Four Secrets To Finding The Best Wine Value At The Grocery Store

I am still trying to perfect the titles to my Listicle posts. Truly insidious clickbait requires a high-stakes call to action, such as, “5 Ways To Choose Wine That Won’t Get You Killed,” or, “Your Life Will Be Loveless And Destitute Unless You Know These Four Wine Hacks.” I mean, It’s not like alcohol and truth ever went together to begin with.

Regardless, buying wine at the grocery store can be a daunting task. The picture at the top of this post is an actual shot of the wine aisle at the Safeway near my house. Granted, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, close to some of the best wine country on the planet, so my local grocery store has a pretty extensive collection. Yours may have a choice between Barefoot Merlot, a can of Clamato and a melted red crayon. If that’s the case, just pick the melted crayon.

However, if you’re faced with dozens or even a couple hundred wine choices at the grocery store, and you’ve got one entire Alexander Hamilton burning a hole in your pocket, here are four ways to help identify a great value in the crowd:

1. Avoid Cute Labels: Ermagerd!! It’s Mommy Juice Chardonnay! YAS QUEEN! Cuuuuute.

cute
Baron Philippe de Rothschild is rolling in his grave.

Wait until they see this at the  Final Rose viewing party! When you buy a cute label, you’re buying one thing: market research. You’re buying spreadsheets, Nielsen Ratings data, demographic analysis and a 27-year-old woman with an MBA sitting in a cubicle, watching her soul die. The juice behind that label is a tertiary thought at best. It’s all hat and no cowboy. (Holy shit…that’s a great name for a wine…)

2. Check The Bottom Shelf: Typically, the lower the shelf on which the wine is stocked, the cheaper the bottle. A lot of jug and box wines are relegated to the bottom shelf, so most people don’t look there. However, this is also the place where you’ll find close-outs and discontinued brands, and since the store needs the shelf space, these wines are highly discounted for quick liquidation. This picture below of the bottom shelf at my store is a good example. Next to a $6 Vielle Ferme is a close-out E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone for $12.99. Don’t know how much that CNP is next to it, but that could have been an awesome price as well. Always worth checking.

bottom row

3. Got An “Imports” Section? Use It: Again, this section can vary in size depending on your store, but even if it’s relegated to a small corner next to the two-year-old Cocoa Puffs (for half off!) you should check it out. I find that bulk wines from Europe are consistently unmanipulated and even terroir-driven…and they’re unbelievably inexpensive. You can find a lot of gems here in the $10 – $20 range Though you may not have ever heard of the name or brand, the labels on these wines are usually modified for the U.S. market, so you should be able to identify the varietal pretty easily.

imports
Please Note: Stella Rosa is NOT an import. It’s not even wine.

4. Look For Labels With Location Details: Wines from specific growing regions or vineyards tend to be better wines and therefore more costly. So, try this simple formula: a highly detailed wine label + low cost = great value. The government has strict regulations about what information can be on a wine label and why, and most of this information has to do with where the grapes come from. Compare the two labels below:

Label detailLabel no detailIf the grapes come from all over Hell’s Half Acre (which is not an appellation, by the way), the label does not specify a location. If the grapes are from anywhere in California, the label can read “California.” If they come from a specific vineyard in a specific region in a specific state, the label can say so. Note that the Chalk Hill Chardonnay’s label shows that the wine is Estate Bottled from the Chalk Hill Appellation in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, and therefore costs $48. The Corbett Canyon is Chardonnay from anywhere you can throw a dart on a map, and is $7…for a magnum. The Chalk Hill is luscious and balanced. The Corbett Canyon will strip paint from your walls and is regret in liquid form. Let these two price extremes be your guide, then start looking for the most detailed label with the best price.

Got a tip for finding a great wine value at the store? Leave it in the comments section below so I can steal it…

Comments 15

  • Holy crap! 1. This post is everything I need in life. While I try to make it to the awesome liquor store Spec’s to wander amongst their collection of 8.75 million bottles of wine to find something new and exciting, I often just make it the 2 miles to Kroger to peruse their much smaller, albeit adequate, selection. Then I’m overwhelmed and attempt to use your posts, Google, and Delectable to guide me but I’m often left frustrated after fighting the limited connectivity due to them clearly housing government secrets in the ceiling (why else would they’re be 0 connection in a grocery right?). Now I can transfer this post into my next tattoo so I am always prepared no matter where I find myself searching for a great bottle of wine. Thanks. Yet again not only did I laugh so hard I snorted through my current glass of wine, but your writing style and content have left my life fulfilled. Thank you.
    2. I’m the 1st one to comment! Holla!

  • Was prepared to hate this article, but it’s bang on – good advice and funny too. Killer price on that Guigal.

