Monday, November 9, 2009

Bargain hunting with the San Francisco Chronicle

The front page of Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle's Food & Wine section features an article by Jon Bonné on bargain wines.

Bonné taps BevMo's WiIlfred Wong, Julie Joy from Cost Plus World Market, and Daniel Kahn from San Francisco's Spencer & Daniel's wine shop to select 20 wines under $15 that represent outstanding bargains. In doing so, Bonné identifies three "rules" to help you in seeking out such deals.

Before we get into those rules, we must shout, Segura Viudas Brut Cava is $10 for a magnum, at Cost Plus! Or so we gather from the article. The Cost Plus website is vague on the subject, and indicates that prices vary by region. But this is a solid sparkling wine, and would be a great deal at $10 for 1.5 liters if indeed such is the deal.

Also on the list is the 2008 Larry Cherubino The Yard Whispering Hill Vineyard Mount Barker Riesling, at $6. This one is supposedly available at Spencer & Daniel's, for San Francisco readers, although we do not find it on their website. We feel it is worth a shot if you can find it there. The S&D website does feature an Australian Riesling from the Clare Valley for $5, The Rail Tail, but it is from the 2005 vintage and may be past its prime.

On to Bonné's rules:
1. The less obvious, the better the wines.
2. Instead of paying for a familiar name, pay for the region and the wine.
3. Find a winner and stick with it--at least for a month or so.

The point of rule no. 1 is that values are more likely to be found away from tried and true varieties--Cabernet and Chardonnay--and regions--Napa Valley, Bordeaux. Hunting off the beaten path has its rewards. All very true, although bargains can be found in every region and from every variety with a little guidance. Still, $10 spent on a Monastrell from Yecla will probably get you a better wine than $10 spent on a Bordeaux or a Napa Cabernet.

If you like Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, for example, rule no. 2 suggests you try another Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige. You are sure to spend less, and the wine will likely be as good. Good advice as far as it goes.

Rule 3 has to do with the transient nature of bargains. If you find a bargain wine you like, buy up as much as you can before it's all gone.

These are fine suggestions and will help you in your hunt, but we stand by the advice we have doled out so often--cultivate a relationship with a wine retailer. When a retailer knows your tastes they will steer you towards wines you will enjoy at the price you want to spend. When the retailer scores bargains, they will let you know. You are sure to make discoveries as you would following rules 1 and 2, and have the opportunity to stock up as with rule 3, but with more hits and less misses.

We welcome your thoughts on the Chronicle article and the suggested wines.

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  1. The weekend Wall Street Journal also had a front-section-page story on wine. (I bring it only to your attention because I am not sure the WSJ is part of your weekly reading diet.) It centers on studies done by a retired statistician, Robert Hodgson, who found remarkably little consistency among the judging done at the California State Fair.

    Among the amusing anecdotes are one story of a Paso Robles winery which sent 3 different bottles, all containing the same wine, to a single competition. Two were rejected, one with the note "undrinkable," while the third one won a double gold medal.

    The article concludes with a nice quote from Waverly Root: "Drink wine every day, at lunch and dinner, and the rest will take care of itself."

    By which I assume he means, if you drink wine that consistently, you'll learn some things on your own, and discover what you -- not the judges -- like.

    Anyway, thought I'd share...

  2. Also from that article: Julia Child, when asked what her favorite wine was, reportedly replied "Gin."

  3. Thanks for the comments, Dylan, and for bringing that article to our attention. Indeed we would have missed it.

    We love your interpretation of the Waverly Root quote. We are sure you are correct, though we our less sure that was Mr. Root's intended message.

    Judging is notoriously problematic, and a number of stories have recently emerged about how random--at best--and corrupt--at worst--the judging process is. Corrupt may be too strong a word, but when 2/3 of entered wines receive a double gold, and the rest either gold or silver, just what does the competition mean exactly?

    Without getting into all that we will point out that bottle variation is a very real phenomenon. The "same" wine can vary dramatically from bottle to bottle, regardless of other changes such as time of day, quality of lighting, friendliness of companions, spiritual outlook, etc. (Not that this should happen or is excusable given modern quality control methods.)

    As to Julia Child and gin, what a wonderful quote. Perhaps we should explore gin's vinous companion, Vermouth. Stay tuned.


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