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Making a Case for Bargains

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My faith in the economy remained strong through the increasing din of bailouts and rescues until New York magazine interviewed a bunch of Manhattanites about how they were faring in the downturn. A wine retailer groused that his customers were no longer buying $70 wines. They were trading down to $50 a bottle.

Well, there you have it. It is doomsday.

Washingtonians are a more frugal bunch. Retailers I've spoken to in the area tell me that sales are indeed slowing and that more customers are looking for less-expensive wines. Our ceiling, however, appears to be $20. That's no hardship for wine lovers. The excitement level starts in the $12-to-$20 range, where an extra dollar spent often returns solid dividends in quality.

Wine lovers are always in search of a good bargain. We love to find wines that "drink up," meaning they taste more expensive than they are. A $10 red that tastes like $30 is just as much a discovery as the rare, expensive, handmade cuvee gently pressed from grapes harvested individually on several passes through the incredibly densely planted vineyard and blessed by a famous French consultant.

For this column, I decided to turn difficulty into a challenge and put together a case of wines that sell for $15 or less. At that price, I figured I could catch some of that excitement range and delve even lower to find deep bargains.

There are certain strategies wine lovers use to find those bargains. First, we bypass the supermarket or convenience store wine aisle (except in times of extreme desperation). Instead, we head to a wine store, where the owner and sales staff probably have tasted most or all of the wines in the store and know which ones we like because we spend too much time and money there. Wine stores frequently offer customers a chance to taste a wine before buying, another advantage.

With imported wines, it pays to look for the importer's name, which by law is always listed on the label. Three importers who have a strong presence in this region's retail market and who excel at finding high-quality wines at the low end of the price range are Kysela Pere et Fils in Winchester, Va.; Monsieur Touton Selections in New York; and the District's own Robert Kacher Selections.

Good news: Plenty of well-made wine retails for $15 or less, and even less than $10. Not much of it is very exciting, but I did find several bottles that taste more expensive than they cost. Some fell in expected categories, such as malbec from Argentina, garnacha from Spain and some charming Loire whites. Others were surprises, including a delightful $9 pinot noir from Italy.

So keep searching those shelves, and don't frown on an inexpensive wine before you've tasted it. Plenty of bargains are out there.

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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