Wine Tastings: Finding Cheap Wine That You Like

By Carlos Portocarrero on 2 July 2009 8 comments
Photo: Wine tasting

Say you want to have yourself a drink—whether it's because work has been rough or the kids have been especially bad—without spending a ton of money. You'll find tons of advice on how to save money on booze. From BYOBs to specific recommendations for wine.

Let's say you've moved on from the days of buying dirt-cheap 30-packs of beer and want to be a little classy. So you decide to get some wine.

Let's be honest: most of us browse for wine at a restaurant (or at the liquor store) and don't have a clue. Then there is the waiter, who is just trying to be helpful: The 2001 Bordeaux is just fabulous!

It may be fabulous but you just might not like it.

There are also tons of books out there listing cheap wine that has already been through exhaustive testing and tasting from wine experts. Books like The Wine Trials, which a friend gave me and is very helpful but still doesn't do the trick.

The problem with wine is that it's a very fickle beast. You may find a bottle of wine to be really fantastic and tasty (official wine-expert terms, fyi), while critics and experts think it's trash. Does it matter? Nope.* If you like it, that's all that counts—it'll still get you just as buzzed as the fancy, expensive stuff.

The only real way (and the best way) to find cheap wine that you know you'll like is to taste as many as you can without spending a lot of money. That's where wine tastings come into play.

I just attended my first one a couple of weeks ago and here's how they all basically work:

  • You get a glass and a menu
  • A person who knows all the wineries' wines runs through the selection
  • You're told to taste them from sweetest to not so sweet
  • You get a certain number of picks for free (we got six)
  • You get a pour and you smell the wine
  • You take a sip
  • You figure out if you like it or not
  • You repeat
  • You feel very happy

Some people spit the wine out into a spittoon (do NOT mistake your glass for that!) but most people just drink it. I've only been to a few, but the whole thing is a lot of fun.

I'm no expert, but here are my tips to getting the most out of the experience:

  1. Take notes: they'll give you a pencil and that menu of options—rank the wines and put stars next to the ones you really like. Something so you'll remember because after six types of wines they'll start to look the same on paper.
  2. Talk about it: you'll see your language start to get very weird when you're talking about how wines taste—that's OK. Sometimes a word someone else uses ("Blustery") will make sense to you and describe the wine perfectly. Write it down.
  3. Ask questions: the people working there love to talk about this stuff, so ask away.
  4. Go to a bunch of wineries at a time: Hit up three or four wineries in a day and you'll have tasted 18 different types of wine—plenty of choices to find something you like and want to buy without busting the bank.

Wine isn't for everyone—but that's mostly because people are intimidated by what they don't know. Wineries are the perfect antidote: you'll have a chance to taste a bunch of different wines and figure out what you like and don't like. Forget about what the experts say—follow your instincts and your taste buds.

They'll lead you to the wines that taste good without breaking the bank.

P.S. If you really want to learn more about wine, check out Wine Library TV, run by the infamous Gary Vaynerchuk—he's all about bringing wine to the people.

* There's a raging debate about this in the wine community. Should you care? Not really.

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Guest's picture

I am always happy when someone posts about wine. Thanks for the great article, Porter!

If you love wine, like I do, you will want to taste a wide variety of wines at the beginning. Once you have found what types you prefer, you can focus and go deep. For me, it was Burgundy. Unfortunately, Burgundy is fraught with expensive disappointments. So to save money I read from wine writers whose palate agrees with mine. Clive Coates, and Allan Meadows.

Before I purchase an expensive bottle, I read from the larger wine community at to see if any have opened one already and tasted it.

Guest's picture

Be sure to get someone to drive who WON'T be tasting wines (or if tasting, uses the spittoon)

Guest's picture

Do you really taste from sweetest to not-so-sweet? That is an interesting point as one would think it would be the other way around.

I tend to purchase new wines by the looks of the label - I have found some that I like, and some that I love using this method. I also tend to stick to the bottles $15 and under and try to buy when they are on-sale.

Great post!

Guest's picture

I love wine tastings! I think trying a lot one after the other really helps to identify which wines are good and which are not. Plus they are usually very generous with the portions and it only costs like 3 dollars!

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

I actually got it wrong! It's from not-sweet to sweet. My fault!

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Guest's picture

Good wine tasting advice in the article.In our community the large retailer(ABC store)has a wine tasting once a month.The smaller wine stores(Wine Warehouse)is about the same.For $5-$10 dollars you can sample a variety of wines(usually served with some sort of snack).Good marketing strategy for the stores but,also a great way to sample many wines without the expense of buying entire bottles.


Guest's picture

I have found sweeter wines to be more to my liking and usually get the Soft Red from Oliver Winery in Bloomington, Indiana. They only stock the red and white here at our local grocery, but if you actually visit the winery they have lots more to choose from, like berry flavors and hard cider, plus it's just a pretty place to visit.

Guest's picture

I am fortunate enough to live near a big-box wine (and beer and spirits) store that has tastings every weekend, and even luckier that state law allows them to do it for free. The pourer gives out coupons for 10% off on bottles being tasted. I have found several great values that have become staples in my rack. If Bacchus really smiles, I will hit a day when a winery is visiting to show off their finest - got to taste a Stag's Leap cab that retails for over $100 and lives up to its 96 rating.