  • Love all your hacks! FYI…..there is a wine app called Vivino that you can scan label and get instantaneous reviews etc.

  • Howdy John – I’ve enjoyed reading your posts since you suggested I sign up! ;-P

    I wanted to point out one tip that I really feel should be included:

    5. Ask The People Around You

    I work for a chain of liquor stores in Indiana, and one of our “points of pride” is that our managers and employees are constantly trained to be able to help you in your selection, so that you never have to feel overwhelmed when you come in looking for a bottle of wine. The simple questions (What do you like, what are you looking for, what price range are you comfortable with) help us both find exactly what will make your eyebrows arch and mouth slip into an uncontrolled grin when you take your first sip.

    We’re automatically looking for the best deal for you based on your answers – because those sale prices and close-out bottles are what the company wants us to push anyways. That’s why they are on sale. Not every employee is a sommelier, but they know what questions to ask, where to find the answers, and how to best help each and every customer who comes through our doors. Besides the convenience of not having to deal with the Grocery Store crowd, parking lot, checkout lines – it’s that customer service and availability of staff to help make your informed, positive wine purchase that you’ll feel GREAT about with every glass among friends.
    (Or Enjoyed All By Yourself!) ;-P

    But enough personal gratification and thinly veiled customer tugging towards the (Beautiful, Wonderful, Amazing) local liquor stores and boutique shops in their life. Your post is about the secrets of finding the best wine value in a GROCERY STORE. And my advice is still the same – ASK the people around you.

    Often times the wine section of a grocery store is a barren wasteland as far as employees are concerned. At best you may find a 16 year old stock boy (or girl) that would be able to direct you to a wonderful ’17 Welch’s they had last night. Though some grocery stores have begun upping their game with a dedicated wine expert on hand during peak hours, and you may luck into finding a distributor rep stocking the shelves. Though if you do – their main goal will be to get you to buy THEIR products, not necessarily the best wine value.

    But your best resources in this setting are actually the customers around you. TALK to them. You already know you have similar interests – you’re both buying wine at your local grocery store. ASK them what they like, what they are looking for, and what price ranges they usually like to buy from. What do they recommend? These people are (very probably) long time wine lovers who know what they like, know a deal when they see it, and are comfortable/happy with a range of wines that you may have not have even considered/known about!

    I’m not saying you need to learn their whole life story – and I certainty understand the fear and uncertainty of trying to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have even DREAMED of taking my own advice – but having to do it on a daily basis in my industry now for a decade, I can tell you: People are generally cool, they like to be helpful, and are ALWAYS in a better than normal mood when they’re enjoying the experience of picking up a bottle or two for dinner or their weekend festivities.

    Just start here: “Hi – sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for a bottle of wine. You look like you know what you’re doing – do you have any suggestions?” Nine times out of ten they’ll laugh and say “I’m no expert.” But that’s alright – none of us really feel like an expert, we just have a good idea about what we like. And that’s exactly what you say: “Well, what do you like?” And you figure it out together.

    Wine isn’t just a product – it’s a passion. We buy it and drink it because we enjoy it – and it’s meant to bring us together. Even in a *gag* grocery store 😉 – one passing connection can create an unexpected experience that might change your outlook on what you like – be it a style (Unoaked Chard vs those Buttery Behemoths), a new varietal (Between a Red Blend and Cab? – try this Malbec), or even location (your point # 4.)

    You probably aren’t going to make a new lifelong friend – but those customers around you are more of an expert than they realize. And people are generally pretty cool, like to help, and love to drink what you’re buying.

    Cheers John,

    ~ Matthew

    • Thanks, Matthew, that’s excellent advice. In the same respect, I’ve been in wine aisles and have noticed shoppers glazing over in confusion at the choices, and I’ve offered to help them out. So yes, it’s a great way to find the right choice. Thanks again!

  • Fantastic read! I’m just lamenting that in NY (where I live) we can’t have wine sold in grocery stores – BOO. I can’t wait for it to happen, though. But, I used to live in Texas and can absolutely relate to being at HEB or Target and facing this struggle!

  • Good post! For French wines I would add – look for ‘Mise en boteilles a la …Propriete’ or ‘chateau’ on the label. This means the wine was (essentially) made by the owner, not sent out to be made by someone else and generally means a better quality wine.

  • Marks & Spencers do the bottom shelf trick, and to add more insult to injury the price label is somewhat obscured by the viewing angle … forcing one to scramble around on the floor like a hobo trying to view the price to decide if it’s ‘cheap enough’ for you. I really should stick to Lidl.

    Is it wrong that I also check out the alcohol content to price ratio metrics? Nah, it’s not wrong, no one wants to be tricked into drinking Lambrini.

  • much like to labels with specific regions – learn the regions you like that produce great wine values, i.e. Cabernet from Chile or from Washington State.

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