1. Stop for a minute and get your bearings. Supermarket wine aisles are often organized strangely. Sometimes wines are grouped by producer, sometimes by type, and sometimes by both. That means California Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, might be on different shelves. Some stores have sections for “fine wine,” separated from other wines, but don’t take their word for it.
2. Eliminate the larger bottles, the boxed wines and the frat-boy stuff. Sure, some fine wines come in big bottles, but most of these are mass-produced jug wines that, in tastings, we haven’t much enjoyed. This will immediately make the aisle much smaller, especially given the size of the huge boxed wines. And yes, some frat boys know their wines, but you want something special with dinner, so throw out those things and all of the really bad stuff on the lower shelves, like MD 20/20 and Wild Irish Rose.
3. Eliminate all the Chardonnay. We know most people really like Chardonnay, and so do we. But Chardonnay’s popularity means the aisles are flooded with it. If you simply pass over that part of the aisle, you’ve once again narrowed your choices considerably. (If you want a Chardonnay, look for one that you don’t see every day. We found a Pedroncelli from Sonoma that was crisp and refreshing for $9.49.)
4. Eliminate the familiar. You will be punished — price-wise — for refusing to leave your comfort zone. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was at least $20.19 at every store we visited, far more than better wines, and that pattern was repeated over and over. Had a Petite Sirah recently? Several stores had Bogle Vineyards’ good example of this brawny red varietal for just $9.99.
5. Think outside California. There are some excellent California wines on shelves, of course, but you’ll probably get better deals on wines from elsewhere — from Washington state to Australia. We saw a remarkable number of very good Australian wines on shelves, many just $6.99 a bottle. We picked up a Giesen Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that exploded with flavor for $9.99. Fine Chianti from Italy is a consistently good buy. Marques de Riscal Rioja from Spain is widely available for about $11.99. One store even offered a few wines from South Africa, including a very drinkable Roodeberg red wine, from the big KWV cooperative, for $10.99. It would be great with steak and peppercorns or herb-rich Mediterranean dishes. Don’t rule out France. Most stores offered both Vouvray and Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the big shipper B&G. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape was soulful and rich, great with meatloaf, macaroni and cheese or roast beef; it cost $19.99. The Vouvray would be delicious with pork; we saw it everywhere for as little as $6.59.
6. Think Beaujolais and Pinot Noir. Every store had at least one Beaujolais, the lively, fruity red from France that’s good with just about all food and costs about $8. And every store had at least two U.S. Pinot Noirs. These are extremely versatile with food, and they tend to be better buys than Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay because they aren’t as popular.
7. Look closely at vintages. As you know, we don’t care much about whether one year was “better” than another. But most wines in supermarkets are for immediate enjoyment. You want them young and fresh, from the most recent vintage available. Unfortunately, at many supermarkets, wines stand on the shelves until they’re sold and, like milk, the older stuff is moved to the front. We saw three-year-old White Zinfandels and Pinot Grigios and a 1996 Pouilly-Fuisse. We saw several vintages of the same wine standing right next to each other. At one store, a 1999 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages was next to a 2001, identical except for the vintage. You want the newer one, which is sometimes lurking behind the older one.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you can find fine old bottles from great years that are real bargains because the store never raised the price. That’s how we once bought a few bottles of 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic wine. At one store in Clearwater, we picked up three different vintages of reliable Cambria Pinot Noir, for $22.99 each. That isn’t inexpensive, but imagine what a fun dinner party you could give with a vertical tasting of those three vintages. Think of them as entertainment.
8. Look for orphans. Some of our best supermarket deals over the years have come because there’s one bottle of something left and there’s no place for it on the shelves. That happened this time, too. At one store, there was one bottle of Mumm’s Cordon Rose Champagne. We’d never seen this pink bubbly and, when available, it’s usually about $36. Well, this bottle was $16.99 — marked down from $18.99. Think about your significant other coming home for dinner and finding that waiting at the table — for $4 more than Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and $3 less than Santa Margherita. There are often good buys like that if you’ll search (often behind other bottles).
9. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Some supermarkets that have more space devoted to wine actually have thinner selections. They display bottle after bottle of the same exact mass-produced wine, like a valley of the clones that swallows up space for the good stuff.
10. Check prices. That might seem obvious, considering that some of us note whether Winn-Dixie charges more for a can of peas than Publix. But too many people assume that wine prices are fairly stable, and they aren’t. Stores compete on wine prices just like anything else. At the stores we visited, Sutter Home White Zinfandel ranged from $3.89 to $5.49, a 41% difference. The same is true for many other wines.