Archive for category Wine Bargains

2016 Free Tasting Room Update

We just updated our list of free tasting rooms for 2016 and, well, the results aren’t pretty.  Only a handful of free tasting rooms remain in Oregon, Paso, and Napa.   Sonoma, on the other hand fares much better.

What happened to the free tasting rooms?

The trend away from free tastings has been driven largely by a shift in thinking around the tasting room business model.  Tasting rooms have historically been treated as a showcase for a winery’s products.  Operating them at a loss was considered acceptable, although hopefully the loss would be offset by wine club signups and bottle sales.  The new trend is to monetize tasting rooms as much as possible, backed by some high-profile industry reports which indicate how much money free tasting room are leaving on the table.

Free tastings still abound.

For those of us who enjoy free tastings, there are still options.  Many tasting rooms still refund your tasting with a bottle purchase (although that too is changing: many wineries now only comp tastings with purchases of 3, 4 or even 6 bottles.)

Additionally, many wineries offer free tastings with Yelp! check-ins and tasting coupons are readily available from sites such as Wine Country This Week and Local Wally’s.  Your hotel may offer free tasting coupons and some wineries will also have coupons available for other wineries nearby.

Happy tasting!

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Navigating Wine Sales Without Getting Burned

It’s that time of year when most of us are short on cash and retailers imageare desperate to clear their shelves and shore up their balance sheets. Bring on the wine sales!!

Ordinarily this is more of a travel blog, but during the Christmas season few of us are doing any wine travel. Instead, our wine focus has shifted, for the moment, to supplying wine for a month of nonstop holiday parties, Christmas dinners and other wine-centric events. Naturally we’re hoping to save a buck, so now seems like a good time to tackle the topic of wine sales.

Most wine retailers are running big sales this time of year. However, some of them can be kind of scammy. That’s why wine sophisticates, hoping to save people the pain of a bad “hey, it was on sale!” wine purchase, often steer people away from sales (and especially closeouts). Unfortunately if you listen to their advice you’re gonna miss out on some really good deals!

Don’t get me wrong – there’s some truly terrible wine out there. And there’s a reason it’s cheap. But some really excellent stuff lurks in the sale aisle as well. Armed with a bit of knowledge and a few simple tools, it’s easy to weed out the bad stuff and score a bargain.

Wines go on sale for hundreds of reasons – usually involving someone in a cubicle with a spreadsheet if its a large retailer. Grocery stores in particular run generous seasonal discounts on wine they know they’ll sell a ton of. But closeouts are a more interesting story.

Wine hits the closeout shelf because the retailer is desperate to get rid of it. Sometimes the wine is terrible, but often it’s fine. Sometimes with large stores a change in management or direction will trigger a big sale. Small retailers may be clearing out odds-and-ends to free up valuable shelf space. Often a closeout sale springs from a tactical error by the retailer. Sometimes they’ll mis-judge a trend and order too much of something. Or perhaps the wine was a pet favorite of the retailer but they couldn’t talk their customers into it.

Grocery stores and big-box stores often purchase really great wines but market them poorly. Their staff often don’t even know that those wines are ever there! And even if they did, they often don’t know how to sell them. As a result, small artisanal wines languish on the shelf unloved in favor of the big-brand wines that are easier for quasi-knowledgable staff to sell. Eventually corporate says “get rid of it.” All the better for you when they go on sale!

So how do you separate the plonk from the gold? Start with price.

Any wine that’s discounted more than 30% is suspect. At that price, the retailer is selling below wholesale, so they’re either losing money or using an artificially inflated price to “manufacture” a discount. Tools such as or the Vivino app can quickly tell you what the “actual” retail price of that wine really is.

Customer reviews are also worth their weight in gold, especially in the is very useful - especially the "Details, Scores, and History" tab. is very useful – especially the “Details, Scores, and History” tab.

absence of a knowledgeable wine merchant. Apps like Vivino, or web sites like Cellar Tracker can quickly tell you what other folks who bought that wine thought of it. Some programs will go even further and rank the wine compared to similar wines from the region. Under the “all vintages” tab, will even give you a 30,000-foot view of the wine’s quality over the years.

As a last resort, check to see if any professional wine reviewers have given a particular wine their blessing. I’ve seen some very highly rated wines in the closeout bins (which likely wouldn’t be there if the merchant actually knew what they were selling.) Again, wine-searcher is a favorite of mine for finding reviews, although a Google search can also come in handy.

There you have it. So the next time a wine sophisticate frowns at you for rooting around in the closeout bin, you can tell them that you’re smart enough to spot a real bargain. Happy hunting!

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Special “Strong Roots” Napa Valley 2-for-1 Tasting Offer Through End of October

If you’ve spent much time with us, you know that we’re often critical of Napa Valley for it’s crazy high prices. That being said, Napa is a must-visit for any wine lover and we highly encourage you to visit at least once.

