Liz Thach, Ph.D., a professor of management and wine business at Sonoma State University in California, has tasted a lot of exquisite—and expensive—wines. “But I also love finding a great bottle for $8,” she says.
So do we. That’s why we asked Thach, who has been a judge in about a dozen wine competitions, and other experts for advice about finding quality wines at affordable prices. This is what we learned:
Don’t be intimidated
Thach says that 30 percent of wine buyers are overwhelmed and confused by the number of wine types and brands on store shelves. To complicate matters, many wine shoppers are cowed by what they describe as the pretentious aura and cloying commentary surrounding wine.
“Is that bottle worth $100? Yes, if money is not an object and you really appreciate what can be very subtle differences in taste,” says Cyril Penn, editor of WineBusiness.com. “But wine preference is really subjective and you shouldn’t be intimidated, because it’s easy to get a good bottle of wine for $10 to $20.”
So don’t listen to wine snobs. Declare your right to find whatever you like. And since it’s better to fall in love with a wine you can afford long-term, try inexpensive ones first, then work your way up the price ladder until you find your next best combination of price and magic.
Shop at Costco
What better way to confirm the truly populist nature of wine than by buying it at Costco, the largest retailer of this product in the U.S.? Prices are typically lower than at other stores. Wines from Costco’s private label, Kirkland, offer exceptional value. The 2011 Sonoma Chardonnay ($7), for example, is a Consumer Reports Best Buy in our Ratings. Costco also provides another service to overwhelmed consumers by offering only a limited selection of quality wines.
“They give you only a couple of Bordeaux to choose from, for example, but whatever you buy will be pretty good for the dollar,” says Andrew Cullen, editor of the independent CostcoWineBlog.com, which has been reviewing wines sold at Costco, most of them $20 to $25, since 2008.
And if you want to experiment with fancier wines, Costco is a great place to get them at a lower price than you’d pay elsewhere, Cullen says. He reviewed a 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape that cost $80 at a Costco in the Atlanta area but $100 in a shop just across the street.
Note, however, that differing state laws prevent Costco and other large chains from selling wine everywhere, which limits this money-saving option to 36 states.
Check our buying guide for reviews of red, white, and sparkling wines as well as information on food-and-wine pairings and serving temperatures. Also, find a wine chiller for storing your best bottles.
Buy imported bargains
American wineries produce 72 percent of the wine consumed in the U.S., but you can score significant savings on many quality imports. Among the steals for less than $20 right now, according to Wine-Searcher.com, are Argentine malbec, Chilean cabernet sauvignon, Riesling from Austria, Beaujolais, Chianti, verdejo from Spain, chenin blanc and pinotage from South Africa, and cabernet, sauvignon blanc, and shiraz from Australia.
Shop for bargains online
We like Wine-Searcher.com and its Best Buys Wine Finder tool. It asks what type of wine grape, region, and price range you’re looking for, then searches more than 9,000 price lists of wine stores, wineries, and wine auctions around the world (but mostly in the U.S.) to find the best quality-price ratio based on wine-rating scores. “Sometimes I can order a bottle of wine from New Jersey and have it shipped to California at a better price than if I bought it here,” Thach says.
Amazon.com has also started selling wine shipped directly from 500 wineries to consumers in the 16 states and the District of Columbia that permit it. Whenever you buy online, watch for shipping costs, which can be free or considerable depending on the site. Buying by the case might get you a break on shipping costs and maybe on the wine itself.
Be a skinflint in restaurants
Order the least-expensive or second-lowest-priced varietal you prefer on the wine list, says Karen MacNeil, author of the best-selling “Wine Bible” (Workman Publishing, 2000). That’s often the most popular choice, and restaurateurs don’t want their customers to have a bad experience—even when they’re being thrifty.
A second option is to look for restaurants that let you to bring your own bottle. Find them by searching “BYOB” on Yelp.com or Zagat.com. Some restaurants charge a corkage fee, which pays some overhead costs and gives them some profit from your savings.
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.