SOME YEARS ago a lady of my acquaintance encountered and drank a most extraordinary wine in Spain that, she was told, was rarely exported. Back in Washington she polled importers fruitlessly for news of that particular rioja for which she would have happily paid $4 or $5 a bottle.
Then one day on a grocery run to the Arlandria, Va., Giant there it was next to the melons: eight-year-old Vina Albina at $1.49 a bottle.
Neither Vina Albina nor its price, alas, is what it once was, but that shouldn't alter the demonstrated truth that drinking good wine need not drain the wallet along with the glass. In Washington, cheap wine can not only be good wine, it is often better than the tonier clarets costing three times the price.
No one with a bit of patience, a bit of prudence and a willingness to think ahead need pay much more for good, very drinkable wine than $3 a bottle. Not a near neighbor of Chateau Margaux, perhaps, but respectable wine of consistent interest and flavor, which one can serve without apology to dinner guests or drop-ins or enjoy in the secret bibulous pleasure of a solo glass.
I have nothing against paying good money for great wine. My brain still reels from the echoes of a l942 Chateau Haut-Brion I sampled 15 years ago and I will walk through fire for 1961 Gevrey-Chambertin. If anybody out there has any 1964 Erbacher Marcobrunn Auslese, please see me. And my banker.
But the truth is that even good money these days often buys poor wine. Few of us have the income, the patience or the space to lay down the overpriced French and German prime growths for a decade or so, even if we have the painfully acquired knowledge of which vineyards and vintages to buy.
And if we don't, we usually end up drinking wine overpriced and underaged, groping among obscure cooperatives and shippers for something that won't pucker the palate or stun the tongue.
Over the years I've devised a relatively simple way around this dilemma for those whose egos don't need the crutch of a first-growth label. It has produced a wine cellar that is primarily a bulk storage unit holding cases of substantially ready-to-drink wines of low to moderate price, along with the occasional let-it-all-hang-out cases that I hope will mature to match their high prices.
The system has permitted us to drink inexpensively, which is all to the good. But more important, it has permitted us to drink better wine, bottle for bottle, than many people spending two or three times as much.
I take a certain amount of ribbing for my Transylvanian burgundies (though rarely after the bottle is opened) and my 10 rules are not for those whose enjoyment of wine is mumbling the arcane shibboleths of the tasters' oath or genuflecting in the direction of Chateau Lafite. They are best employed by adventurous drinkers for whom wine is more discovery than ritual; those willing to risk the occasional sour grape for the serenity of pulling corks without guilt.
1. Forget the French. With few exceptions there are no low-price bargains in French wine. Dealers will tell you about co tes du rho ne, and beaujolais nouveau and all the rest, but the distressing truth is that those spending less than $15 can almost always find better wine for the same price from somewhere else.
2. Commit Treason. California wines, as splendid as they can be, are as confusing and erratic as the French, and almost always overpriced here in the East. Exceptions only prove the rule.
3. Think Italian. The finest wines of moderate price available in Washington come from Italy. Almost any chianti classico under $3.50 is a steal, and many whites are terrific bargains. What's a bargain? Try Bianco de Pitigliano, as fresh and quenching a basic white as you could hope to find, with 10 times the character of your jug chablis, for $2.79 a bottle. The price varies month to month but Mayflower Wines and Spirits buys it by the ton. It's rarely over $3 a bottle and usually less in case lots. Frascati, Orvieto and Bolla's Trebbiano are also bargain whites, particularly for the thirsty summer months, when wine is consumed with more gusto than ritual.
4. Drink the Balkans. The current price winner among low-price drinkables, as many have already found, is Trakia Merlot, a well-aged, round, full-bodied red from Bulgaria now widely available in Washington at around $2.50 a bottle. I bought three cases on sale for $2 a bottle. For some reason the merlot, a varietal, is even better than Trakia's Cabernet Sauvignon, which is also very good. The other Trakia wines are well worth a try. Rumania's Premiat wines, at around $3 a bottle, are also quite good if you can look beyond their rather low-rent oval label. Last year I blind-tasted the Premiat Cabernet against a Beaulieu Vineyard and a Parducci Cabernet of similar age (and more than twice the price) from California. Those who could tell the difference preferred the Premiat.
5. Go for Greece. Such is the fame (or notoriety) of retsina that most people think all Greek wine tastes like pine resin. Which leaves Demestica, the Melina Mercouri of white wines, for those of us who like a $3 white as rich and fragrant as the fresh bluefish on the grill. Demestica red, at the same price, is even less known--a soft, happy bottle akin to an unpretentious cha teauneuf du pape.
6. Sample Spain. Great Spanish wines, with their characteristic rich, earthy flavor, probably please me more than those of any other land, See CHEAP, K2, Col. 2 Cheap Wine CHEAP, From K1 but not everyone shares my passion for heavy wine. Spanish wines have been discovered, alas, and are rarely a bargain, but new imports still appear and cheap ones are worth a gamble. Three years ago I bought a case of $1.50 bottles complete with red pop-off plastic caps from the Safeway liquor store on Capitol Hill. The stuff was really quite decent, but I've never seen it before or since and I've forgotten the name. Generally with Spanish wines you either win or lose big. Marque's de Ca'ceres, at about $3.50 a bottle, is quite a serious wine, good now and even better with cellaring. Torres Gran Coronas and Marque's de Riscal are excellent but rarely under $4 any more. Marque's de Murrieta white is exquisite stuff, but I can't ever find it at any price. If you do, send it to me.
7. Doubt the Deutsch. As one of the few survivors of a celebrated liebfraumilch tasting held by this newspaper some years ago, I feel qualified to state that most German wine under $3 is fit only for poisoning streams. However, the exceptions are so delightful they make it worthwhile to poke along the Rhine and Moselle on occasion seeking adventure. Three months ago Mayflower was peddling Piesporter Michelsberg for $2 a bottle. Well-iced in a sailboat on the bay, it's as sunny a taste experience as anyone could wish.
8. Comb the List. At restaurants, where almost all wines are overpriced and green, look in the back of the list for wines from lesser-known wine-growing countries like Hungary and Spain. You will find them vastly cheaper than French wines and usually far better as well. A good rule for reds is simply to choose the oldest wine on the list, regardless of the country or vineyard of origin. For a couple of memorable years those who did so at the Apana Restaurant in Georgetown could wallow in a magnificent 10-year-old Torres Coronas Reserva from Spain for $5 a bottle, while less adventurous palates nearby winced over adolescent beaujolais at thrice the price.
9. Find a store. There are relatively few liquor stores in the District that make a specialty of wine, and most of those cater to big investors speculating in young bordeaux. Most clerks therefore bone up on France and know little of the bargain wines you will be seeking. But there are always exceptions. If you spend some time at a good store and indicate your willingness to buy in case lots, you can usually find someone to question about wines from the lesser-known regions. A few will let you taste before you buy.
10. Shop the sales. Wine prices are generally lowest in the traditionally low-volume summer months as merchants try to clear space for their incoming fall stock. Liquor stores usually publish ads for their weekly sales on Monday. Watch for the wines billed at $3 and under and ask about them. A few weeks ago an ad from Circle Liquors led me to three cases of 1979 Saccardi Chianti Classico at $3 a bottle. Not only is the wine fine, it came in little three-bottle wooden cases for which I'm still discovering uses. graphics/1 illustration: Cheap wines. By Pat Morrison for--TWP.