What are the best deals on restaurant wine lists? What's the deal with Two Buck Chuck? We're answering 'em all

When is it okay to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant that’s not BYOB? 

It’s tempting in these times to tote a bottle to dinner to save a little on the tab. But with corkage fees running $15 and up, that’s an inefficient use 
of wine dollars. A good sommelier will have crafted a list that offers special bottles in all price ranges, paired to the food as well, for an experience greater than the proverbial sum of the parts.

Still, it can be a treat to enjoy a special bottle you’ve been saving, with food that’s more creative than your own kitchen usually delivers. Here’s how to do it gracefully.

  • Call ahead to see if the bottle is on the wine list. It’s bad form to bring something the restaurant already offers. Also ask about the corkage policy.
  • If you’re bringing one bottle, order a second off the list. Many restaurants will reduce or waive the corkage fee for your bottle if you order one of theirs too.
  • Feel free to ask the sommelier to decant your bottle. He or she should do it tableside, so you can monitor its treatment.
  • Offer the somm a taste. If your bottle is something special, he or she will probably be interested too.
  • Wine-country dilemma: You’re touring wineries, fall in love with a new Pinot or what have you, and load up your trunk. How cool it would be to take a bottle to dinner … Don’t do it! Save it for drinking at home. Most wine-country restaurants take great pride in representing their region on the wine list. Put yourself in their hands to continue your wine-country day.

Where are the best deals on restaurant wine lists?

We have it on the highest authority that some wine directors price their favorite inexpensive wine one notch above the cheapest bottle. Seems they know that most of us are too embarrassed to order the cheapest wine on the list, and they’re too proud of their “value find” to let it languish unsold in the basement.

What’s up with the crazy names? Can I trust a Cirque Du Vin as much as Château Grand Etcetera?

Don’t write the “Circus” off. Although quality ranges wildly among the wacky names in wine aisles these days, a lot of good stuff comes with a sense of humor. Here are three of our current crazy faves.

Cirque Du Vin Red Wine 2006 by Peachy Canyon (Paso Robles; $17). A big blend of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Cab Franc, with loads of aromatic fruit ― raspberry, plum, dried cherry.
Jargon Pinot Noir 2007 (California; $10). With juicy red berries, dried cherry, cranberry, and sarsaparilla, this bottle manages to deliver more Pinot Noir–ness than most with this price tag.
Steak House Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Columbia Valley; $10). Red licorice, cherry, cedar, and great chewy tannins from a brilliant marketer (Charles Smith) in Washington State.

I had a Meritage once ― loved it. But what is it? (And how 
on earth do you pronounce it?)

Skip the French accent on this one. “Meritage” is a made-up word that rhymes with “heritage.” It was the solution to the problem of what to call a wine in this country that’s a blend of two or more of the five traditional Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Until the Meritage Association coined the term, a blend like that could only be called “red table wine” here, which sounds inappropriately plebeian, 
or given a fancy proprietary name, like “Insignia” from Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

Any Meritage is likely to be good, because part of the deal in using the association’s term on a wine is that it be one of the winery’s top bottlings. But don’t write off “red table wine” too fast. These days, daring winemakers are going way beyond the Bordeaux five when they blend, mixing things up with Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah … And a blend can be a work of art ― whether it follows the Meritage plan or not.

Next: Two Buck Chuck and supermarket finds 

My friends swear by Two Buck Chuck, but I bought 
a case once, and it was disappointing ― even at 
that price. Why?

More a phenomenon than a wine, Two Buck Chuck (aka the Charles Shaw label) is an invention of the controversial wine producer Fred Franzia. The truth is, no TBC wine is the same from year to year, or even season to season. The label, sold only at Trader Joe’s, is a gigantic Western version of a négociant wine in France ― large lots of bulk wine that a merchant has bought, blended, and bottled. On a good day, you might get your full $2 worth.

The trick is to buy one bottle of your favorite kind (Cabernet, Chardonnay, whatever). Pop the cork ASAP and see 
if you like it. Thumbs up? Race back 
and buy a case. We just tried this tactic, and, well, we’d go back for the Two Buck Sauvignon Blanc and the Chardonnay ― in a pinch.

I’m looking for a wine 
I’ll always be able to find at the supermarket and trust that it’ll taste good. Any suggestions?

A two-case tasting of our old standbys (BV “Coastal Estates” and Beringer “Founders’ Estate”) let us down: Many of those earlier budget players seem to have 
lost the quality edge to newer labels. Here are some affordable, large-production names to remember now.

Clos du Bois Okay, it’s not exactly new, but if you’re fond of generous oak in your Chardonnay, this Sonoma giant turns out a gazillion excellent cases for you.
Columbia Crest “Grand Estates” The Cabernets and Merlots from this Washington label always taste like they should cost more than they do.
Geyser Peak We’ve kept the Sauvignon Blanc from this label 
in our cellar for a long time; now we’ve added the Merlot.
Hess “Appellation” series The value-priced lineup from the Hess Collection, on Napa’s Mt. Veeder, gets a quality boost from estate fruit that didn’t make it into the label’s upper-tier bottles.

More:  Wine pairing 101


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