Friday, February 08, 2008

Buying Great Wine on a Beer Budget

As promised in another thread, there are ways to save money when you buy wine or buy better wine on your existing budget. I can't say "never pay retail" because, there will always be times you're in a pricy wine shop and stumble across that bottle of Patricia Greene Pinot you've been looking for, but when it comes to wines you drink every day -- and wines for a splurge, here are some ways to maximize your wine budget:

1) Buy by the Case: I know it seems counterintuitive to spend more money by buying $100-150 worth of wine at once, but the economics work out. Think of it this way, if you pick up one or two $9.99 bottles of wine at the grocery store every time you go -- say twice a week -- that's an additional $40 on your grocery tab at full retailer price. Say, one or two of those bottles are wines you'll take to someone's house for a dinner or party and the rest might be for weeknight drinking. So, 12 bottles purchased separately would cost $120. However, when you buy by the case at a liquor store or wine shop, you'll usually get a 10% discount, so you're already ahead by one free bottle. Having a party? Often wine shops will have a cases of similar or better quality "grocery store" wine on sale for a good price -- say $100 or $105, and if there are a few wines in the line, you can even mix and match. (Say, a chard, a merlot, and a cabernet.) If you find a case of a wine you already know and like, and you know you're going to be buying it anyway, just go ahead and buy it by the case. (This works great during the holidays as you can often find cases of good Proseccos and Cavas on sale sometimes in the $120 range. Not bad when it seems like you're taking a bottle of bubbles -- or drinking one -- everywhere you go.)

2) Case Buying -- Part II: Some liquor stores will give you that same 10% discount on a "mixed case" which is a whole case of bottles of various brands and prices. If you're buying more than a few bottles, don't be afraid to ask if there's a case discount or if they can do something for you on price.

3) Get a Wine Guy or Girl: One of the best ways you can save money is to find a wine professional you like and trust at a wine shop or liquor store. Seek them out when you go. Ask them for help and education. Tell them what you like and what you've been drinking. Most importantly, don't be afraid to give them a price range. Then report back and tell them what you liked so you can learn. There are good wines for almost every level and wine professionals will appreciate where you are. Learning about wine is an experience and every bottle you buy should count. But if you get a snooty, intimidating vibe because you're a newbie or because you don't want to buy spendy bottles, find another store.

4) Look for Sales: Once you find a wine shop or two that you like, make sure you sign up for their mailing lists and flyers. Attend tastings, look for sales. Distributors offer retailers promotional deals and discounts all the time, so keep an eye on prices. There's nothing better than finding that great -- but too expensive -- wine you've been wanting on closeout or discounted with a few bottles left. For your favorites, keep an eye on the price. While sometimes a "discount" is just a mark down of an already inflated price, occasionally distributors really do push wines out for closeouts, deep discounts, and promotions. A little checking will tell you the difference.

5) Note the Price -- Pt II: Once you start keeping an eye on prices, you'll start to notice which retailers really do offer "everyday low, low prices" and which ones don't. That wine that you like at the specialty market for $13.99 is probably at Kahn's for $11.99 and it *might* be at Cost Plus for $10.99. (However, keep in mind that stores like Trader Joes and Cost Plus buy wine nationally and their discounts and inventory may vary from what local distributors carry.) Knowing where you can save doesn't mean you'll always make the extra trip for two dollars, but when you see mark-downs consistently, you'll start to see how pricing works.

6) When You Can, Buy Discount: Keep your eye on the big discount wine retailers. Confirm that they really do sell 20-30% off of retail -- and where they're getting their inventory. Then get on their mailing list. (Half the fun is going through the price sheet when it arrives!)

7) Tastings, Dinners, and Samples, Oh My: Pay attention to big catalog tastings. At a tasting (like the upcoming WFYI Indy Wine Fest) a retailer will often offer the wines at a heavy discount for that night only -- sometimes up to 30% off. Give yourself a budget -- even if it's your $20 a week monthly wine budget -- and buy when the opportunity presents itself. Go with a friend and split cases. You'll save money.

8) Do Some Research: Unless you're really familiar with a region, country, or style of wine, you're probably not going to have a lot of luck just standing in front of a shelf and picking a random bottle. It's a rotten way to blow money on wine. Do a little research based on what you like, what you've tried at tastings, and what houses seem reliable. (If you love Rabbit Ridge Zin, you might be more likely to like other Rabbit Ridge wines.) If you're on a budget, don't buy wines that are a shot in the dark. As you get more familiar with various wines, types, and price points, you'll get a better feeling for what's worth the money -- and where the price breaks are for quality.

9) Don't Be Afraid to Be a Geek: Do you look a little weird with a pen in hand making notes on that $12.99 Shingleback at a wine tasting? No! You look like you actually want to buy wines that you like -- instead of just guessing, broke and frustrated. Don't get hung up on formal wine terms, just make notes that mean something to you! And give yourself a budget. You can pick up some good wines at tastings, wine dinners, and catalog events at good prices if you buy on site (instead of promising yourself you'll go back for it later.) If you don't buy, save the catalog and make a note of wines for your "definitely purchase" list. Now you're dealing with known quantities when they show up at your favorite discount wine house.


Anonymous said...

Great post. This is why I love your blog!

John Ferringer said...

Great info! Here are a few other tips I've found over the years:

- If you really like a particular winery, check to see if they have a wine club. Most winery's clubs not only give you access to wines that you may not otherwise be able to get, they often give you a discount on most of your purchases. The one drawback is that thanks to idiotic laws you may pay a lot for shipping, but I've found that the discounts usually even things out.

- Check to see if your retailer offers a wine club. My wife and I regularly found ourselves at Cork & Cracker in Broad Ripple, so we joined their Wines of the Month club. Not only do we get to try new wines that we might have never tried otherwise, but we also get a discount on all our purchases at C&C (I think it's 10%). Keep in mind that you're more likely to find this at a locally-owned or boutique retailer.

braingirl said...

Ooops! Thanks! Yes! Local wine clubs can also be a good way to get recommendations. (Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville has a good one and I think Kahn's might have one now, too.) Some even have various price levels and most offer some good deals. (Usually, for one flat price per month, you'll get several bottles.)

Wine clubs from wineries are good, too, altough I wouldn't call them budget friendly. (I should do a whole post on wine clubs, actually.) Many still won't ship to Indiana. Many feature great and exclusive wines, but are pricy, and some aren't that reliable. But, if a little extra cost isn't a huge deal, they're a great way to enjoy wine handpicked by someone whose tastes you enjoy. Kind of like a Napa souvenir that keeps on giving! And often, they'll give you access to wine that you'd normally never see at retail.

There are also a growing number of Internet wine clubs popping up. I'll do a little research and report back next week.

Neal said...

While most of the time I have various wine pro's that I can go to for guidance, when I'm feeling adventurous (but not necessarily rich) I always go by Kahn's and look for my guy Chance French. He knows his stuff and and knows the right questions to ask to get you to the adventure you are seeking. As a result though, I rarely leave with just the one bottle I came for, which is ok because I always trust the wines will be spectacular.

Anonymous said...

What about aging wines? I find that I can turn a $15 bottle into a truly spectacular bottle by buying a couple each year and holding on to them. I enjoyed a 1995 chianti with Christmas Eve dinner this was maybe $12 when I bought it. You're obviously not going to turn a bottle of two-buck into gold by holding on to it, but with a little room, patience, and research into what wines will age well can help create a pretty inexpensive but impressive wine collection.