Guide to being a cheap drunk

As someone who has been a young enthusiast of fermented grapejuice for sometime, nothing saddens me more than overhearing, “Idon’t drink wine because it’s just too expensive.”

While I love a good beer as much as the next guy, in my mind,nothing parallels the gustatory experience of a good glass of wine.And what you may not know is that there are literally thousands ofgreat wines waiting out there that won’t set you back any more thanyour favorite six-pack of microbrew.

Advances in winemaking and packaging over the last 30 years orso have dramatically increased the quality of wine at the bottomrungs of the price ladder. Also, a massive glut of wine grapescombined with struggling economy has created a market where manywinemakers are desperate to unload their product, even if it meansknocking a few bucks off the price tag.

With a little practice and a little know-how, you can become apro at finding great wine deals for you next date, dinner withfriends or the next time you just want to drown your sorrows in adark corner of your apartment. Here are some of my favoritestrategies for finding the best cheap vino in town:

Rule #1: Don’t fear going with something weird

Let me create a scene for you: faced with a seeminglyendless shelf full of bottles packed with strange and foreignsounding terms, you look for something, anything that seemsfamiliar, something safe. “Ah, ‘merlot,'” you think, “I’ve heard ofthat before.” And so you choose the merlot.

Well, the problem is that almost everyone, when faced with thissituation, chooses the merlot. Winemakers know this, and theydeliberately jack the prices up on familiar and popular styles totake advantage of precisely this type of situation.

A much better bet when on a budget is to take a gamble onsomething weird. Wines from strange regions, low-productioncountries or weird grapes can’t fetch the same kind of prices aseasier-to-recognize varieties.

One good strategy is to try wines from countries that are lessknown for their wine production, like Austria, South Africa orChile. These places are pumping out some good vino but can’t demandthe same prices as France or California, who’ve established theirreputation for great wineries.

Single variety wines made from less common grapes can also be agood place to look for great deals. Try, for example, some “grunerveltliner,” a tart white from Austria, or a “malbec” (the bestpizza wine ever).

Rule #2: Find bargain blends

Another good technique is to go for blends, rather than winemade from a single type of grape. A “cabernet-merlot” for instance,will often run a few bucks cheaper than a cabernet sauvignon ormerlot from the same producer.

Some of the best deals are in wines that are blendedfrom so many different grapes that they can’t list them all on thebottle, often opting for the generic red or white “table wine”label instead. Often these wines are made with the leftovers frommuch more expensive blends, but are much cheaper because they lackthe easy name recognition.

Rule #3: Raid bargain bins

Another good place to look for great deals is closeout or salebins. Many stores have bins where they stick the last few bottlesof something in order to clear some shelf space for new arrivals.These wines can often be marked down as much as 80 percent, so theycan offer adventuresome folk a chance to try something that wouldordinarily be well outside their budget at a real bargain.Northwest Best Fred Meyer (100 N.W. 20th Place) has one of the bestof these in town.

Rule #4: When in doubt, ask for help

As always, never feel bad about confessing to a wine shopsalesperson that you are just looking for some cheap swill. Manypeople in the wine industry pride themselves on their ability tohunt down great bargains, and they are usually happy to share theirdiamonds-in-the-rough with you if you just ask. Some stores, likeGreat Wine Buys (1515 N.E. Broadway), even pick out entire cases ofgood drink for less than $10 a bottle.

Rule #5: Take a chance

Most importantly, just be adventurous. If you come acrosssomething you’ve never heard of before, chances are most otherpeople haven’t heard of it either. Sure, every now and then youmight get something gross. But if you ever come across that $4bottle of liquid gold (as I have many times), it will make all theduds seem worth it.

Some widely available winebargains:

Laurel Glen REDS, 2001 – $8
Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” Big House Red – $9
Annabella Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 – $10
Taurino Salice Salentino, 2001 – $8
Duck Pond Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001 – $7
Chateau d’Oupia “Les Heretiques,” 2001 – $6

Penfold’s “Rawson’s Retreat” Chardonnay, 2002 – $8
Berger Gruner Veltliner, 2002 – $7
Bridgeview “Blue Moon” Riesling, 2003 – $6
Oak Knoll Pinot Gris, 2002 – $7