Our cheatsheet for the best wine values...anywhere

A fantastic glass or bottle with your dinner is well within reach. Here's your print-out, take-along guide

By Steven Kolpan
Published January 13, 2010 6:01PM (EST)

We're thrilled to bring you the wine wisdom of Steven Kolpan, the chair of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America, who will be stopping by regularly with words on what to drink. Today, strategies -- and a printable guide -- for finding the best for the least on any list.

On rare and expensive nights, it's exciting to throw caution to the winds and order that rare and expensive wine: a beautiful Burgundy, a killer Cab, a sexy Syrah. Enough alliteration; you know what I mean. A night of exotic fun, at least until the credit card statement arrives.

But most of us also like to go out just to get a bite to eat, not for anything special, but simply to reaffirm friendship, to catch up, or just to let someone else do the cooking and the dishes. On nights like these, you're looking to relax, not to blow a wad of cash on wine. Happily, it's actually pretty easy to find value wines in restaurants, if you just keep a few strategies in mind.

"Value" of course is a relative term, relative to how much money you have to spend on a bottle of wine. Ironically, the most expensive wine on the list might be the best "value," because that 1990 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is selling for just about the same price as in a good shop, with almost a zero percent markup. Unfortunately, the price is $325. So, if you have the money, this is a great value. But let's stop dreaming, and get back to reality. What we're talking about is finding wine that under-promises in price and over-delivers in pleasure.

First, this might seem obvious, but go to a restaurant where you like the food and wine, the service is bright and friendly, and the price is reasonable. The fact is that most good restaurants have "good" wine lists: a choice of enjoyable wines at various price points. Ask to see the wine list as soon as you sit down, to give you some time with it, and don't be afraid to settle on a per-bottle price range for the wines you plan to order. If the wine list seems out of whack - too expensive for the place, or just plain too expensive for you, make a note of this for next time and consider ordering by the glass to stay within your budget.

Just as it's unlikely that you are going to choose that $325 Brunello as your "value" wine, I would also would warn you away from choosing the least expensive wines on the list, especially if they are from well-known New World regions, like California, Chile and Australia. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these wines in principle, but they might not represent great value. I've seen Chardonnay from California, Cabs from Chile, and Shiraz from Australia that retail in wine shops for less than $10 selling for more than $30 on many wine lists. Although $30 is usually a reasonable price to pay for a bottle of wine in a restaurant, the markup on these wines can sometimes be as high as 500% -- the restaurant may buy the wine for a wholesale price of $6. Plus, wines in these categories can usually be found easily in shops, where at $10 to $12 retail they are good values. So drink these wines at home, not in restaurants.

If you want to find the best values on a wine list, go off the beaten path: wines that aren't as well-known as they should be from regions that are just beginning to gain notoriety for the quality of their wines. To help you get started, I've put together a list of consistently good and consistently underappreciated -- and undervalued -- appellations and grapes; nearly regardless of producer and vintage, these will deliver the goods: the pleasure of a good wine at a good price.

Download your guide to wine values here.


Steven Kolpan

Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world

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