Quality wines, bargain prices: Let's drink to that

  • Jay Miller holds a bottle of wine and "Parker's Wine Bargains." The book is a collaborative effort drawing on the suggestions of Miller, his boss, Robert M. Parker Jr., and four other contributors to The Wine Advocate, the bimonthly newsletter that Parker presides over.
Jay Miller holds a bottle of wine and "Parker's Wine… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
December 09, 2009|By Rob Kasper

I went to liquor stores looking for bargains, well-reviewed wines that cost less than $25.

This can be a frustrating endeavor. So many times I have hunted for wines, carrying clippings of the glowing review in my hands, only to be unable to find the bottles that the critics had praised.

But this time, thanks to Jay Miller, I bagged the bargains. The $15 Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Chardonnay 2007, the $10 Milton Park Shiraz from Australia, the Finca Sobreno from Spain for $15 and the $20 Lange Pinot Noir 2007 from Oregon.

These were among the wines that Miller recommends in a new paperback book, "Parker's Wine Bargains." The book is a collaborative effort drawing on the suggestions of Miller, his boss, Robert M. Parker Jr., and four other contributors to The Wine Advocate, the bimonthly newsletter that Parker presides over. The book, drawing on reviews first printed in The Wine Advocate, divides the wines of the world among these six critics, all looking for values under $25. Miller tackled the wines of South America, Australia, Spain, Oregon and Washington.

This paperback represents a shift for the house of Parker, whose previous tomes and ratings of vintage Bordeaux and other high-end wines carry such weight that he is often referred to as the "pope of the vineyards."

But Miller, who met Parker in 1978 when Miller sold him wine at Wells Liquors in North Baltimore, said the shift to the down market makes sense.

"The economy was taking a hit," Miller said, "so The Wine Advocate began emphasizing value in wines." Some of the collectors grumbled, "but most of the readers appreciated it. Overall, people are buying lower on the wine list."

The cooling-off economy coupled with increased production from wineries all around the world have caused wine prices to stabilize or, in some cases, drop, he said. These days there are plenty of bargains in wine, he said. "The globalization of the market, along with improved wine-making techniques have combined to keep prices relatively low and quality high," he said.

Born in Boston in 1945, Miller came to the University of Maryland to get a doctorate in clinical psychology. He had what he calls his "wine epiphany" in 1973 when he bought a bottle of 1968 BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

"I was trying to impress a girl, so I bought the most expensive wine in the store. This cost $8.99. We drank it and said, 'Wow! There is something to this wine thing.' "

Both Miller and his then-girlfriend ended up marrying other people, and his interest in wine blossomed. He started attending tastings and working part-time in liquor stores selling wine. In addition to Wells, he worked at Calvert Discount Liquors in Baltimore County and at the Wine Source, a now-defunct wholesaler in Columbia. In 2001, he became owner and manager of Bin 604, a wine shop in the Inner Harbor. When, in 2006, he began reviewing wine full time for The Wine Advocate, he put the store in a blind trust.

With his curly hair, Van Dyke beard and enthusiasm for good drink, Miller reminded me of Falstaff, the convivial character in Shakespeare.

Going wine shopping with Miller felt like having a personal shopper at Saks. Armed with copies of "Parker's Wine Bargains," he and I first prowled the aisles of one of the area's largest liquor stores, Beltway Fine Wines in Towson. My goal was to find one white and one red, for $8 to $15 a bottle, from each region of the world that Miller mentioned in the book.

Our first stop was Argentina, a country Miller said he is so fond of visiting that he has considered moving there from his Baltimore County home.

"They have great beef there," he said and grabbed a red wine, a Don Miguel Gascon Malbec ($12), that would go well with red meat. We had a little trouble finding the Argentine white, a Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes. It was in an aisle labeled "alternative whites." Miller liked both the wine - his book entry described it as "dry and succulent" - and the $14 price.

The alternative white aisle was also home to the white from Australia, a D'Arenberg Hermit Crab, which was a deal at $14 a bottle, he said.

The red wine from Australia was a Milton Park Shiraz, a good buy for 10 bucks, Miller said.

The key to finding a good Shiraz is the same as finding a good red wine from Chile, he said.

"You find a producer who knows when to pick the grapes," he said. If they are picked too soon, the grapes are not ripe and the wine will taste tannic. But in these hot climates, if they pick the grapes too late, the wines can end up tasting cooked, he said.

The $8 bottle of Concha y Toro Carmenere passed that test, he said. For a Chilean white, he picked a Sauvignon Blanc from Anakena. It cost a mere $8 and since it was 2008 vintage, met his standard that white wines should be no more than three years old.

In Spain, he got surprised. He had the $15 Finca Sobreno red wine in his book, but he did not have the 2004 Marques de Riscal Reserva.

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