Featured Wine: Bargain Hunting

Picking up free wine (legally) is not half as easy as picking up free music. You can’t download the stuff off the Internet, and there aren’t too many producers giving it away as a loss leader: unlike rock bands, vignerons don’t have tours, soundtracks and merchandise income to fall back on. And beware of the proverbial free lunch: if you find a case disposed of, on the street, it’s probably undrinkable. (However, if you are like my friend who found such a case near his Brooklyn home a few days before his annual Halloween party, you may still be able to serve it to undiscerning drunken guests.) Likewise the bottles that are heavily discounted in your local non-specialty store: before you rush to pick up that bottle of $3 rosé from the bargain bin, ask the shopkeeper what it’s doing there to begin with. Better yet, look at the date and consider this: inexpensive wines, even the red ones, are intended to be drunk young: that $3 bottle of rosé, if it’s much older than a year, is likely to have lost every attribute but alcohol. Unfortunately, thanks to the rather unscrupulous policies in a couple of our local stores round these Catskills parts, we’ve seen this home truth borne out all too often at summer outdoor barbeques, where well-meaning non-geeks seeking out a bargain accidentally bring swill to the trough.

But there is a middle ground: the high-turnover store that purposefully buys in heavily-discounted wines direct from the wholesalers. These are usually last year’s vintage, or something that simply didn’t take off to the extent the wholesaler/importer expected, and which need to be cleared out of the warehouse to make way for the new arrivals. The Bottle King, a chain in New Jersey, deals in a lot of such wines, and so does Warehouse Wine and Spirits on Broadway, right by Astor Place, in the heart of downtown Manhattan. Walk into either of these stores, which also do a roaring trade in everyday inexpensive wines and bulk-buy liquors, ignore the deliberately misleading so-called “recommended retail price” and focus only on today’s sticker price – but don’t be too cynical, for there are some genuine bargains to be found.

On my last visit to Manhattan, I wondered into Warehouse, where I once found a perfectly pleasant Cote Rotie there for less than $10, and although I had to twice tell pushy staff to leave me alone, I found some interesting discounts in the region I so love: the Rhône. I hesitated on a $7 bottle of Andre Brunel Vin De Pays Grenache, partly because of carry space, and partly its ’04 vintage, and instead picked up 2005 Côtes du Rhône blanc from Domaine de Solitude, another well-known producer. White Côtes du Rhône should generally be consumed within a couple of years of bottling, which put this one just about at its sell-by date, but at $8.99, I figured it was worth the risk and was satisfied with the investment: well-rounded, still offering some fruit and mildly exciting, it was a perfectly drinkable white Côtes du Rhône with probably another six months’ life left in it.

img_6737.jpg Great producer, great grape, great discount.

The one wine I jumped on was a Domaine Chèze Vin de Pays Collines des Rhodaniens Marsanne 2004. Three reasons: Chèze produces my favorite mid-priced St-Joseph, so it’s a wine-maker I really trust; the wine was priced at just $7.99, a bargain for anything from around the expensive northern Rhône vineyards; and especially, because Marsanne is an unusually enduring white wine. The better bottles – primarily from the northern Rhône and Australia – can take decades to come around to full maturity, and it struck me that even a simple vin de pays should be perfectly good at just three years bottle age. Turned out I was right. The grape’s tell-tale honeysuckle melon aroma announced itself immediately along with some nice summer flower touches, plenty citrus and peachy notes. Marsanne is rarely acidic, so don’t take its lack of vivacity for old age; instead, enjoy its heft, its a solid, textured mouthfeel, and see if you notice hints of orange peel and apricot at the back of the palate. Marsanne has an oiliness to it that can be an acquired taste, but anyone who believes variety is the spice of life will find little to complain about with this generally under-valued grape.

Clearly, it’s a crapshoot picking up these so-called bargains. But if you can approach the racks with a little bit of a gut instinct – nothing too old, nothing too cheap to begin with, and look for wines reduced not because of poor quality but because of idiosyncrasy, like this Marsanne – and you may just come out with the nearest thing the wine world currently has to a free download. Warehouse Wine and Spirits still has at least a case of the Chèze in stock. Please, be my guest.

MUSIC? We’re trying to do quality on the cheap, here. Download the first part of Nine Inch Nails’ new instrumentals project, Ghosts, itself a multi-textured piece of work, and toast your good fortune.

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January 2022