I’ll let you in on a little secret. I know where you can always find great, inexpensive wine. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know where you live. I know where to send you. If you want a really good, affordable bottle of wine tonight, forget about Costco and Trader Joe’s. Go to a specialty wine shop. You know, that little boutique wine store in your town. The one you’ve been afraid to go into because you think it will be filled with crazy bottles with Italian labels you can’t decipher and triple digit price tags. Go into that one.
I know, I know. This seems antithetical to what you would normally do, which is walk into Safeway, BevMo, or Total Wine and take your chances with something from the bargain rack. After all, they have a large selection, which typically includes several bottles that fall into an affordable price range, be that under $20, under $15, under $10. They also often have good sales like buy one get one for a nickel, or a 15% off six or more promotion, and so what if you only came in for a bottle or two if you’ll save by buying more… This all sounds pretty good, until you walk in and are confronted by the wall of wine. Row after row, bottle after bottle, label after label. How do you choose?
The problem with big box wine stores is not that they lack for choice, it’s that they offer a whole warehouse of choices and no one to help navigate them. Once you realize this and are ready for a change (and a good cheap wine shopping experience) make your way to your nearest specialty wine shop. Here’s why:
A boutique wine shop will almost certainly be small (thus one reason for the moniker) and because of its diminutive size, will have a nicely edited selection. It will also likely be independently and locally owned. There’s a good chance the owner/manager/wine buyer will greet you when you walk in the door. Because this person has chosen the life of a wine merchant (which, believe me, is no get rich quick scheme), it’s a fair guess they’ve done so because they love wine, and because they want you love it, too. When you walk in the door of a shop like this, you should find someone who is happy to see you, and who wants to see you again. They way they’ll make that happen? By giving friendly service, listening to what you want, and matching you with the right bottle of wine at the right price. This is what good small shops do time and time again that big box stores don’t.
Now to the cheap part. Contrary to the historical connotation, boutique wine shops aren’t just for people interested in expensive wines. These days it’s quite the opposite. Many small shops specialize — either partly or solely — in affordable wine. Here are a few examples:
Plonk Wine Merchants, Los Angeles – all wines $30 or less
In Fine Spirits, Chicago – half under $20, 75 selections under $12
Cork: a bottle shop, Portland – 100 wines under $20
Vintage Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (full disclosure: I work here.) – all wines $25 or less
The Wine Bin, Ellicott City, MD – 200 wines under $20
Now that you know to go to a specialty shop in search of good, cheap wine, stay tuned for Part 2: How to Get Matched With the Best Cheap Bottle for You.