A Guide to Finding the Best Value Wine

High-value wine on a shelf
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How happy is the felicitous life of a wine writer! To paraphrase the iconic rock band Dire Straits, it’s money for nothing and your wines for free. But, the reality is that the wines aren’t free. They’re samples to be opened, tasted under blind conditions and then disposed. Often wistfully so.

The truth is that wine writers are also wine consumers. We purchase the wines we want to share, cellar and drink. And like any consumer, we want value. We want to strike gold with every bottle.

Now, value wines are not always cheap, and cheap wines are not always good values. But you can avoid a lot of ordinary vino if you follow a few guidelines.

Beware of generic phrases like “Barrel Select,” or “Winemaker’s Selection.” While the wine may indeed be a special selection, more often, the winery is simply talking up juice that it didn’t pour down the drain. To get to the bottom of the wine’s breeding, ask why and how the “selection” was made. Same is true for “reserve” bottles, a label that is largely unregulated for New World wines and essentially meaningless unless supported by details.

How many bottles or cases were produced? Check the back label. Production of a few hundred cases or a low number of bottles indicates that the wine is truly limited, which means there’s a better chance that it’s indeed a cut above the regular bottling.

What Does "California" on a Wine Label Really Mean?

Gold medals? They’re a dime a dozen. Unless you know how the judging is conducted, or if this competition or organization has a reputation for finding excellent wines, such awards are no guarantee of quality. Too many medals can actually be a warning sign. Top wineries rarely enter such competitions. Those that do often pay a fee. Entrants know that these competitions typically seek to award as many medals as possible—bronze, silver, gold, double gold, platinum, best in category, best in show and on they go.

What about scores? Scores can be helpful, which we certainly hope is the case for our own Wine Enthusiast ratings and reviews. But you have to pay close attention and trust your source. You want to see a proven track record, credentialed reviewers and well-defined methodologies. Consider if a reviewer’s recommendations often line up with your own tastes. There’s little value in scores derived from crowd-sourced notes, blogs or, worse yet, wine sellers themselves. And beware of sneaky marketers or retailers—always make sure that a promoted score and/or review are for the exact same wine and vintage you purchase.

Lastly, to be a socially conscious consumer, be sure to check back labels for other information. Regulated credentials, like certifications from Ecocert, Demeter, SIP, LIVE and Salmon-Safe, indicate that extra care was taken in the vineyard.

Look for accurate, vintage-specific technical information, not just vague notes about using “the best” grapes or someone’s “passion for winemaking.” Forget made-up stories about happy campers and little black dresses. You want details about vineyard sources, grape blends and fermentation practices.

I’d love to hear about what gems you find. Use the hashtag #WEtaste and share your vinous discoveries with me and all other thirsty consumers out there.

Three Smart Buys from Oregon

These wine recommendations were updated October 1, 2019.

Elk Cove 2018 Estate Pinot Blanc (Willamette Valley); $19, 92 points. Intense in juicy, succulent fruit, this opens with lovely botanical aromas and flavors of ripe lime, grapefruit and fresh apple. The flavors are layered and deep, lifted by refreshing minerality. Editors’ Choice.

Evening Land 2016 Seven Springs Pinot Noir (Eola-Amity Hills); $35, 92 points. Svelte and smoky, this is a sexy bottle of Pinot Noir. The fruit is supple and seamless, with plums, marionberries, figs and chocolate. Aged for one year in 25% new French oak, it’s firm and rippled with touches of olive and mushroom. This exceptional value is simply a riot of flavor. Editors’ Choice.

The Eyrie Vineyards 2017 Pinot Gris (Dundee Hills); $21, 92 points. From the winery that introduced Pinot Gris to America, this is a full-bodied, fleshy and beautifully fruited wine, which delivers the same level of richness and complexity as many top-tier Chardonnays. Robust apple, white peach and green melon flavors are dappled with white pepper, or perhaps daikon radish. The finish seems to carry on indefinitely. Editors’ Choice.

Published on October 2, 2018
Topics: Wine Ratings