Yet, for every ordinary-to-awful inexpensive wine, there are two or three good-to-exceptional ones just waiting for you to discover. Here are some tips on how to increase your chances of finding that quality wine bargain:
Tip number 1: Pick the wine by the varietal. Varietals are ones that list the grape variety (i.e. cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel) on the label. Given the choice of a wine labeled as "red" or "white," or one described as chardonnay or merlot (for example), choose the one with the grape name.
Tip number 2: More than any other means, picking jug wines with a recent vintage date is a reasonable way to ensure that the wine has not gone "over the hill." In less expensive wines, most wineries concentrate on trying to make products that exhibit good fruit and freshness.
Unfortunately, these are the components that go first as most inexpensive wines age. This is particularly important in picking a white wine. My general rule is to pick lower-priced whites with vintage dates no older than two years. With most inexpensive reds, vintage dates should be no older than four years.
Tip number 3: Choose wines that are from more specific growing areas rather than those labeled as being produced from grapes grown in larger regions. For example, a 2006 chardonnay from Sonoma County is preferable to a 2006 chardonnay from California. This is a very important way of determining the quality of a lower-priced wine. When the specific appellation of origin of the wine is displayed on the label, you can usually count on the product being good.
Some wine shops make it easier than others to find inexpensive wines, and some actually taste them before putting them on the shelf. The Wine Shop at Capitol Market in Charleston is a good place to find inexpensive wines and knowledgeable wine salespeople. These folks actually have a whole rack of wines that are priced at $12 a bottle or under, and they can usually describe the wine's taste characteristics.
Watch John Brown's WineBoy Web show and learn more about the art and craft of wine at the WineBoy blog at thegazz.com.