EVERYONE WHO buys wine knows prices are high. This doesn't mean you need totally forsake wine in favor of ginger beer or even abandon the good stuff for a steady diet of plonk. You can still buy first-rate wine and pay less for it.
Start by getting acquainted with several local stores and their wine consultants. (A selection of stores and their consultants appears in the accompanying box.) As a group, Washington stores are among the country's finest, offering good selection and low prices.
There are several reasons why this is so. There are no "fair trade" or other crippling laws that prevent retailers from wheeling and dealing on prices.Second, only in Washington can store owners import their wine and not be forced to rely only on standard shippers' products of what local wholesalers can offer. Between the better wine stores there is also an often fierce, competition for your dollars. All of this means lower prices.
As you reconnoiter the stores pay particular attention to how the wine is displayed and priced. Do the selection and presentation demonstrate imagination and interest or are the wines you find stashed in a remote corner the famous, expensive names?
Following your inspection, introduce yourself to the consultant, possibly asking his advice on a bottle to serve with a particular meal. Be sure when you do this, you give both the price you'd like and your own wine tastes. Nothing sends a consultant to the back room for a quick bracer faster than a customer who talks dry wine but drinks only sweet or one who says price is no object yet is upset when anything over $2.99 is mentioned.
These initial forays into the store established you and your tastes. Once your wine profile is known to them, the consultants will know what new wines might interest you and even better, they might give you first opportunity at special purchases, possibly at reduced prices. The key is to get to know the wine-selling personnel. It's a relationship that will save you money, time and anguish.
Fine out from the consultant what the store's discount policy is on multiple bottle purchases. Most give reduced prices on three or six bottle lots, and all offer case discounts that can amount to as much as 20 percent, seldom less than 10 percent, per bottle. If 20 bottles is more than you need, split the case with friends. In fact, forming a consortium of wine buyers is a good idea, since it gives you the added bargaining muscle of larger purchases, and this frequently knocks down the price further.
If you can store a few cases of wine in your house then you can buy, while they are young, unready to drink and much less expensive, a case or two of those wines that require several years aging.
Most stores sell what are called "binends" or "odd bottles" at cut rates. Though a few turn out to be fancy vinegar, many are close outs of good wine the store has picked up, the last bottles from a special offering or merely something that should have sold but for one reason or another didn't. Ask about them. If they sound interesting, take a chance. The price will be right.
Get on the mailing list of as many stores as possible (those marked with an asterisk in the accompanying box have such lists). A number offer worth-while information about wine, but more important, they announce special sales with prices often as much as 50 percent off regualr shelf price.
Ads in this newspaper tell much the same story. The advertised specials provide an excellent opportunity to sample a broad variety of wines at a considerable savings. Naturally, you can also stock up on wines you already know you like.
But the ads and mailers provide other information, too. Viewed over a period of time, they project an image of the shop, showing what the owner feels are important wines, his views on pricing, how he regards the whole wine business. It's a good idea to keep a small file of those ads and mailers than list a number of wines. The prices can then he compared to those in subsequent ads from other stores. In a few months you'll have an accurate picture of what's available and at what prices.