It’s a truth universally acknowledged among wine experts and connoisseurs that the best wine shopping happens at retailers dedicated solely to wine. Yes, Walmart, Kroger, and other big-box grocery stores have aisles stocked with bottles of red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines. But there’s nothing on offer that competes with what’s on offer at an actual wine shop — let alone with wine merchants’ knowledge and their ability to guide a customer to the perfect bottle.
But buying wine at a grocery store is simply more convenient for some shoppers. Access to wine shops can be a challenge for folks who don’t live in an area where one is centrally located. Some newer drinkers may choose local grocery store shopping over a wine retailer to avoid pressure or intimidation over their lack of knowledge. And for some people under time constraints, it’s just easier to pick up a bottle of wine while shopping for milk and eggs.
So how can you ensure that you’re grabbing a quality bottle when navigating the shelves at a grocery store?
There are a few tips and tricks experts use when shopping bang-for-your-buck bottles at big-box grocery stores and everywhere else wine is sold — and it starts with the wisdom of the middle row.
The $12 sweet spot
The best place to look for wine at the grocery store, according to experts, is along the two middle shelves in the wine aisle. That’s usually where bottles priced between $10 and $20 are to be found, that likely aren’t mass-produced, and which won’t break the bank.
“It’s tough to find quality and integrity with anything at the grocery store that’s $10 or less,” says Brianne Cohen, a wine educator and events specialist in Los Angeles. “Think about all the things a winery has to do, all the people they have to pay, to get to that price. The quality and integrity of the winemaking are probably going to be shortchanged in some way once you get below that $12 mark. That’s the sweet spot.”
The middle row is also more likely to have bottles from producers that adhere to organic and sustainable practices. Of course, the top shelf may be stocked with environmentally friendly bottles, but those will naturally come with top-shelf prices.
“Bottles costing $12, $15, $17 will lead to a better chance of being a more quality wine that may have some integrity to it, like a winemaker taking care of his people and the environment,” Cohen says.
Wines made by Bonterra Organic Vineyards, Maison Louis Jadot, Rodney Strong Vineyards, and Robert Hall Winery are some of the top commercial producers Cohen recommends to students and beginner wine drinkers. Though they are widely recognized and available at most big-box grocery stores and retail shops in the U.S., each winery focuses on sustainable, organic, or biodynamic farming. That type of attention to detail not only adds to a wine’s quality of taste but the overall good of the environment, too.
“It’s not just the small guys who are incorporating organic and sustainable, biodynamic practices into their winemaking,” Cohen notes.
Even at most wine retailers, there are designated sections and shelves where drinkers can find lesser-known gems that don’t cost an arm and a leg. In many cases, these are the bottles that shopkeepers and merchants enjoy drinking themselves.
“We have our under $20 pick value shelf. We keep that shelf stocked with some of our favorites and best-selling wines in the shop. These are the things that we as staff often grab to take home. They’re the things that customers are often grabbing. It’s just easier to always go over on that shelf, look in the middle of the shelf, and find something worth trying,” says Thad Parsons, owner of Crystal City Wine Shop in Virginia.
“Bottles costing $12, $15, $17 will lead to a better chance of being a more quality wine that may have some integrity to it, like a winemaker taking care of his people and the environment.”
Look beyond the label
In recent years, wineries have upped their game and put greater efforts into stamping their bottles with attention-grabbing labels. However, it’s what’s on the back of the label that really counts.
“The important thing to look for is how much information the labeling, particularly the back label, gives you. Food recommendations, how the wine was made, a clear description of the taste — these are all signs that the producer is on top of their game,” says Tim Haslam, a U.K.-based wine educator and creator of The Vine Untangled.
He adds, “Always turn the bottle over.”
The label can give details on the types of grapes used in the wine as well as more specific information on where the wine comes from — another indicator that could go a long way for picking quality bottles at value prices.
“I always tell people to be a little suspicious of a bottle that just says California red blend. That could mean wine grapes from anywhere in California, and most likely, it’s going to be grapes from the Central Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and the center of the state. They are historically known for not growing great quality grapes. You’re starting with a subpar product in the beginning, and they have to do a lot of manipulation to get it to be a decent, palatable wine,” Cohen says.
Look for more regional-specific bottles that clearly state where the wine is made and where the grapes are from. Noticing terms like estate-bottled — meaning the grapes are grown on the land owned and managed by the winery — or family-owned wines can also be helpful markers of quality.
“I find the best value is with lesser-known wine regions and designated appellations from the Old World. Small family estates over big volume brands,” says Mary Gorman-McAdams MW, director of the International Wine Center in New York City.
Gorman-McAdams adds, “Take time to read back labels and use your smartphone. With so much smartphone technology, customers can now just scan the QR code and do a bit of sleuthing as they browse the aisle.”
Seek out local retailers
One problem of buying at the grocery store is that there’s less chance of finding someone to answer questions and offer guidance. That’s why it’s always best to shop at a wine store when possible.
“If you want to learn more about wine, step out of the grocery store. Step out of the big-box wine retailer, and step into the wine shop, because you will automatically have a more curated selection. You’re going to have people there who have a little more knowledge of the wine, and they’re there to make you feel comfortable. They’re there for you,” says Cohen.
Nonetheless, there is good wine available at major retailers — and the place to find them is on the middle shelf. Here are a few bottles by producers that are likely placed in the middle row at grocery stores and other wine retailers.
5 wines to seek out at your local grocery store:
Bonterra Organic Vineyards California Sauvignon Blanc 2020 ($11)
The bright fruit flavor is noticeable upon opening this easy-drinking Sauvignon Blanc produced by California winery Bonterra Organic Vineyards. Aromas of grapefruit and mango spill out of the bottle while the palate is crisp and lively with lemon-lime nuances.
Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages Gamay 2020 ($12)
This Gamay, produced by Maison Louis Jadot in the Beaujolais winemaking region, is a great starting point for those looking to explore wines from Burgundy, France. Aromatic, fruit-forward, and juicy, this is a lighter style red wine that works just as well with food as it does without.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon ($14)
How about a big, bold red to wash down that steak in your shopping cart? This Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma, California can get the job done with its rich and structured texture, black cherry nuances, and supple tannins — i.e., the naturally occurring polyphenols found in a plant’s skins, seeds, and leaves that aids in a wine’s astringency.