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Drink Like A Somm A few sommelier-approved tricks for identifying the best values on a wine list.

March 16, 2022
Bartender pouring a glass of white wine.

When you buy wine for a living, it’s easy to browse a wine list and see what the best values are. But for everyone else, it helps to have a plan going in. Below are some ways to maximize value—and deliciousness—when dining out or shopping for your home:

1. Explore the “Next Door” Appellations

    Check out David Lynch’s exploration of this topic in this same issue of “Tasting Notes.”

    2. Drink Lower-Tier Wines from Upper-Tier Producers

      The best examples of this maxim are the “second” (and “third”) wines made by the great châteaux of Bordeaux: same grapes, same vineyards, same winemaker, just a slightly different selection and a radically different price!! Example: Château Margaux: ~$750. Pavillon Rouge de Margaux (2nd wine): $170.

      But there are countless examples all over the world: In Burgundy, drink the “Bourgogne Rouge” if you can’t afford the Grand Cru. In Tuscany, drink the “Rosso di Montalcino” if the Brunello is too pricey. In Spain, drink the Crianza instead of the Reserva. Great producers are great producers, and the best of them take as much—if not more—pride in their “lesser” bottlings.

      3. Don’t Fear the Unfamiliar

        In the same way that certain regions of the world have gotten “bid-up” in price, so too have certain grape varieties. Pinot Noir grapes, for example, command a premium price in today’s market, and that cost is reflected in the bottle price. Ditto for Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon. Below are a few big-ticket grapes and some possible alternatives for value-minded wine explorers:

        If You Like… …You’ll Also Like

        Sauvignon Blanc --->     Vermentino/Chenin Blanc

        Chardonnay ---> Pinot Blanc/Bianco

        Pinot Noir ---> Gamay

        Cabernet Sauvignon --->  Petit Verdot

        Syrah ---> Mourvèdre

        Merlot ---> Montepulciano

        4. Spin the Bottle

          If it’s an imported wine, consider who did the importing. Turn the bottle around and look for the little imprimatur on the back label. Depending on the kinds of wines you drink, you may start to notice some patterns. Here are some of the importers we trust the most and the kinds of wines we look to them for:

          • Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant (the O.G. French wine maestro)

          • Rosenthal Wine Merchant (naturally made, farmstead wines from France & Italy)

          • North Berkeley Imports (French & Italian masterworks)

          • De Maison Selections (one-stop-shop for all things Spanish)

          • Oliver McCrum Wines (all-things-Italy)

          • Terry Theise Estate Selections (the German/Austrian wine guru)

          • Vias Imports (a national Italian wine specialist)

          • Louis/Dressner Selections (the “natural wine” mothership)

          5. Flattery will Get You Everywhere

            Don’t hesitate to engage the sommelier, compliment the list, and ask him or her for some suggestions: You’ll be able to tell right away if the recommendations are genuine or are meant to “upsell” you. In most cases, the wines that offer the best value-for-dollar are also the ones the sommelier will be most excited about sharing.