Putting wines to the taste test

July 15, 2009 8:47:39 AM PDT
People shop around for just about everything from clothes to cars, but when it comes to wine, many shoppers just throw the bottle in the basket. However, it is possible to get great deals on some of the most popular wines.Most people have a "go-to" wine that they buy regularly, so it is always convenient to know where to get it for less, as savings can really add up.

For several popular wines, the prices in all stores were very close, but for others there was a huge price difference.

Gene Cunningham loves wine, so when he finds a good price on the kind he likes, he stocks up, usually at Costco.

"They're significantly better prices here on certain wines," he said. "Others are comparable to what you can get elsewhere, but I do find good bargains here."

Kroger shoppers say the appeal there is convenience.

Whenever I'm here I just pick up a couple of bottles," Michelle Ehmer said. "It's just easier."

Some might think that wine costs the same no matter what the store, but it is possible to save as much as $11 on a single bottle of wine.

A 2005 vintage Franciscan Cabernet is a go-to wine for many red wine lovers, and there was quite a significant difference in price store to store.

At Kroger it's $25, at Spec's Wine and Spirits it's just over $21, but at Target it's just $14!

While that specific wine was a bargain, Target wasn't the cheapest for other wines, so it pays to do comparison shopping.

"I really like Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio," Target wine shopper Ashley Fondren said. "It's really simple."

The popular 2007 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio costs $22 at Target, but it is possible to save $3 if it purchased at Kroger, Costco or Spec's.

Mass-marketed wines like the Santa Margherita are often marked down one week and back up the next, so ask the store manager if they know when a particular wine is going on sale.

For instance, a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc costs $18 at Kroger, but just over $16 at Spec's.

A J. Lohr Cabernet costs $14 at Kroger, but Target beat their price by $2, and Spec's was about 50 cents cheaper than that.

Spec's had the best prices on the most wines. That store also gives five percent off for paying in cash, but most stores offer some discounts, so always ask. Whole Foods knocks 10 percent off when six bottles are purchased, and many stores offer deals on wines by the case.

There is also the issue of the taste of cheaper wines. Can a cheap wine taste as good as an expensive one? Some inexpensive wines were taste-tested against some that cost three times as much, proving that it is possible to make savvy money-saving selections at the wine store.

Spec's President John Rydman has tasted the most expensive wines in the world, but he says it is possible to find wine that's as good, or better, for just a few dollars per bottle.

"A lot of these people are drinking the label," he said, "and we're more about the juice than we are about the label."

His advice? Look for lesser known wines from the same region as their pricier counterparts.

A Chateau Margaux Bordeaux sells for $270 per bottle, but the wine from its neighboring vineyard is $30.

"It's the same grapes, the same soil," Rydman said.

Another stunner were some Italian Pinot Grigios that were almost identical -- the Santa Margherita is $19 while the Monte Campo is about $7, $12 less.

"If you want to buy the label, it's there," Rydman said. "If you want to buy the flavor, you buy Monte Campo."

A Ruffino Chianti costs $21, but for just $6, even self-proclaimed wine snobs love a wine by Levata.

Overall, it really does pay to ask an expert. There are some wines that are practically identical to another, but they can be cheaper because they're bottled in a different Italian town.

"Most people would never know the difference," Rydman said.

In a blind taste test conducted at Whole Foods, a $6 "365" Brand Merlot was compared to a $15 Keltie Brook. Also, a $5 Harthill Farm Chardonnay was compared to a $15 La Crema.

"They're both very similar in their taste," Whole Foods wine expert Cody Lincicone said.

All three taste-tasters chose the $6 Merlot over the $15 one.

"I preferred the cheaper of the red?" taste-tester Gerda Gomez said. "I'm surprised!"

Taste-tester Anna Gray was of a similar sentiment.

"Wow, I was tricked!" she said.

Two out of the three taste-testers chose the $5 Harthill Farm over the $15 La Crema.

"It's amazing," taste-tester Melodi Weinberg said. "I like it so much better."

Taste-tester Gomez, who picked the expensive wine, said the two were similar.

"If I knew the price," she said, "I'd go with the cheaper one because it was close!"

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