No. 1 on the shopping list: How to navigate wine at the grocery store

The designation “grocery-store wine” has been the lowliest tier of the vinous variety for a long time, like Sizzler in the world of steakhouses. Respected wineries didn’t exactly clamor to be placed alongside pot-bellied jugs on the corner market’s despoiled shelves, preferring instead to be glorified at the neighborhood wine shop. But that was before — before the American public’s appetite for better wine awakened the grocery store’s inner profit compass and the cash registers rang.

A few years ago, enlightened grocery-store managers figured out that offering decent wine might actually make them more money, but many continue to stock the same tired labels. Besides laziness and ignorance, there’s a reason for this. Essentially, economics determine your wine choices at many stores — the chains auction off shelf space to the lowest winery bidder. You might call it negotiating, but it’s really the store trying to squeeze the lowest bulk price possible from enormous wine companies like Beringer, Gallo or Rosemount. To accommodate every location in the chain, they require flowing cash and huge inventories to stock hundreds of aisles.

But in areas with high wine demand, there’s improvement. In these stores, the general manager is authorized to enhance the bottle selections, circumventing the bidding process to allow smaller labels to get some action. I took a walk down the aisle at a few stores in my city, both in the “good” neighborhoods (read: wealthy) and the not-so-good (read: mine), and came up with an array worthy of your lips.

Imported wines, although their prices continue to rise due to the weak dollar, remain the cheapest but certainly not the best. Each store oozed with the usual Australian suspects such as Lindeman’s, Penfolds and Rosemount, but most of their recent releases (2005 and 2006) aren’t even worth the $8 price tag. A few exceptions are: 2005 Lindeman’s Bin 50 Shiraz ($8), Lindeman’s 2006 Bin 65 Chardonnay ($7), Rosemount 2006 Chardonnay ($11), Rosemount 2005 Diamond Label Riesling ($9) and Rosemount’s 2005 Shiraz ($11). Penfolds, once palatable in the $15-and-under slot, apparently now focuses its energies in the $50-plus price range, since everything I tried delivered a chemical aftertaste and a cloying, unbalanced sweetness. And Little Penguin, one of the many shamelessly marketed, cute-creature wines, drinks fine for a $7 wine as long as you’re OK with its similarity to Kool-Aid. Two reliable, smaller New Zealand wineries I also found: the Jibe Sauvignon Blanc ($15) and Monkey Bay Rosé ($10).

Other good import deals: Trapiche 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($8) or its Broquel Malbec ($15); Robertson 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) from South Africa, Spain’s Osborne Solaz Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend ($9); and for a quaff with a pizza, the Da Vinci Chianti from Italy ($14).

Although I hate to sound so pathetically patriotic, the best quality at the grocery store is American. Rosenblum Cellars, from its $11 Vintner’s Cuvée Zinfandel to its $50 single vineyards, simply can’t be beat year after year. Sonoma’s Benziger Winery always has consistently good whites, such as its Carneros Chardonnay ($13) or its North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($14). I’ve also always liked Cellar No. 8 Zinfandel and Merlot ($10) and Red Diamond Merlot ($10). But sadly, Ravenswood, once a favorite $10 Zinfandel, has forgotten its lower tiers, and you need to shed $20 to get its good stuff these days.

So Yanks maintain our habit as we seek to crawl out from the big-bottle dregs of the grocery store. Hell, life would be peachy if we all lived in Northern California, with its aisles brimming with tempting wines, but we’re in the South, where Bud and Miller still dominate the aisles. With a bit of searching, you can drink well from the grocery store, but if the bottles in front of you don’t satisfy your yearnings, talk to the manager and let him/her know your thoughts. You might be doing the whole neighborhood a favor.

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