One of the occupational hazards, if you will, of working full-time as a professional taster and buyer of coffee and tea for many years is that the impetus to taste, compare and evaluate carries right over into all other food and drink. I learned early on to harness that energy into finding wines and spirits offering the same outstanding value-for-money (what the French call "rapport: qualité-prix") I was looking for on the caffeinated side of things. I look for screaming value in both my stimulant and my back-brain depressants!
"Champagne tastes but a beer drinker's budget" is an old cliché that certainly describes me and many friends, but with good beer (thanks to rapidly escalating prices for hops and malt) now costing upwards of $1.50 a bottle it's actually possible to drink good wine for less per serving, provided you know where and how to shop.
Reading Robert Parker and Steven Tanzer's wine journals was invaluable early on, and Parker's regular features on the world's greatest wine values in particular still make a subscription (or at least a one-time purchase of a used copy of his Wine Buyer's Guide) worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the regions and importers most likely to deliver the best values. Spain, by the way, is such an amazing source of high value wines - many made from grape varieties not found anywhere else - that it richly rewards special study, using the superb Peñin Guide.
To cut to the chase, here are the basics as I see them:
1. "Food of the region with wine of the region" is eternally excellent advice. That automatically means European wines - in my case mostly rustic French and Italian reds to go with the foods I cook and cuisines I know best. California, Aussie and other New World wines are mostly excluded, for the following reasons:
a. The varieties planted, with few exceptions, are poorly correlated with soil and climate (Napa and Sonoma would be mostly planted with Rhone varietals rather than Chardonnay and Cabernet had terroir been considered, as Bonny Doon's Randall Graham points out in the excellent movie Mondo Vino). It takes centuries to figure this out and in California that process has just begun.
As Kermit Lynch pointed out long ago, the most versatile red wine with food is bistro staple cru Beaujolais (made from Gamay), followed by a good Cotes du Rhone (grenache/syrah/mourvedre, mostly), while with whites you'd want either a dry Riesling or one of the crisp, perfumey wines from the Southern Rhone (typically a blend made of some combination of grenache blanc, viognier, rousanne, marsanne or clairette).
b. Affordably excellent wine comes from countries where drinking wine with meals is an everyday occurrence, not a special occasion. The sweet spot for value for California wines, for example, is in the $100-300 a bottle range where they can and do compete with exponentially more expensive grand crus, but in the $10-12 range New World wines don't hold a candle to European offerings.
c. Irrigation, which is forbidden in most of Europe but routine in the U.S., increases yield while decreasing concentration and terroir. Excessive yields from the least food-friendly grape varieties combined with manipulation and additives mean that high-value, crisply acidic and concentrated wines from the New World are very hard to find in the sub-$15 a bottle price range. Cheaper domestic wines are usually dilute, almost invariably too sweet, often filtered to within an inch of their lives and frequently contain additives.
Vin en vrac to vin en boite
When we first started visiting European vineyards we'd routinely see locals schlepping what looked like 5 gallon plastic gasoline carriers up to the counter, where the employee would fill them with wine with what looked like a gas hose. This is how everyday wine has been drunk for centuries, and of course even with a sizable family and daily consumption with lunch and dinner oxidation dramatically decreased the quality of such vin ordinaire over time.
In recent decades the wine-in-a-box format has almost entirely replaced the old en vrac cans, improving quality enormously. There's a ton of good-to-great boxed wine in Europe, and in Australia it's over 50% of the total market, but in the U.S. the package is pretty much exclusively associated with rotgut swill. Of course the same is true of canned beer, but Oskar Blues and its many imitators have long since shown that the best way of packaging beer (cans beat bottles for freshness, ecological impact and durability) need not be associated with insipid lagers.
The boxed wine format is ideal for wines that don't need aging (which is to say over 90% of worldwide production), provided that one understands its limitations. The opened shelf life of boxed wine is 4-6 weeks, but unopened great care must be taken, as the bladder the wine's packaged in in is much more permeable to air than a glass bottle. You only want boxed wine from the most recent vintage (I'd avoid anything older than a 2014 as I write this in mid-August, 2015) and the wine needs to be kept in a cool place.
Bottles and corks are expensive in and of themselves and much more expensive to ship than 3 liters of liquid thinly covered by a plastic bladder and cardboard. Cost-wise what this all translates into is very good to excellent boxed wines at the high end of the market in the $24-36 per box range, which (since each box holds the equivalent of 4 750ml. bottles) translates to $6-9 per bottle for wine that in conventional bottled format sells for $10-17.
I'll list some favorite boxed wines below, but bear in mind that there are any number of regional importers bringing in both boxed and bottled wines from small producers that the wine press doesn't rate. Ask around.
The best importers
We were just out on the West coast and I was reminded again of how many excellent boutique importers there are bringing in awesome small producer wines at great prices. Grape Expectations in Berkeley, Kysela Pere et fils, Riservati in Seattle and so many others with specific specialties (only Alsatians, for example, or obscure high-value stuff from Portugal) are all worth learning about and each region (at least on the coasts) has many folks doing great work.
On a national basis the standard by which all others ought to be measured is Eric Solomon's European Cellars, which brings in an amazing range of high-value wines from Spain and France. Some of the better-known offerings include Domaine Andezon, Cercius and La Garrigue from the Rhone valley, Evodia garnacha and Solanara monastrell and many others. More than any other importer I know of, Solomon's name on the back of the bottle is a guarantee of outstanding value.
Robert Kacher is another longstanding superstar importer, as is Kermit Lynch (though the latter's distribution system means even his high-value stuff falls just outside true cheapskate territory). The same is true with the great Neal Rosenthal (memorably profiled in the aforementioned Mondo Vino film). Jorge Odonez is a Spain specialist who gives Solomon a run for his money in the high-value market with his superb Tres Picos Garnacha (Parker's value wine of the year) and the consistently excellent $6 a bottle (in boxed format - also in bottles for $9)Viño Borgia:
At the higher end of the artisanal boxed wine market From the Tank wines from Jenny et Francois (around $36-39 per box) seem to be in a league of their own, with a red, white and rosé available that should all be in the 89-93 Parker point range. The red in particular is a show-stopper that's easily as good as a carefully chosen $15-20 bottle of Cotes du Rhone from Solomon or Lynch.
On the mass-market side of things, Bota Box offers a more-than-decent Old Vines Zinfandel and a serviceable Chardonnay. Big House Wines, now independent but founded by the irrepressible innovator Randall Graham, offers a Big House Red that despite its California provenance offers Rhone-like zippy food-friendly flavors and a Big House White to match. All of the aforementioned wines can be had for $17-20 per box, and while they're not the equal of the boutique stuff they are easily found almost everywhere.
Black Box Wines is the original American premium product in the category. It used to be 100% California fruit but explosive growth forced them to source in Chile for all but their Platinum reserve offerings. Quality is good but it's a Cabernet and Chardonnay universe, meaning that if your everyday fare is limited to burgers and steak or fish in cream sauce you're okay but otherwise better by far to cast your net towards Europe.
Wines to avoid
Where to start? All of the truly cheap boxed wines, Yellow Tail and anything else with an animal name or icon on the bottle, anything with a numerical wine rating shelf talker on it from any source other than Parker or Tanzer (not that they're infallible but most other sources are either corrupt or clueless). The hard fact of the matter is that anything under $20 a bottle from California, Oregon, Washington or Australia is almost certainly going to be an industrial not an artisanal product. I suggest saving your dabbling in those areas for special occasion wines, where (as mentioned above) it's easily possible to buy a really great bottle for a fraction of the cost of its European qualitative equivalent.