How to Buy Wine at the Supermarket, According to Sommeliers

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Sommeliers drink supermarket wine, too. Many enjoy Hot Pockets for dinner, and—yes—there are cheap, cheery wines they truly love on Aisle 12.

“I call them house wines,” says Cassandra Felix, an advanced sommelier who relocated to California this year after a decade of work at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. “When you cellar a bottle, you don’t want to open it on a random Tuesday, so I make sure I always have a bottle that’s easy to drink.”

As Americans make fewer trips to the grocery store and eat more meals at home, it’s hard to beat a chance to stock up on olive oil, tortilla chips and $13 Albariño all in one place.

Cassandra Felix by wine barrels
Cassandra Felix / Photo by Lauren Samson

Felix grew up in South Florida and knows how to navigate a Publix. Top shelf really means top shelf, she says, and shoppers can find bargain-focused wines on lower shelves. Her other advice: “Don’t be embarrassed. Go ahead and throw a bottle in with your peanut butter and jelly.”

Sommelier Belinda Chang is a supermarket wine devotee. “It might amuse you, but I buy 90% of my wine at the grocery store,” says Chang, who’s led wine programs at iconic restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s and The Modern. She lives in Chicago and shops at Mariano’s, a regional supermarket chain that she says carries “$5.99 quaffers up to Silver Oak.”

Over the past several months, Chang has hosted a Virtual Boozy Brunch and high-end online wine experiences. Clients of the latter get her cell phone number for wine advice. She says that she has “guys texting me pictures of bottles from Costco and asking, ‘Is this a good price?’ ”

You don’t need to have Chang in your smartphone to find great wines at the supermarket. Below, sommeliers share their go-to choices, from “chicken wine” to Left Bank Bordeaux. along with strategies to find the right bottle for any budget or palate.

Costco's Kirkland Signature line of wines / Photo by France Freeman
Costco’s Kirkland Signature line of wines / Photo by France Freeman

Drink varieties you like

For those wary of straying from their favorite grape, Chang suggests wines made from the same variety, but in different styles or from various producers and regions. “If you always buy Gallo Merlot [from California], why not try Merlot from other parts of the world?” she asks.

Jienna Basaldu, sommelier at The Morris in San Francisco, lives about a half-mile from Whole Foods in Oakland. There, she recently spied bottles of Boya Sauvignon Blanc ($18) from Chile’s Leyda Valley.

“I’ve visited the winery in Chile, and oh my God, are the wines good,” she says. Basaldu once had to blind-taste Leyda Valley Sauvignon Blanc for a competition, and she was the only person to identify the region. Her fellow competitors all guessed New Zealand.

Matthew Pridgen has shopped at Texas-based H-E-B for 20 years. On his Sundays off, the Underbelly Restaurant Group wine director spends the day tending to smoked meats. “I love a good California Zinfandel with barbecue, and the Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys Zinfandel ($30) from Sonoma is a steal,” says Pridgen. “It has ripe berry fruit and just the right amount of spice and oak to pair with perfectly cooked ribs.”

“[Kirkland Signature Pauillac is] one of the most prestigious Bordeaux appellations for under $25. That’s a hard find anywhere.” —Vanessa Price, author/sommelier

Hey there, rosé

For a lighter meal in the Texas heat, say watermelon salad with feta and basil, Pridgen chills a bottle of Domaine du Salvard Rosé ($18) from Cheverny in the Loire Valley. “It has a delicate red fruit and citrus nose, and mouthwatering acidity,” he says. “The wine punches way over its price tag.”

If you don’t know whether you want a rosé from the Loire, Long Island or Lodi, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations, even at supermarkets. “Any good grocer will have someone on hand to help and point you in the direction of something delicious and reasonably priced,” says Pridgen.

For an easy-going porch pounder, Vanessa Price suggests a can of Trader Joe’s $1 Simpler Wines Rosé. The sommelier and co-author of recently released Big Macs and Burgundy: A Pairing Guide for the Real World, says it’s the ideal pink drink to pair with an outdoor meal of “hot dogs, burgers, and corn on the cob. It’s full of ripe strawberries, raspberries and match-sparked citrus.” Pick up a four-pack, she says, and “don’t knock it until you try it.”

