Wine Shopping the Swiss Way 

Find a bargain, research it, taste it, then buy in bulk.

The enduring popularity of critter wines suggests that most of us haven't the faintest notion of how to buy the stuff. So winemakers slap an animal on the label, and we form our allegiances based on aardvarks, badgers, or zebras.

My friend Fredi, the thrifty Swiss Wineau, has a much more rigorous approach to wine shopping. He visits wine discounters with notebook in hand. He'll troll for apparent bargains and then return home to look up their ratings on CellarTracker.com. Once he is armed with the recommendations of fellow Wineaux, it's back to the store for the kill. He consistently scores great deals, such as the 2006 Domaine Alfred DA Red he recently picked up for $2.99, a fraction of its normal price, which hovers around $18. I liked it enough to buy a case.

Last weekend, Fredi and I visited Grocery Outlet to check out their impressive supply of discount wines. We got carried away and left with ten bottles, including 2002 Rutz Cellars Chardonnay ($3.99, regularly $8.99), 2008 Mystery Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($3.99, regularly $14.99), 2007 Escale Pinot Noir ($6.99, regularly $19.99), 2006 Más Zinfandel ($3.99, regularly $9.99), 1996 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon ($19.99, regularly $88), and 2006 La Tunella Verduzzo dessert wine ($7.99, regularly $24.99). We set all those aside, and tasted our other buys.

None of had much nice to say about the 2006 Top of the Block Chardonnay ($5.99, regularly $30). Wendy detected no butter or oak, and Fredi thought it had a steely nose. I thought it tasted metallic. Even food didn't help.

Wendy, a Merlot hater, loved the 2006 Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Merlot ($4.99, regularly $12.99). Judy and I thought it smelled medicinal, but we all liked it with food.

The 2007 Domaine Laurier Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.99, regularly $11.99) was the Benjamin Button of cabernets — prematurely aged, and more character actor than star. We all found it restrained and inoffesive — until we paired it with food, which overwhelmed it.

The 2006 Ramazzotti Raffinto Red Wine ($6.99, regularly 14.99) was similarly backward. Sipped by itself, it was an intense and fruity Super Tuscan blend (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc) that we found intriguing, but once paired with a meal it became astringent and unpleasant.

The night's winning bargain was the 2003 Famiglia Bianchi Late Harvest Semillón ($9.99, regularly $54.99), a sweet Argentinian dessert wine that reminded me of nectar (whatever that is), and for Judy evoked pears. Wendy and Fredi both liked it with dessert.

As our tasting demonstrated, a trip to the bargain wine store can be hit or miss. The key is to quickly sample your purchase and then snag a case of the good stuff before someone else does.

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