and don't like.

I also like to go to tastings when they're available. A particular finger lakes-region winery sets up a stall at our city's weekly farmer's market for free tastings. If I like it and the price is right, I'll buy.

That said, I often cook with wine much more often than I drink it. My husband can't stand wine, so my intake is reserved for social occasions, usually a "girls night" at someone's home. But cooking with wine brings another point: if you're going to simmer it down, you can use a cheaper wine.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually a fan of boxed wine. My family in Europe swears by it for their table wines. It's extremely cheap, and the quality (at least in France) is quite good. Get a nice decanter or carafe and people won't realize it's boxed wine until after they comment on how it's good and you tell them it's from a box.

It won't replace a good bottle, of course, but for a party or for a glass or two on a Tuesday night... I'm not complaining.

Daniel said...

These are both great comments with really good ideas. Thanks, Amanda and Fritish, for your input!


Amanda said...

@fritish - I'm with you on the boxed wine. They've gotten much better since the early-80s, that's for sure!

Anonymous said...

After reading the blog, (on 3/5/09) I remembered I have a bottle of chianti that I bought so I could measure the bottle with its straw holder in order to check the size of a wine bottle gift bag. So, I plan to open it on the first day that is warm enough for us to sit on our deck, drinking the wine, eating appetizers and watching the sunset. We will think of you and all the others who enjoy drinking wine.
After I wrote this, I decided to try to copy it into your wine blog.

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous, I'm so happy you are getting into the spirit of things! I get the feeling a lot of people learned about the great vibe of Open That Bottle Night by reading about it here. I love spreading great ideas like that.

Thanks for your comment.


paulina said...

I have found local wine bars that have one night a week where they offer half priced bottles of wine nights! This is such a great way to try wines that otherwise might be out of my price range :) I also have a friend who works for a restaurant who can get bottles of wine at cost, so if there is any good new wine they get, she will bring some over!