Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

My husband and I live in different states and maintain two separate households. That gets expensive, so we’re budget-conscious when we can be.

Yes, life’s too short to drink bad wine, but balance exists between special-occasion reds and house wine—the everyday stuff you sip while watching reruns of Arrested Development on Netflix.

Discount wine. I didn’t want to knock it ’til I’d tried it.

That’s why we recently checked out the wine selection at a discount grocery chain, aka a flea market for food.

My neighbors recommended the store a while back. Good selection, ever-changing. I tried not to wrinkle my nose or say: “Wine there? How do you know where it’s been?”

I kept those thoughts to myself, hoping the neighbors wouldn’t think me a wine snob. To prove my lack of pretentions, I made the trek and discovered a chaotic variety. The store sells cupcake pans and organic shampoo next to spices, produce, milk, eggs and car floormats.

And then there’s the wine section. My eyes actually lit up when I saw a Karly 2010 Pokerville Zinfandel from Amador County—for $6.99. I’ve been to the Karly tasting room. I love their zin.

I bought that and two even cheaper wines, a 2012 Harlow Ridge Lodi Zinfandel and a Backstory Cabernet Sauvignon—$4.99 each. Lucky me, it was Wine Sale Weekend, and bottles were discounted another 20 percent. Total for three bottles: about $15.

Impressed? Hang on.

At home, I decided to open and taste all three. They were on sale, right? If they weren’t half bad, I could go back and buy more. So I uncorked the bottles and unscrewed the Karly cap. (I didn’t actually sniff it. Sniffing the cap, though the name of this column, is merely metaphoric, a signifier for open-mindedness.)

I decided to pair the wines with Spanish manchego, theorizing that even a low-brow red might rise to the occasion. I’d purchased the cheese at Costco, another commodity warehouse that sells wine at reduced rates. Costco's wine sales add up to more than $1 billion per year, making it the largest wine retailer in the United States. I’ve never flinched at buying Costco wine. So why would I be so dubious about this wine?

Let the tasting begin.

First up, the 2012 Harlow Ridge Zinfandel (Lodi). This label’s the brainchild of Fred Franzia, a.k.a. Mr. Two-Buck Chuck. Harlow Ridge is the comparable offering for folks who don’t shop at Trader Joe’s. The label’s attractive. When I bought it, not knowing about the two-buck connection, I wondered if I’d been to this Lodi winery.

What’s the wine like? Pour zin, observe color, insert nose. The first word that popped into my head: Bacon. Salty pork just before it hits the pan.

Some people enjoy that kind of thing. I’ve encountered weirder smells—some of which have set me back a lot more than $4 or $5. (Insert anecdote in which my husband notes that a bottle I’ve opened smells like dill pickles. I poo-poo his dismal suggestion and read the text on the bottle. Indeed, the bottle text actually brags about the wine’s notes of dill pickle … and cotton candy, no less. We pour $25 down the drain.)

The Harlow Ridge was not as bad as the dill-pickle wine, but it was dull. You could absolutely pair this with Hot Cheetos smothered in nacho cheese sauce. (I read recently about this Texas treat. Gooey.)

Moving right along … the Backstory Cabernet Sauvignon. What year? Who knows? What region? Oh yeah, California. That narrows it down.

Open, breathe, pour, smell. Nothing. Swirl, smell. Almost nothing. Maybe ripe red raspberries, but they’re a couple stories up or down—way back. So not much in the way of aromatics. The same goes for the disappearing flavor. No body, no viscous mouth feel.

Also missing in the Backstory was the thing winos call finish—a flavor that lingers on the tongue after you’ve been a good girl and swallowed. The longer, the better.

The Backstory brand is a creation of O’Neill Vintners, which intends the wines to be competitively priced and “varietally correct … for restaurant house pours, catering events, and your casual party wine.” It was drinkable, and I was snacking on delicious cheese. So $4 worth of fine.

The Karly was the buy of the day, of course—an extra $2 well-spent on Amador zinfandel.

Karly’s brand and vineyards were purchased more than a year ago by Turley Wine Cellars, which has a giant tasting room and event venue just up the road in Amador.

The Pokerville’s never been a fine or expensive wine. The “rowdy young vine zin,” to quote the label text, was bright and fruit way forward. It looked and smelled Barney purple—big, ripe and happy. Perfect to pair with zingy pizza or pasta.

I don’t exactly feel like I wasted $15 on these three wines. The experiment was worthwhile—but I won’t go back for more. I don’t need to, because now is the season to buy wine from the winemakers. Plenty of small family wineries offer terrific deals before Christmas, some with prices comparable even to those at bargain stores. And that’s my biggest problem with buying warehouse wine—especially if you live within a few hours of tasting rooms.

Last year before Christmas, I bought some terrific cases of boutique wines for around $80 or $90 (less than $8 per bottle) at tasting rooms in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi and Mendocino. If you walk into the right winery at the right time, you can nab some cases for $60 or $70—that’s $5 or $6 per bottle. At the Tulip Hill tasting room in Rancho Mirage, the Trace Sauvignon Blanc was selling this fall for $49.95 a case, about $4 per bottle, and the 2009 Merlot was $69.95 a case, or less than $6 per bottle.

When you buy in a tasting room, you know what you’re getting. You know who made it. It’s gonna be good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have cheap wine to finish and some top ramen left over from the above photo shoot.

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I might be stressing out the college-aged woman who is pouring wine in Renwood Winery’s new Napa-tacular tasting room.

She’s been working for four months at the renovated Amador County winery. She’s memorized piles of information—including the single vineyard designate for each wine we taste. She lists these and pauses, expectantly.

