Budget-Friendly Wine: Where to Find Cheap Reds, Whites and Roses
Many of us like to enjoy a glass of wine now and then, and a bottle is always a nice gift for a dinner party host. But how do you find a decent wine option without blowing your budget?
I’ve previously written about where to find good, cheap beer, and now it's time to do the same for wine. What brands taste good despite their low prices, and which are just plain cheap? Where can you buy wine for the lowest prices?
Here’s a guide to saving money on wine.
Does Your Bottle Need a Cork?
Before we get to the specific bottles, let’s talk about what keeps them closed. Despite what many people think, a cork doesn’t always signify better taste or a better wine. "I can think of plenty of high-profile, expensive, terrific wines with a twist-off, and many cheap and pedestrian wines are under cork,” says Dr. Vinny of WineSpectator.com.
While corks are traditionally used, they’re not the most reliable way to seal a bottle; some corks contain a compound called Trichloroanisole (TCA) that ruins the wine’s taste, according to wine expert George Taber. It’s nearly impossible to tell which corks contain TCA, which results in a small percentage of randomly terrible expensive wines. This is one reason why many winemakers are moving toward other types of closures, like synthetic corks and screw tops -- which can also be cheaper.
So no, your bottle doesn’t necessarily need to have a cork to be a decent wine. If you’re worried about your guests’ perceptions of a twist-off cap, you could decant your wine before they arrive.
Where to Buy Cheap Wine
These recommendations will depend on your state, since some states don’t allow sales of alcohol in grocery stores.
As with beer (and almost everything else), when it comes to wine, Walmart usually has the least expensive options. The store where I did my research carries a wide variety, and their cheapest bottles at the moment are from Oak Leaf Vineyards. They even have a cork (though it’s synthetic).
My wife and I have tried the Oak Leaf Vineyards red wines and they're not bad. My wife's favorite is their Merlot. Of the white wines, the Pinot Grigio isn't too bad and the Moscato is actually delicious. I don't normally like sweet wines, but there is something about the subtle mix of fruit tastes that makes this one of my favorite wines at the moment.
What do we pay for this deliciousness? At Walmart, all nine varieties of wine from Oak Leaf Vineyards are $2.97. That's so cheap that you might want to save a bottle from some more expensive brand and use it to decant your cheap Merlot when serving company. (No, I don't actually do that. I display my frugality proudly!)
In general, if Walmart has a particular brand of wine, they'll have the best price around.
Trader Joe’s is the only serious competition for Walmart, at least in my area. Trader Joe's Charles Shaw Blend wines sell for as little as $1.99 per bottle in some locations ($2.99 near us). This store-brand sometimes goes by the name, "Two-Buck Chuck," because of its low price.
Having sampled several varieties, I can say that some are better than others. In a Thrillsist.com wine taste test, sommelier Sam Lipp rated Charles Shaw Blend White Zinfandel as a "soft 1" on a scale of 1 to 10, but he gave good marks to some others. Here's the breakdown:
- White Zinfandel: 1
- Sauvignon Blanc: 2
- Nouveau: 3
- Pinot Grigio: 6
- Shiraz: 7
- Merlot: 7
- Chardonnay: 8
Apart from their store brands, Trader Joe's finds some good wines to offer for under $10 per bottle. My wife and I really liked the 2013 Lacheteau from the Loire Valley, which is $7.99 at the moment. And they sell organic Green Fin Red Table Wine for just $3.99; one reviewer said he couldn't "think of a better under $5 wine that I’ve had."
One more important thing to note about Trader Joes: Saturday wine samples. Usually they have at least two brands available for customers to taste, and it doesn't get cheaper than free.
Total Wine and More
Total Wine and More carries bottles of wine ranging from more than $1,000 down to $5, and as the name indicates, they don't stop with wine. But they do have a lot of wine. Our closest Total Wine store carries over 7,000 different varieties!
This is the place to go when you want to (almost) cast aside your frugal impulses. Just look over the wines that cost hundreds of dollars per bottle, and then select one priced at $8. You won't find the cheapest wines here, but if you like to taste a wide variety on a budget, where else can you find so many to try that are under $10 per bottle?
If you’re lucky, you'll arrive just as they are handing out free samples of wine (or beer or vodka).
$2.97 is pretty cheap for a bottle of wine, but cheap can't be measured by the bottle alone. Some more analytical wine drinkers will want to know which wines offer the largest volume of wine for their money, or even the most alcohol content for their money (as long as it still tastes good, of course). For that we have to do a bit of math.
Many of the Oak Leaf Vineyards varieties, for example, have an alcohol content of about 8%. Like most regular bottles of wine they contain 750 milliliters, or about 25 ounces. That's about 12 cents per ounce of wine. Multiply 25 ounces by 8% and you get 2 ounces of alcohol for $2.97, or about $1.49 per ounce.
That's not bad, but to really get cheap you need to look at the big jugs and the boxed wine. For example, Franzia Chardonnay in a three-liter box costs $12.99 at our local Walmart and has an alcohol content of 12.5%. That works out to about 13 cents per ounce of wine -- a bit more than the Oak Leaf Vineyards bottles. But because of the higher alcohol content (if that's what you're looking for), the cost per ounce of alcohol is just $1.04 per ounce, or 30% cheaper.
A better deal turned up by my research is the three-liter glass jug of Carlo Rossi Paisano, which has an alcohol content of 11.5% and costs $10.37. Cost per ounce of wine: 10 cents. Cost per ounce of alcohol: 89 cents!
If you look you might find a high-alcohol-content, low-priced, five-liter boxed wine that gets the net cost-per-ounce of liquid relaxation even lower than these examples. If so, or if you find any delicious wine that is inexpensive, please report your findings below.
Your Turn: What's the cheapest decent wine you’ve tasted? Have you tasted cheaper, less-delicious options?