My buddy Murray is a professional schnorrer. I mean that in the best sense of the word, because Murray works hard at finding unknown bargains. He also has good taste and would be happy to know — as would any of us who want to drink good wine — that there are a lot of choices out there, at prices to satisfy all of the senses, including some very good deals. All one has to do is look in the right places.
First, give up the notion of finding quality California wine at low prices. Forget about Cabernets from Cali. There are lots of corporate Cabs for under a sawbuck — that are terrible-to-decent — but we’re not settling for decent here. And do I have to tout you off Bordeaux, Barolo, Barbaresco, Burgundy, Rhônes and Priorato? Great wines all, but those come with big price tags.
When looking for wines, whether it’s in a shop, a big-box store or on a restaurant list, look for ones from southern Europe in the $15-to-$25 range ($25-$45 in restaurants). To my mind, they’re the best bang-for-the-buck right now. I recommend the white Grillos (a variety, pronounced "GREE-low") from Sicily, a dry, full-bodied wine that was used chiefly as a base for Marsala.
Or the reds from the Marche, the smallest and poorest region of Italy, that’s on-the-come. I like the Montepulciano d’Abruzzos (the first word not to be confused with the village of the same name in Tuscany). These are usually rustic wines, which to my mind are idiosyncratic, a little rough around the edges and wholly satisfying.
It’s been a no-brainer the last several years to pick up on the wines of southern France — in particular, Languedoc-Roussillon’s dry Muscats and Grenache whites, and Carignan, Grenache and Cinsaut reds. Or how about the unheralded but delicious and rather inexpensive red varietal of northwest Spain, Mencia (no, not the comedian) from Galicia? And white Abariños from Rias Baixas (REE-us-BY-chiz). They're perfume-y, interesting and comparatively inexpensive.
There are also treasures to be mined from the little understood Beaujolais region of east-central France. We’re not talking about the cheap, sweet, right-out-of-the-fermenter Beaujolais Nouveau that floods these shores every November. Cru Beaujolais (from the top producers in the region) are made from the Gamay grape, which produces aromatically beautiful, fruit-driven dry reds. In Beaujolais, you can buy vineyard land at 10 cents on the dollar, despite the strong Euro. That’s because Beaujolais is the place that Nouveau ruined.
And you get to capitalize on the relatively inexpensive, world-class reds that are age-worthy. Don’t shy away from these beauties. You’ll impress yourself and your friends.
If you really must have California wines, look to the Sierra Foothills for some good quality at reasonable prices. In addition to the time-honored Zins from the Foothills, look to Rhône-style whites such as Marsanne and Chenin Blanc, and reds like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
And if you happen to be in the San Francisco area, there's a great restaurant called Cotogna that serves beautiful Italian food with the most egalitarian/eclectic blend of Italian wines in the city. All wines are $40! I highly recommend Barbera d’Alba, Matteo Correggia and the Maremma Toscana, “Mongrana,” Querciabella, both from 2009.
Some of these wines may seem obscure, but they’re all catching on with enlightened wine shops and restaurants. So go look for them. They go great with food and you’ll keep some money in your pocket.