Twelve Dollar Man exceeds his Limit. Michael Pinkus.
Everybody’s always searching for a bargain bottle of wine: one that doesn’t break the bank and over-delivers, tasting great year in and year out. Other people I speak to are looking for their next ‘house wine.’ I have heard this term many times in the past; it refers to the wine people buy by the case, because “we love it,” “it’s a good price”, “it’s cheap”, and “we can drink it.” Personally, the idea of a house wine baffles me; imagine drinking just one wine for the rest of your life: the thought has me running and screaming through the house like my hair is on fire.
When I started to drink wine I had a budget in mind. I told myself that I was an under $10 guy; I only bought wine for under $10 – and at the time there were some pretty good choices out there. I was able to get bottles from Italy, Greece, Mexico, France, Spain, and Portugal – a world tour of the great regions. I wasn’t drinking the best wines, but they were the best I could afford.
Then one day I read a review of a bottle from Australia, Long Flat Red, written by David Lawrason in a Toronto Life guide to the wines at the LCBO. David said it was the best bargain in the LCBO, the price, $10.05. This posed a dilemma for me: if I bought this wine, then I was no longer an under $10 guy. I was over, because to me there was no exceptions, no wiggle room, once I was over, I was over. I hummed and hawed over this decision for a few days, but eventually I broke my rule and set my new limit to $12. This opened up a whole new world of wine for me. I was no longer a $10 guy; I was a $12 man.
The days of the great $10 bottles are gone. Sure you can still pick up a few for that price, but I’m not sure we’d refer to them as ‘great’. Passable might be a more apt descriptor. But that does not mean the bargain wine category is dead; it just means you need to search a little harder and possibly spend a little more. First and foremost, wine is all about taste…your taste. My podcast partner and I often debate about those more expensive wines and whether they actually ‘taste better’; he buys those pricier wines, I do not. I am still of the opinion that you can get a great bottle for between $20 and $25; and very good wines between $15 and $20. Yes, it is possible, and there are ways to accomplish this.
The liquor board doesn’t care what you buy or what you like. They are buying to make money and looking for wines that offer them the biggest return. They are a buyer, first and foremost, but there are some people who work at your local store that know their stuff. And it’s these folks you need to search out, if they aren’t at your local, change your local. Wine lovers who work at the liquor board are like those guys who geeked out on music and worked at Sam The Record Man, HMV or the handful of great records/ CD shops you used to darken the door of way back when. They looked weird but they could point you in the direction of some great music you’d never heard of. There are some product consultants who perform the same yeomen’s work – trust me, I was once one of them: at the record store and the liquor store.
Go tasting…I found the best way to find that bottle of wine that makes you go “yum” is to get out there and taste. Sure, it’s great to take your third cousin’s brother’s friends, uncle’s advice but if you don’t taste it yourself, how will you know if you really like it? Get out to your local winery, and we have plenty in the province to choose from, and taste. Pick your budget and taste…but do it with an open mind and don’t have an unrealistic budget or expectations. Ontario doesn’t do sub-$10 wine, so don’t set your budget there; you’ll be very disappointed. Ontario is the land of the $20 bottle. You should be able to find something for $20 and be very happy. If you up it by another $5 you might be ecstatic.
Join a wine society or club. Many wineries have their own club these days; they’ll send you wine from their winery. But do some research and you’ll find stuff like: the Ontario Wine society, the California Wine Society, the South African Wine Society…, these are ‘clubs’ to help with your appreciation of wines from specific regions and countries – they also can sometimes get wine at decent prices: think Opimian Society.
Apps…yes, those things you have on your phone. There are a few apps out there you can take and get advice from. Most are American, so pricing is wrong and selection might be unavailable. But they can be a good bellwether to identify which producers to watch.
Bottle shops and wine agents…these are new ways for consumers in Ontario to look for bargain bottles. Bottle shops are the result of new laws passed during the pandemic. When restaurants were trying to sell their wine and beer, they could only do it with food and take out orders. It became so popular that it was made permanent. Agents have long been sellers of wine in the province but now you can get mixed cases instead of having to buy twelve of the same. So look for agents that do this and sign up for their newsletter so you’ll be advised on all their latest offerings.
Most of all, know what you like, know your palate, know your grape, know your budget…you are the only one who can know all the above. As the Ontario government says about gambling: “know your limit, stay within it.” When it comes to wine it’s nice to stray, you’ll get more out of it and you’ll be happy you did.