Buying wine by the case

Tips for finding good-quality, affordable drinks

July 02, 2008|By Jean T. Barrett | Jean T. Barrett,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Summer events, whether they're everyday barbecues or parties for the Fourth of July, are great reasons to have a nice bottle of wine on hand - one that's refreshing in hot weather and inexpensive enough to serve to larger groups of guests without flinching.

We each have our own flinch point when it comes to wine. For me, a great summer bottle costs about $8 to $12, and when I find that great summer bottle, I buy it by the case, for several reasons. The first is convenience: It avoids the frenzied last-minute run to the nearest liquor store to buy four bottles of whatever looks good. The second reason is to save money. Many retailers give a case discount of 5 percent to 15 percent. Even if there's no case discount, you're saving money by avoiding unnecessary trips to the wine store.

Finally, it's just more relaxing to know that you're well-supplied with terrific wine, no matter who's expected for dinner or what's on the menu. We're all looking for ways to simplify our lives.

This year, the search for affordable wines of quality requires a different road map. The anemic dollar has caused many traditional European summer picks to edge past my personal flinch point. I fondly recall past summers that were pleasantly lubricated by oceans of better-quality Italian Soave and pinot grigio, waves of French Beaujolais from excellent small producers, and rivers of delightfully tart Muscadet, all of which could be ferreted out for about $10 to $12 a bottle, sometimes even less.

Those days are gone, but other wine regions and countries have moved to the forefront of the affordable wine scene, such as Austria, Spain, California, New Zealand and southern France and Italy.

To be a great summer case buy, a wine should not only be inexpensive, but also be sippable on its own, as well as complementary to a variety of foods. In white wine, look for a fresh, aromatic bouquet; a light-to-medium body; and a crisp acidity level to make it refreshing and to pair with lighter summer meals of salads, sushi, grilled chicken and fish. Stay away from big, oaky, high-alcohol wines, white or red. In hot weather, they're tiring to drink.

Grape types that work well for summer whites include Gr?ner Veltliner, chenin blanc, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, Albarino and riesling.

For summer red wine case buys, steer clear of tannic, high-alcohol cabernets and zinfandels and look for lighter, fruitier bottlings made from grapes such as Tempranillo, Gamay, Grenache and other Rh?ne varietals, and various Italians, including Nero d'Avola and Montepulciano. (Pinot noir would be ideal, but it's tough to find a palatable pinot for less than $12).

Wines that deliver flavor and good acidity will stand up to summer's mixed grills, pairing well with burgers, portobello mushrooms, ribs or tri-tip. If the red can take a little chill - say, a half-hour in the fridge - so much the better. During warm weather, reds taste best at cool room temperature.

Whatever wine you're considering, it's important to check the label for the alcohol content, a pretty accurate indicator of the wine's heft and balance.

Wines with alcohol levels of 14 percent or more can taste heavy and hot during the summer (during the winter too, but that's another subject). And because higher-alcohol wines really pack a punch, they are a poor choice for pouring at a summer party, unless you have planned for all 18 guests to spend the night.

Though reds with an attractive and balanced fruit component taste great in summer, for case buys it's a good idea to avoid so-called fruit bombs, wines that deliver a blast of ripe cherry-berry aromas, a hefty dose of alcohol, and not much else.

Initially, fruit bombs can be seductive. Those first sips may taste great, but you'll become bored with them. It's like dating someone half your age. There's that immediate, in-your-face appeal, but no depth.

One way to sample wine for a case buy is at restaurants and wine bars, which can be a great method of finding bottles you like in your price range (keeping in mind the substantial markup on most wine lists). Tracking down your finds can be a challenge. The first step is to look at the wine label and write down the wine name, producer and vintage, as well as its importer or distributor. Then you can call a local wine retailer to see if they carry the wine or can order it, or call the distributor and ask which retailers stock it.

Another tactic is to put the wine name plus your city into a search engine and see what comes up. Either way, expect to make multiple phone calls, but the right wine is worth the trouble.

The other strategy - and my favorite - is to visit your local independent wine retailer and taste their recommendations in your price range.

Your favorite retailer may have several options that are equally good and cheap. It's best to explain very specifically what kinds of wine you like and what price you're looking to pay.

Don't invest in a case without trying a bottle. In other words, don't take my word for it, and don't take the retailer's word either. Taste is subjective, and buying wine is not like picking up a sweater at Macy's; many retailers won't take back unopened bottles, at least in part because of concerns about how the wine may have been handled outside the store (a few hours in a car trunk on a sunny day can ruin wine).

Jean T. Barrett wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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