Amuse-Bouche: As long as it’s not in a box

January 27, 2011

This past December, I resolved to graduate to big-girl wine. I was growing tired of buying bland, acrid magnums of Little Penguin and Barefoot, and with Safeway just four blocks away and stocked with hundreds of wines at decent prices, there was simply no excuse not to upgrade.

This posed just one problem—the Georgetown Safeway sells hundreds of wines. The three solid rows of bottles are foreboding and seemingly without an entry point. So I met with Leonore Moog, the wine steward at the Georgetown Safeway, and asked her to introduce me to the art of buying wine. For the sake of ease, we stuck to American reds. I came away relieved—it turns out you can get a good wine for under $15, and there are plenty of reliable approaches to buying off of Safeway’s wall o’ wine. Below, I’ve distilled some of her advice.

Accept that buying wine is gambling. After swearing off bulk-grape magnums, I based my first few wine purchases on the look of the label. Toasted Head has a picture of a bear breathing fire on it? Sold. It felt very amateur, but Moog said that wine snobs pick their bottles this way too—although most would never admit it. The bottom line is, when you buy new wine, you run the risk of being disappointed. You can improve your odds, but don’t get discouraged if you blow a few bucks on something awful.

Read the label. Before Moog showed me the error of my ways, I had always written off wine labels as self-promotional balderdash. And to some extent, they are. “They’re all ‘big and bold,’ they’re all smooth,” Moog said, “but they can still tell you things.” Find out where the grapes come from—a smaller region pretty consistently indicates a better buy. A wine from Rutherford, Napa Valley will be better than a wine from Napa Valley, California, which will be better than a wine that comes from California, USA. Many wine labels will also boast about the foods they pair well with—which is a savvy sales mechanism, but helpful.

Prices can send signals about quality. Buying wine is not like buying a handbag, in that American vintners don’t usually tack on extra bucks for the label. A $12 bottle of Robert Mondavi will typically taste better than a no-name $8 bottle. Moog added that, like most consumer products, it is almost always a bad idea to buy the cheapest wine you see. At the same time, old wineries often produce superb wine for less because they own their land, and, conversely, it’s possible to buy shitty wine for $40. So don’t take prices to be the last word on good wine.

Know what you like, and tell the wine staff. The wine room employees at Safeway, or any supermarket, are not just there to debate which Chateau Mouton vintage was the best with their fellow oenophiles. They can recommend an $8 bottle just as well as they can recommend a $200 bottle. Moog’s colleague, Jody Jackman of Winebow Imports, brags that she can suggest wines to pair with frozen pizza or takeout. Of course, not every grocery or liquor store has a Moog. But you can compensate by getting familiar with a region or label that you like—in short, have favorites.

So there you have it. You don’t need to learn wine culture’s secret codewords to buy a good bottle. Moog recommended a few, college-wallet-friendly wines, like Avalon’s 2007 cabernet ($12.59) Hayman & Hill’s 2008 cab, and Columbia Crest Grand Estates (starting at $9.09). The good news is, if you buy a flop, the best thing to do is just keep drinking.

Show Molly that you’re the whole package: big, bold, and smooth at mredden@georgetownvoice.com

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