Eat + Drink

Sniffing out a bargain wine doesn’t have to make your head hurt

Updated: 2008-12-10T18:39:09Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

As I pulled into the parking lot at work the other day, I spied an empty bottle of Korbel Sweet Rosé in a planted bed next to my car.

Now that’s a cheap wine if ever there was one.

Well, maybe not as cheap (or as bad) as the paper-bag wines, but even friends of mine who like drinking rosé would never get near that sugary sparkler made from a kitchen-sink variety of grapes.

On the other hand, cheap wine sounds pretty good in these economically challenged days. Thankfully cheap wine doesn’t always have to mean plonk.

In the wine world, the code word is value. Whether shopping retail or restaurant or wine bar lists, you should always ask: Am I getting a pretty fine wine for my money?

I’ve been talking lately about value with retailers, distributors and restaurant people. While there seems to be consensus on several points, including geography, service and smart shopping, everyone’s taste is different, so drinking inexpensively means deciding what works on your palate and with your mood. The more you sample, and the more you look beyond the big-brand, no-surprise wines for variety and value, the more bargains you will find.

Make mine Fuego

Spain has been flooding the U.S. market with lots of good to great wines, many of them available at retail for less than $10 a bottle, give or take.

Almost every wine professional I spoke with recently named Spain as a prime source of value-priced wine. The problem is, most American wine drinkers don’t know much about Spanish grapes such as Garnacha, Monastrell and Tempranillo, says Alan Hagedorn, of Royal Liquors, 103rd Street and State Line Road. “The American consumer doesn’t know Garnacha from Pouilly-Fuissé. The types of grapes the Spanish are using are more fruit-friendly, but they’re not as popular with Americans.”

So Hagedorn and others spend a lot of time introducing their customers to the pleasures of Spain.

I first encountered Garnacha de Fuego, a red wine from Spain’s Calatayud region, about a year ago. You couldn’t miss its flame-wrapped bottle, the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether it’s all about the marketing, not what’s inside the clever package.

But not only was this stuff drinkable, it was good: The producer, Bodegas Ateca, has turned the Garnacha grape into a wine that is earthy, spicy and rounded out with dark, plummy fruit.

“People love that wine,” says Jenni Cossey of Wine, a new shop in Brookside. “It’s got good structure, great tannins.”

And here’s the best part. My neighborhood grocery store last year was selling it for less than $8 a bottle. This season I’ve been finding it for $7.49 and even $7 a bottle at outlets around town. Bingo: Gomer’s Midtown had it the other day for $6.48.

That’s how to make amigos in the wine business.

I mean, really good wine doesn’t come much cheaper than that. And when you find one like it, you know you’ve got a go-to bottle for everyday drinking.

Bargains can be had from other countries as well.

At Cellar Rat, a Crossroads wine shop, managing partner Ryan Sciara likes Italy, Portugal and Argentina as other sources of value wines. “There’s still some cheaper stuff from Australia,” Sciara says, “but it’s getting more expensive.”

If you want value in Italian wines, though, it won’t be Chianti or Barolo or big Super Tuscans. Sciara suggests bottles from lesser known, up-and-coming regions of southern Italy, such as Puglia and Sicily.

Aaron Meeker, general manager of LDF Wines, a Kansas distributor, also likes a lot of the Malbecs from Argentina.

“Argentina has some great values and a lot of junk as well,” Meeker says. “Overall the quality is good, but there are a few producers that are ahead of the pack. Alamos is among that group. The entry level Malbec is pure Malbec. It has the mocha, spice, plum notes that you look for. This tends to retail around town from $8.99-$10.99 a bottle.”

Hagedorn likes the bargains he’s finding from France’s Côtes-du-Rhône region and lesser known corners of southern France, such as Languedoc.

Bargains by the case

It was early on a Thursday afternoon when I dropped by Cellar Rat, and Sciara already had tasted 15 wines that day.

Distributors and salesmen come in all the time with samples. And it is Sciara’s job to hunt for the good stuff, then point his customers in the right direction.

What he looks for is “distinguishable fruit” and varietal “correctness” — does a Syrah taste like a Syrah, or like a bowl of oak chips? He’s also looking for something that makes him say “wow,” especially when he realizes he could sell it for, say, $8 a bottle. Or make that $8.32, which is the effective price of the wines Cellar Rat puts into its promotional $100 mixed case (12 bottles) each month.

Retailers around town typically offer seasonal sales, weekly specials and case discounts (10 percent off or more). Peruse those ads, sign up for e-mail offers, look at shelf labels for sale items, or ask your wine seller to point you to the bargains.

Sometimes a closeout basket, like those at Gomer’s, is worth picking through as retailers move out lingering bottles (even the good stuff) to make room for the new.

It’s a retail verity that prices go up as shelves ascend the wall. The priciest products tend to end up at eye level. But, says, Sciara, “Don’t be afraid to shop the bottom shelf, because there’s still some real good juice under $10 a bottle.”

If you shop a place regularly, let staffers get to know you and your tastes. A good retailer will help you choose smartly. “You just have to talk to people and figure out what it is they’re looking for,” Cossey says.