“You get an A-plus,” I say. “It must have taken you a while to learn all of that.”

“It did!” She seems relieved and pours more wine in my glass.

Over the Labor Day weekend, we visited Amador County. We anticipated Rim Fire smoke from what’s now being called California’s fourth-largest wildfire ever, burning an area said to be larger than the combined square mileage of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

After a bit of morning haze, though, delta breezes whisked toxic air from leafy rows of vines laden with ripening, violaceous clumps.

We haven’t been to Amador in a couple of years. Initially, we’d been drawn here because it was the antithesis of Napa and Sonoma: no castles, fountains or sprawling mansions. We tasted wines in sheds, barns and pole buildings. We met winemakers at small family vineyards. We paid no tasting fees, but always purchased a bottle or two of affordable, delicious wine.

That was the Amador brand—California wine-making before California wine making was A Thing.

Change happens. Turley Wine Cellars (from Paso Robles and Napa) moved into town, buying Karly Wines, a once-familiar stop on our Amador weekends. Expanding its market, Helwig Winery melds its wine biz with a spectacular event/music venue.

Renwood Winery’s new owners have put piles of dough into re-branding the place. A slick logo replaces the black-and-red wren art on bottles. Gone are cheesy cork art and the glossy wood bar of the tasting room, which now sports a more-contemporary box-shaped tasting bar, mod lighting and an expanded store with deli snacks and olive oils.

In Renwood’s spanking-new patio area, waiters fly between tables with large trays containing wine flights, glasses and bottles, accompanied by cheeses and charcuterie. Nouveau Renwood’s tastings are served in flights; there are four from which to choose. Two of the flights are exclusively zinfandel, which attests either to the winery’s devotion to its roots or a savvy willingness to capitalize on recent zin appreciation trends. Maybe both.

Dave and I opt for the King of Zin flight. I recognize almost none of the new-fangled names. Merida? Flutist? Musician? Where’s the Jack Rabbit Flat?

We pay for the tasting—and buy zero bottles. On the way out, I smear some lemon curd on an animal cracker. That’s about as low-brow as it gets.

We follow signs to another newish winery, not far from Renwood. BellaGrace’s makeshift tasting room consists of tables set up in a gravel lot outside of its newly completed wine caves. Weather-permitting. (The winery also has a more permanent tasting room in Sutter Creek.)

The outdoor venue at the BellaGrace estate consists of tables that are really just boards over wine barrels—adorned with colorful clothes blowing about in those delta breezes.

Our knowledgeable wine guide, Dewey, pulls out all the stops—or, rather, he pulls out bottles with stoppers shaped like animal heads. There’s a reindeer atop a chilly bottle of crisp rose made with grenache and mourvedre. Perfect for the 90-degree heat.

Dewey advances through the day’s listed pours and goes off list, because they just happen to have many open bottles—lucky us!

Drum roll, please: Dewey’s pouring the 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel (Shenandoah Valley). The grapes are from the oldest known zin vines in Amador County. He notes that this is the best zinfandel in Amador County. A bold claim.

“Dewey says it’s the best!” I repeat, grinning.

“No,” he replies. “The judges of the Amador County Fair say it’s the best.”

Bella Grace’s 2010 Zinfandel won a double gold at the fair, which is arguably a contest for zinfandel in the land of zinfandel. To be the top zin dog is a coup for the winemaker and a coup de (Bella) grâce to the stuffier oldsters on the block. (Yes, I amuse myself. Thanks for asking.)

The award-winning zin: dark garnet, rich and velvety smooth. I buy a bottle ($28), and while Dewey’s running my credit card, he proffers one last sip of something with intense dark fruit and a finish that keeps on giving.

Dave wants it. So we add Bella Grace’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) to our order. I justify this purchase by saying, “Hey, no tasting fee, right?” Just a windy wine barrel stand with a view of estate grapes and a blue port-a-potty.

This is the brand experience we’ve been craving: sweating and drinking and laughing at the gravel that gets in my sandal.

Just up Steiner Road, it’s quiet at Amador Foothill Winery. Winemaker Ben Zeitman takes the time to introduce me to his aglianico grapes. It’s an obscure Italian varietal with thick skins that add glorious color and marvelous tannin structure.

“It’s got everything going for it,” Zeitman says.

Zeitman describes the smoke early in the week as “terrible,” but wildfires raging in the next county over didn’t deter the picking of this year’s first grapes—sauvignon blanc. They picked Monday and let the grapes settle before they crushed ’em. Yeast was added Thursday evening.

“And now it’s in a tank-fermenting,” Zeitman says.

As we sip a smooth 2009 Esola Zinfandel made with estate grapes, Zeitman describes with elegance the growing of zinfandel “pruned like a vase so the sun can get in.” He started as a home winemaker after growing up in a household that drank only Manischewitz—and only on the holidays.

I follow Zeitman out of the tasting room to nearby vines, and we taste sweet, barely tart, thick-skinned aglianico (don’t say the “g”—it’s ah-LYAN-ee-ko). Then we pick a few lighter barbera grapes on newish 2-year-old vines.

Wine grapes are sweet, even sweeter than table grapes. They taste like the wines they will become. In fact, before they’re even picked and crushed, I recommend the 2013 aglianico and barbera.

And though it’s a changing place, I recommend a visit to Amador—perhaps for the Big Crush wine festival on Oct. 5-6. (See for more information.) With any luck, they’ll be serving award-winning wines in sheds or on makeshift tables in gravel lots.

Deidre Pike is looking forward to Temecula Valley’s upcoming Crush 2013 event on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Callaway Vineyard and Winery; visit for more information.

Published in Wine