Monday, September 26, 2016

Finding inexpensive wines

It is a well-known truism that most people can't consistently tell an expensive wine from a cheap one, when they are compared head to head, blind. It is also reported that in the USA 97% of wine is sold for less than $10 per bottle, which is fairly inexpensive. However, as Blake Gray has noted (Cheap wine is boring: Why that matters):
Today, thanks to new technologies, the general level of quality has significantly improved. I rarely have to pour a bottle down the drain, and most cheap wine is properly made. But there is, too often, nothing distinctive about it.
So, the more money you spend the more likely you are to get an interesting wine, and the less you spend the more likely you are to get an uninteresting wine.

Unfortunately, there are something like 120,000 different wines produced every year, worldwide. Moreover, there are also thousands of stores with liquor licenses, each of which stocks only a very small fraction of these wines. Faced with such wide choice, most drinkers don’t know where to start.

How do we locate the good but inexpensive wines? Clearly, we need to check the weekly press and the internet specials; but for most people, buying good wine is like a lottery.

As a partial answer, there are plenty of magazine-style web sites out there that occasionally tell us about the "Top 12 wines under $20" or "Six of the best wines for under £6". Unfortunately, these are of temporary usefulness only, and by the time you or I actually read the list then the recommended wines are likely to have sold out.

There are also large competitions of "best wines", from which one can extract the subset of least expensive wines. For example, Vinitaly is the largest annual exhibition of Italian wines. Associated with this event, Gazza Golosa produces #PopWine, an annual listing of the 50 best Italian wines under €15 (see the 2016 results here: #Popwine 2016: il migliore è il Sangiovese caciara di enio ottaviani).

In a similar vein, Gambero Rosso releases an annual rating of more than 20,000 Italian wines. One can go through this list looking for inexpensive wines with the highest ranking. This has been done, for example, at the Dall'Uva site for the 2012 listing (2012 Picks: *51* top Italian wines for under $20).

The basic limitation of this sort of approach is the infrequency with which these lists are produced (usually once per year). Wine tends to appear from vineyards annually, but wine prices usually vary in space and often over short periods of time, as specials come and go. An annual list cannot reflect this variation.

An equally important problem is that the wine producers immediately raise their prices when their wines make it onto one of these lists, and certain exporters snap up as much of the supply as possible. So, the wines do not remain cheap for long, and nor are they necessarily widely available.

These issues may or may not affect the residents of the biggest wine-producing countries, such as France, Italy and Spain. Here, there are hundreds of small producers, located in dozens of regions (and listed in books such as Le Guide Hachette des Vins de France). They can almost all be visited, and their wines bought directly. One can therefore probably adopt the attitude expressed by Brian Palmer (Why you should be drinking cheap wine):
You don’t need recommendations. Reviews and recommendations are great for cars or televisions or overpriced wines, because bad decisions are expensive. If you hate your cheap bottle of wine, just uncork another.
However, if you live elsewhere, for example in a wine-consuming but not wine-producing location, you may feel the need for some up-to-date advice as to what is currently available in the bottle shops, whether they be specialist stores or supermarkets. Unfortunately, most reviewers write about wines costing more than $20; and any books that get published (eg. Parker’s Wine Bargains, 2009; The Wine Trials, 2010, 2011) quickly go out of date.

Unsurprisingly, then, in both Australia and the USA there are also web sites that specialize in providing such information at the inexpensive end of the market. These sites offer you daily or weekly advice on the best quality cheap wines currently available to you, usually defined in both countries as being less than $20.


** Cheap Wine Ratings

Founded by Tim Lemke in 2007, who was joined by David Germano in 2010.

A free site, mainly consisting of wine reviews, often fairly detailed, of value-for-money wines, usually less than US$20. The reviews are grouped via style, variety or region. There have also been blog-like articles on travel, recipes, etc. These days, reviews appear only a few times per month.

** Reverse Wine Snob

Founded by Jon Thorsen in 2011.

A free site, mainly with wine reviews, rather brief, of inexpensive wines, almost always less than US$20 (and most often from Costco and Trader Joe's). The reviews are grouped by variety or region. There are purchase links to the Wine-Searcher website. There are also occasional articles; and sometimes there are special deals from affiliates. There is an associated book: Reverse Wine Snob: How to Buy and Drink Great Wine Without Breaking the Bank (2015).

** The Wine Curmudgeon

A site run by Jeff Siegel since 2006.

The focus of this free blog is on cheap wine, in all of its aspects. Among the blog posts, about any topic related to wine (trends, rants, news, advice), there are frequent reviews, usually fairly detailed, of wines available for less than US$10. The reviews are roughly categorized, and there is an annual "$10 Hall of Fame". The site's title accurately indicates the writing tone of most of the blog posts, so be warned. There is an associated book: The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine (2013).


** Best Wines Under $20

This site was started by Kim Brebach in 2013, although he had already started providing advice at his previous blog (In the Picture) in 2011.

This is a pay subscription site, with wine reviews, weekly emails about current best buys, monthly lists of best wines in various price categories (AU$10, $15, $20, $25), and direct links to those retailers with the best current prices (online buying is encouraged). Sometimes there are special deals for subscribers. There is also Kim's blog (freely accessible), full of acerbic but very informative comments on the foibles and follies of the Australian wine industry.


As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent site in the United Kingdom. This is somewhat mystifying. Given the wide range of wine-selling chains (in the suburbs) and independent wine shops (in the high streets), not to mention nine large supermarket chains with their own wine brands, there is a plethora of wines that come and go erratically on special. Indeed, in order to legally qualify for advertisement as "50% off" wines need to appear for sale at their "recommended" price for at least some of the time, so it is not always clear when wines are good value for money and when not. Why is there no-one providing insight into this complex situation for the poor befuddled British buyers?

There has been Oz Clarke's Wine Buying Guide, of which I have well-thumbed copies from 2003 and 2005. This was a printed companion to each edition of Oz's Pocket Wine Book, listing his "Top 250 wines", arranged in various price categories, along with an indication of where to get them for the least money. This suffered the limitation of annuality, of course; but more importantly, this sort of information needs to be online these days.

Someone needs to get on to this.


I have not specifically covered sites in languages other than English. However, here in Sweden there is:

** Billigt vin

This site was started by Ingvar Johansson and Jörgen Andersson in 2007. Postings have slowed down recently, but there are still usually a couple of cheap wines reviewed per month.

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