Down the aisle of the supermarket, in a long row, stands a veritable army of wine, bottle after bottle, shoulder to shoulder, stretching from here to there. Yep, it’s pretty daunting. But what if, instead, you saw only 30 bottles — many under $10 — and you could feel confident that any one of them would make your dinner tonight sing? You can, if you know how to decode the aisle.

We often mention wine stores, but we know that most people buy wine at supermarkets. That’s what we did, too, when we were first learning about wine and living in Florida. We’d go into the Grand Union to pick up something for dinner, and then wheel over to the wine aisle to look for something new. We remember the first time we saw Federico Paternina “Banda Azul” Rioja from Spain, for $2.99, which became our house red for years.

It isn’t possible to do this everywhere — state laws forbid supermarkets in New York to sell wine, for instance — but, still, almost half the wine bought in stores is purchased at grocery stores and “supercenters,” those huge stores that also sell food, according to ACNielsen Homescan. Warehouse club stores account for an additional 10%.

Selling wine and food at the same place makes such good sense. Wine is a beverage to serve with food, and having an aisle of wine next to the macaroni and cheese not only makes wine shopping easier, but it makes an important statement about wine’s place on the table.

Different Every Night

Think how hard we try to get something a little bit different to make for dinner every night. Even if we eat chicken often, we have whole roast chicken one night, mushroom chicken another night and cold chicken salad on still another. Wine can help make every dinner different and a little special.

As we’ve written before, some supermarkets take their wine seriously and offer excellent selections and expert service. And, of course, large stores such as Costco are offering more and better wines all the time. But, for now, let’s talk about the plain-old, garden-variety, chain-supermarket aisle — the kind we grew up with and most people live with.

We’ve shopped for wine in supermarkets in several states for decades, and we have some long-held thoughts about decoding the aisle. But we figured we could use an immersion course, so we spent a few days haunting the supermarkets in and around the Clearwater-Tampa area of Florida — places like Publix, Winn-Dixie and Albertson’s. We chose this area because we’re familiar with Florida stores and because we thought this spot would be a good midrange example. We weren’t comparing different chains or chains to wine stores. We wanted to come up with advice to make the wine aisle smaller and friendlier. Based on that visit and our many years of experience, here’s our advice:

1. Stop for a minute and get your bearings. Supermarket wine aisles are often organized strangely. Sometimes wines are grouped by producer, sometimes by type, and sometimes by both. That means California Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, might be on different shelves. Some stores have sections for “fine wine,” separated from other wines, but don’t take their word for it.

2. Eliminate the larger bottles, the boxed wines and the frat-boy stuff. Sure, some fine wines come in big bottles, but most of these are mass-produced jug wines that, in tastings, we haven’t much enjoyed. This will immediately make the aisle much smaller, especially given the size of the huge boxed wines. And yes, some frat boys know their wines, but you want something special with dinner, so throw out those things and all of the really bad stuff on the lower shelves, like MD 20/20 and Wild Irish Rose.

3. Eliminate all the Chardonnay. We know most people really like Chardonnay, and so do we. But Chardonnay’s popularity means the aisles are flooded with it. If you simply pass over that part of the aisle, you’ve once again narrowed your choices considerably. (If you want a Chardonnay, look for one that you don’t see every day. We found a Pedroncelli from Sonoma that was crisp and refreshing for $9.49.)

4. Eliminate the familiar. You will be punished — price-wise — for refusing to leave your comfort zone. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was at least $20.19 at every store we visited, far more than better wines, and that pattern was repeated over and over. Had a Petite Sirah recently? Several stores had Bogle Vineyards’ good example of this brawny red varietal for just $9.99.

5. Think outside California. There are some excellent California wines on shelves, of course, but you’ll probably get better deals on wines from elsewhere — from Washington state to Australia. We saw a remarkable number of very good Australian wines on shelves, many just $6.99 a bottle. We picked up a Giesen Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that exploded with flavor for $9.99. Fine Chianti from Italy is a consistently good buy. Marques de Riscal Rioja from Spain is widely available for about $11.99. One store even offered a few wines from South Africa, including a very drinkable Roodeberg red wine, from the big KWV cooperative, for $10.99. It would be great with steak and peppercorns or herb-rich Mediterranean dishes. Don’t rule out France. Most stores offered both Vouvray and Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the big shipper B&G. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape was soulful and rich, great with meatloaf, macaroni and cheese or roast beef; it cost $19.99. The Vouvray would be delicious with pork; we saw it everywhere for as little as $6.59.

6. Think Beaujolais and Pinot Noir. Every store had at least one Beaujolais, the lively, fruity red from France that’s good with just about all food and costs about $8. And every store had at least two U.S. Pinot Noirs. These are extremely versatile with food, and they tend to be better buys than Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay because they aren’t as popular.

7. Look closely at vintages. As you know, we don’t care much about whether one year was “better” than another. But most wines in supermarkets are for immediate enjoyment. You want them young and fresh, from the most recent vintage available. Unfortunately, at many supermarkets, wines stand on the shelves until they’re sold and, like milk, the older stuff is moved to the front. We saw three-year-old White Zinfandels and Pinot Grigios and a 1996 Pouilly-Fuisse. We saw several vintages of the same wine standing right next to each other. At one store, a 1999 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages was next to a 2001, identical except for the vintage. You want the newer one, which is sometimes lurking behind the older one.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you can find fine old bottles from great years that are real bargains because the store never raised the price. That’s how we once bought a few bottles of 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic wine. At one store in Clearwater, we picked up three different vintages of reliable Cambria Pinot Noir, for $22.99 each. That isn’t inexpensive, but imagine what a fun dinner party you could give with a vertical tasting of those three vintages. Think of them as entertainment.

8. Look for orphans. Some of our best supermarket deals over the years have come because there’s one bottle of something left and there’s no place for it on the shelves. That happened this time, too. At one store, there was one bottle of Mumm’s Cordon Rose Champagne. We’d never seen this pink bubbly and, when available, it’s usually about $36. Well, this bottle was $16.99 — marked down from $18.99. Think about your significant other coming home for dinner and finding that waiting at the table — for $4 more than Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay and $3 less than Santa Margherita. There are often good buys like that if you’ll search (often behind other bottles).

9. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Some supermarkets that have more space devoted to wine actually have thinner selections. They display bottle after bottle of the same exact mass-produced wine, like a valley of the clones that swallows up space for the good stuff.

10. Check prices. That might seem obvious, considering that some of us note whether Winn-Dixie charges more for a can of peas than Publix. But too many people assume that wine prices are fairly stable, and they aren’t. Stores compete on wine prices just like anything else. At the stores we visited, Sutter Home White Zinfandel ranged from $3.89 to $5.49, a 41% difference. The same is true for many other wines.

Now, having decoded the shelves, how many bottles are left to choose from? Probably not many. And if you’re looking for a wine in a specific price range, or if you’re looking just for a red or for a white, it will be even fewer. Among those that are left, close your eyes and pick one. Something new will make dinner more fun.

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Filed under: Buying Wine