Most stores offer tastings of one kind or another, some every day, some as regularly scheduled promotions. Some superstores, such as Berbiglia and Red-X, hold huge regular pig-outs; wine pros say those mass tastings present a great opportunity to try new things. In other words, be adventurous and resist the temptation to quaff great quantities of what you already know.

C’mon get happy

Restaurants and bars are notorious for jacking up the price of mediocre wines they sell by the glass or bottle. But if you do some regular wine shopping, you can begin to spot the worst offenders.

A typical, widely accepted markup is up to 100 percent over what you might pay for a bottle at a retail shop. That, however, oversimplifies the intricate process of making a restaurant wine list, which comprises a constant juggling of availability, space, personality, budget, countervailing food costs, overhead, deal-making, luck and, possibly, human error.

Yet it’s not rare to see good, bad and indifferent wines priced at three or four times retail, and that can be off-putting to wine drinkers in the know.

“I never order wine in restaurants,” Sciara says. “I know what it costs.”

He’s not alone, but most experienced wine drinkers tend to be comfortable with a reasonable markup. One of the attractions of drinking at wine bars and restaurants is the chance to explore new tastes. But you don’t have to fall for overpriced wines.

At Spin Neapolitan Pizza (three area locations), the wine list is a compact assortment of agreeable reds and whites — and all of them priced, by the bottle, at $5 above what they tend to go for at retail. A pretty good deal. “That’s unheard of in this day and age of gouging the consumer at restaurants,” Meeker says.

Meeker also recommends seeking out restaurants that offer wine flights, typically three glasses of 2-ounce pours, allowing customers to sample, say, unusual white wines side by side or three Spanish oddities. JP Wine Bar, at 15th and Walnut, and the relatively new Wine Flights Bar and Bistro, 151st Street and Nall Avenue in Overland Park, specialize in flights.

Even more attractive, though, are happy-hour deals:

  • Monday nights at JP is a destination for serious wine drinkers, because bottles cost half price (anything that usually goes for $90 or less on the list). Which is how I found myself at one gathering ordering a bottle of Picpoul, a nifty, easy-drinking white wine from France, for all of $10.

  • Vinino Wine Bar, in the Power & Light District, offers half-price bottles on Tuesday nights, but only on their by-the-glass wines.

  • At Blue Grotto, a pizza restaurant in Brookside, featured bottles go for $15 or $17 at early (2 to 6 p.m.) and late (after 10 p.m.) happy hours.

  • The Classic Cup on the Plaza is widely known for its wintertime sale of bottles at $1 over cost. (Watch for that to begin in mid-January.)

  • Even high-end restaurants can play the game. The otherwise pricey Pierpont’s in Union Station offers deep wine discounts (25 to 50 percent a bottle) on Sunday evenings.

  • At Bice Bistro, in the Power & Light District, late-afternoon happy hour means half off all wines on the pretty good, but expensive, by-the-glass list. Translation: Paying $5 (down from $10) for a glass of Masi Campofiorin, a raisiny Italian red? Of course, you’d be happy.


    10 value wines worth hunting

    These wines are typically priced at $12 or less. Not all wines are in all stores. If you don’t find a specific wine, ask your retailer for something similar at a comparable price. Compiled from wine retailers, distributors and The Star’s research.


    BROADBENT VINHO VERDE

    Grape: Alvarinho (same as albariño in Spain)

    Origin: Portugal

    Notes: Consistently inexpensive varietal; this one’s light, low-alcohol, bright and crisp with hint of fizz.


    HUGUES BEAULIEU PICPOUL DE PINET

    Grape: Picpoul blanc

    Origin: Languedoc, France

    Notes: Soft and supple, easy drinking with floral and citrus tones.


    PANNOTIA TORRONTES 2006

    Grape: Torrontés

    Origin: Cafayete, Argentina

    Notes: Overlooked grape, crisp and ripe. This global, value winemaker employs Kansas Citian Doug Frost as consultant.


    PINE RIDGE CHENIN BLANC-VIOGNIER 2007

    Grapes: 80 percent Chenin Blanc, 20 percent Viognier

    Origin: Napa Valley

    Notes: Viognier softens a lush-lemon package.


    YALUMBA Y SERIES UNWOODED CHARDONNAY

    Grape: Chardonnay

    Origin: McLaren Vale, Australia

    Notes: Balanced, mouth-filling fruit medley without that pesky oak.


    ALAMOS MALBEC

    Grape: Malbec

    Origin: Mendoza, Argentina

    Notes: Cherry tart with a bright finish.


    CASTANO MONASTRELL

    Grape: Monastrell (aka mourvedre)

    Origin: Yecla, Spain

    Notes: Versatile, easygoing, lighter Spanish style.


    FALESCO VITIANO

    Grapes: Cabernet – Merlot- Sangiovese

    Origin: Umbria, Italy

    Notes: Reliable, smooth-drinking, medium-body blend. Often on sale for less than $10.


    GARNACHA DE FUEGO 2007

    Grape: Garnacha

    Origin: Calatayud, Spain

    Notes: Earthy, spicy, plumy. $7-$8 or so!


    PASO A PASO TEMPRANILLO 2006

    Grape: Tempranillo

    Origin: La Mancha, Spain

    Notes: Dark, dusky, pepper-accented fruit.

  • | To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call 816-234-4762 or e-mail paul@kcstar.com.

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