Shopping for wine bargains
Everybody loves a bargain, but no one likes to get the short end of the deal. So, when you're digging merrily through the cut-rate bin at your favorite wine shop and spot a price tag that seems too good to be true ... is it?
As a regular customer of the bargain bins, I'd say my record is about 50 percent: Half of the "great buys" turn out to be treasures but the other half are disappointing. Is there any way to tell? Not really, but here are a few things to watch for, based on my years of experience looking for the good deal.
Old inventory: Often a wine shop will put a sale price on an item that's been taking up space on the shelves without moving. You'll never see this with a highly rated, popular label, but if the marked-down wine comes from a less than "trendy" region -- Greece, say, or Switzerland, or even parts of France that lack the cachet of Bordeaux or Burgundy -- then there's a good chance that you've got a legitimate value for your sale price. Ditto if the wine appears to be the previous year's vintage, being "dumped" to make room for the new release.
Damaged wine: A reputable shopkeeper won't knowingly sell wine for full price if it has been through accidental harsh treatment such as being left on a loading dock in summer sun. Into the marked-down bin it goes, waiting for the unwary customer. A wine that's been "cooked," unfortunately, will be diminished in enjoyment at the least and possibly rendered undrinkable. On the other hand, if the problem is merely the formation of innocuous tartrate crystals in the bottle, an alarming-looking condition that doesn't significantly affect the wine, you may have a bargain on your hands. If you know the store's staff and feel they can be trusted, it's never inappropriate to ask. Otherwise all you can do is take the risk if the price seems right.
Loss leaders: Local laws permitting, now and then a shop will offer a few wines at a very good price, hoping to lure customers into the store for the bargain and then sell them a few more bottles while they're in. This is perfectly legitimate marketing, and wise consumers will keep an eye out for such sales.
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Three cut-rate Barolos
I picked up all three of these Barolos in bargain bins for $20 each, a price tag that's approaching the high end for most wines but is scraping the bottom of the barrel for Barolo. Two proved disappointing for different reasons, as noted below. One was fine ... and hey, a .333 batting average isn't bad for baseball or Barolo.
Pira 1993 Barolo ($19.99)
FOOD MATCH: Perfect with "tannin-wiping" beef in the form of a medium-rare pan-grilled T-bone.
Ceretto 1994 Barolo Zonchera ($19.99)
FOOD MATCH: Good match for pork loin braised with onions, probably a better match than a more robust Barolo would have made.
Fontanafredda 1993 "Galarey" Barolo ($19.99)
FOOD MATCH: A little too plummy and ripe to be a perfect match with an Arabian-style chicken and rice pilaf.
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Sept. 20, 1999