The Bargain Bin

By Dan Berger

Thirty years ago, I spied a rack of discounted wines and on it was a bottle of a 1971 Burgundy, a wine from a great vintage then already a decade old. It was on sale for half its original price.

     I asked the shop owner, a savvy chap, why the wine was discounted. He said he’d found that it had aged faster than it ought to have, and he wanted to clear out his stock before it died.

     I bought a bottle. And some years later opened it and found it to be superb. Sure, there was a bit of funk in the nose, but for the price I paid, I figure I got a bargain. (I’m forgiving when it comes to bargains.)

I should have tried it the day I bought it and I might have gone back to get more.

     The bargain shelf, the closeout tub, or the bin end, as the British say, is often a place to find a bottle of wine that is selling for a lot less than it ought to. How good such a wine turns out to be will depend on many factors, but bargain hunters should always approach this quest for a great value with one philosophic mindset: chances are such a wine will not be great, but occasionally it turns out to be fun.

     Bargain hunters unwilling to be charitable shouldn’t play this game.

     I’ve written about closeouts before, and the reason for resurrecting the subject is that with the vast amount of wine available around the world today, discounts on all sorts of top-quality wine are being offered.

Discounted WinesWe see it in places like Trader Joe’s, Costco, Cost Plus, Beverages and More, and a dozen other deep-discount stores, where even $100 bottle are being sold at prices 20% to 30% off suggested retail.
     The most obvious discounts today are for wines selling in the most competitive price niches, $10 to $25. Discounts of 20% to 30% are common. One reason for this is vintage-related.

     Say, for example, that a winery has a flood of 2011 Chardonnay it has to sell, and the wine is selling slower than it should. And it’s not getting any better; it’s fading.

Meanwhile, the 2012 vintage of the same wine has to be released. So the winery “deals” the wine by offering special discounts and promotional offers — incentives to retailers to make a larger profit.

     When attempting to gauge the value of a wine, a few basic rules apply that may be helpful to keep in mind.

     — Some wines are discounted deeply when a merchant realizes a wine has deteriorated. Ask the owner why a particular wine’s price is so low. Reputable merchants will tell you. (If they don’t, they’re not reputable. Note to self: Not going there again.)

     — Poor storage conditions could be the reason a wine is closed out. This occasionally is evident by noting leakage from the cork, or a cork that has slightly pushed its way out of the bottle. (See if the capsule appears to have been pushed up.)

     (Incidentally, seepage usually is not a problem with Sauternes and other sweeter wines, which “weep” much more easily. Back in 1978, a Southern California supermarket closed out 1973 Chateau Liot at $1.99 a bottle because, a manager told me, the bottles were leaking. I bought a lot of the wine, which turned out to be fine. Superb actually.)

     — Older Cabernets and Bordeaux are generally a bit safer than older Pinot Noirs and Burgundies. It’s just the nature of the wines. Bordeaux are a bit heartier and can withstand poor storage conditions better than the latter wines.

     — Look for signs of decay such as bad color. A rosé with an orange cast, not bright pink; a Sauvignon Blanc with a bronze tone, a Chardonnay with too dark a hue — all are signs that the wine may not be in the best of shape.

     — Bypass older aromatic wines like Gewurztraminer and Muscat unless you’re prepared for aromas and tastes that are noticeably less fresh than when the wines were young. Also be wary of older Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and especially Viognier, which generally don’t have the acid to taste good when just a couple of years old.

     By contrast, if you should see a mature bottle of Australian Semillon, it might just be a great find! This is also true of many Rieslings, notably German, but only those who have acquired a taste for such wines ought to gamble here.

     Often such wines have a petroleum aroma, quite a challenge to a new consumer. This aroma is an acquired taste, but may well send you down the path to Riesling perdition, where only a bottle of older, dry Riesling will satisfy you!

     — Just because an older wine is advertised as having gotten a score of 92 in a famed wine publication is no reason to buy it. The review probably appeared three years earlier, and the wine may well have long since gone sour.

     There are also signs that a closeout may be a great value. For instance, 1994 and 1997 were rated as exceptional vintages in some quarters for California Cabernet, meaning that 1995 and 1996 were overlooked. To this day, both vintages remain better, in my opinion, than either of the two famed ones.

     Also, some wines actually benefit from a bit of bottle age, especially if you know and love this aged character.

     Curiously, the best place to look for bargains is in fine wine shops in small, remote but upscale cities. (Think ski resorts or off-the-strip Las Vegas stores.)

     Frequently a wine wholesaler will “dump” a prior vintage of a fine wine in a distant city. The aim is to make the wine disappear at a lower price without tainting the brand image.

     A wholesaler once told me in confidence that the best closeouts were to be found in Midwest and Rocky Mountain wine shops where wealthy visitors could be found.

One such shop in Wyoming that catered to a generally upscale group of skiers often had a lot of superb wines that were deeply discounted, even while the last bottles of the same wines were being sold at full price in Los Angeles and New York.

     Also, some tiny wine shops in remote areas don’t re-price older wines to reflect their growing value. The advent of cell phones and the internet will allow those willing to scour the lowest (dusty) shelves of remote wine shops can easily find bargains by simply looking on-line.

I found a 10-year-old Pouilly-Fumé at a Fresno wine store 20 years ago whose price was the same as it was on release. Needless to say, it was consumed that evening.

     The best advice here is simple: With any discounted wine, buy a bottle, take it home and try it. If it’s to your liking, go back and get more.

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