Is there a bird on the bottle?

Chang also buys inexpensive rosé for year-round drinking, and although it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, she’s found she digs bottles with birds on them.

Mariano’s carries Two Birds One Stone Rosé ($10), a 100% Cinsault with two birds on the label. It’s a vin de France, a kind of catch-all for French wines that don’t meet other Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) guidelines. Vin de France wines are often a great value, says Chang, and their labels list the grape varieties used, which helps demystify the juice.

Belinda Chang at Mariano's / Photo by Light Leak Pictures, Tim Musho
Belinda Chang at Mariano’s / Photo by Light Leak Pictures, Tim Musho

She’s also “obsessed with chicken wine,” a.k.a. La Vieille Ferme ($7). “I keep all three flavors stocked at my house: rosé, white and red,” says Chang. A rotisserie chicken lover, she pairs the rosé with a simply grilled bird, the white with chicken and a white wine-mushroom sauce, and the red with a coq au vin-like dish.

Sushi and wine night

On nights when Price watches Schitt’s Creek and eats take-out sushi from Wegmans, she leans into the liter format and Hugl Grüner Veltliner ($10). “As if the extra 250 milliliters of vino isn’t a bonus enough, the wine is produced by a family-owned and -operated winery,” she says. “And it has the signature Grüner profile of electric acidity and savory white pepper.”

Basaldu pours Broadbent Vinho Verde ($10) with Whole Foods sushi. At 9% alcohol by volume (abv) with pleasant acid and restrained fruit, she says it’s a crowd-pleaser that’s also great for day drinking.

Spanish for value

Los Angeles sommelier Eduardo Bolaños, furloughed recently from Mozza Group, worked for years previously in San Sebastián, Spain. He put that knowledge to use hosting a Basque pop-up, Búho Rouge, with his brother.

Bolaños cooks a lot more at home these days. When there are lamb chops or steaks on the grill, he opens a bottle of Marqués de Riscal Reserva Rioja ($16) from Trader Joe’s.

Eduardo Bolaños behind wine bar
Eduardo Bolaños / Photo by Joben Herrera

Felix is also a fan, but she thinks its red fruit and notes of savory leather and cedar pair best with Hot Pockets and DiGiorno frozen pizza. While not Spanish, Basaldu prefers an $18 one-liter bottle of Berger Zweigelt from Austria with her frozen pizza.

For a New World-style Spanish offering, Felix recommends the fresh, vibrant fruit of the Marqués de Cáceres Crianza ($15). And for pre-bagged Caesar salad, Felix throws Martín Códax Albariño ($13) into her Publix cart.

“The creaminess goes with the lees character that Albariño sometimes has, and the salinity cuts through cheese,” she says.

Interior photo of Whole Foods wine department
Whole Foods wine department in Naperville, IL / Photo courtesy Whole Foods

Private label wines

Basaldu picked up a 2014 Criterion Collection Rioja Reserva ($17) recently, a private-label selection from Whole Foods. The chain buys wines from iconic regions like Chablis, New Zealand and Barolo, and releases them under its own label. In addition to stewed cranberry, plum, cherry and grilled meat notes, “it almost has a barbecue potato-chip character,” says Basaldu.

Price snags Kirkland Signature Pauillac ($23) every time she sees it at Costco. “It’s one of the most prestigious Bordeaux appellations for under $25,” she says. “That’s a hard find anywhere.” While many cheap Left Bank Bordeaux are stemmy and vegetal, the bottling “has the red currant and baking spice verve you expect from classic Pauillac,” she says.

Add some sparkle to your cart

For non-Chandon bubbles and aperitif hour, Bolaños buys Mionetto Prosecco ($14) from Ralphs, a West Coast supermarket chain. He has worked in Italian restaurants for years, and says the Mionetto makes a brilliant Aperol spritz.

Basaldu turns to Crémant, a French sparkling wine that’s made like Champagne, but without the high price tag. At the start of the pandemic, she would put trout roe atop an omelet alongside a glass of Domaine Allimant-Laugner Crémant d’Alsace Rosé ($18), made from 100% Pinot Noir.

“That would be our little treat for the week,” she says.

Published on November 17, 2020
Topics: Budget Wines