In light of last month’s earthquake, Dirt Cheap Wine Country along with the rest of our friends in the business, are encouraging folks to make Napa a part of your fall travel plans. We’ll be there in October, and we’d love to see you there as well!

That’s why when we found this deal, we knew we had to pass it along. Several Napa wineries have partnered with to offer a special 2-for-1 tasting voucher. The “Strong Roots” voucher is valid for up to four people at over 35 participating wineries through October 31.

You can get yours at

While a few of the wineries on the list already offer 2-for-1 deals, most don’t which makes this a great offer in a region where deals are becoming few and far between. Plus, you only have to carry one coupon versus a handful.

So go show your support for Napa, and we’ll see you there!

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Big Changes Coming at

A couple days ago I received a phone call from the folks at  A victim of their own success, they are closing their Angels program to new members – new applicants will be placed on a waiting list – and they wanted to grandfather me back into the program prior to the mid-August deadline.

According to the representative I spoke with, they had inadvertently angered a number of their most loyal supporters. Most of their wines are produced in relatively small numbers, and with too many Angels in the program their most popular wines were selling out more quickly than they had projected.

In case you’re not familiar with them, NakedWines is a crowd-funded winery… really more of a custom crush.  The crowd funders (known as Angels) pledge $40 a month to NakedWines.  In exchange they get a $40 monthly wine allowance and a 40-60% discount on wine purchases.  The money is passed along as startup capital to a handful of independent winemakers who agree to distribute their wines exclusively through NakesWines.

I’m a fan of these guys and have ordered several wines from them in the past.  Their customer service is consistently outstanding, and their prices are compelling.  We all need a source of inexpensive “everyday” wines to stock the cellar with, and NakedWines has fit the bill on more than one occastion.  By combining their ultra-aggressive promotional offers with free shipping, it’s often possible to pick up a full case for around $100.

Their wines are well-made crowd pleasers.  Nothing terribly complex, but nothing you’re going to take offense at either, which is pretty much what you’re looking for with an every day pop-and-pour.  At full retail I think they’re overpriced, but a fair value with the Angel discout. 

So if you’ve ever been curious to try NakedWines, your window is quickly coming to a close.  The rep couldn’t give me an exact date, but sometime mid-August is the cutoff for new signups. And next time you’re in Napa or Sonoma, swing by one of their tasting rooms. It’s free for Angels and only $10 (unlimited tastings!) for everyone else.

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Tasting Room Closeouts – Are They Really a Deal?

Tasting Sheet

If you’re like me, you love a good bargain; and bargains abound in wine country tasting rooms. But are those “deals” really a deal – who’s getting the last laugh? Turns out, you are.

Savvy wine buyers know to be wary of wine shop closeout bins. Like a yard sale, there can often be some real finds there for the person who knows what they’re looking at, but just as often you’re looking at junk. They’re taking a loss and dumping the slow sellers regardless of reason. In the tasting room, however the economics in play are quite different.

When a winery brings their wine to market they have a couple of options (I’m ignoring the bulk market for now.)

  •  Sell direct to the customer (through tasting rooms, wine clubs, online where legal.)
  •  –  Low sales volume, but the winery keeps 100% of the revenue.
  • Sell through the (inter)national distribution network (ie. the “three-tier system.”)
  • –  Massive sales volume, but only about 30% of the retail price goes back to the winery.

See our post on June 22 for more detail on how wine pricing works. It’s really helpful!

When a tasting room puts something on closeout, even a huge one – say 50% – they’re rarely losing money.

But is the wine any good? Believe it or not, probably so. In my experience, when a tasting room is running a closeout, it’s usually to make room for the next vintage of that particular wine. These wines were either never put into distribution (if the winery distributes), or there wasn’t sufficient quantity remaining to attract the interest of a distributor. It’s probably on the tasting menu and if not, they often have a bottle open behind the counter if you ask. I’m only leery if they absolutely refuse to let you taste it.

Think of it this way – the tasting room is the public face of the winery, and most of them (if they’re well run and actually make good wine) won’t knowingly sell junk in there. There are too many other ways in this business for wineries to get rid of lousy wine and still make a buck.

So feel free to gobble up those tasting room closeouts, knowing that you’re getting a decent bottle of juice, saving some coin, and making the winery happy.

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A Bargain Flight Through Argentina

Argentina’s hot right now.  Well, ok… technically it’s winter there right now – the forecast high for Buenos Aires today is a measly 54.  But their wines are hot and have gained massive popularity in recent years owing to their tremendous value.  Many wine drinkers immediately associate Argentina with Malbec, often their only exposure to Argentinian wines, although among white wine drinkers Torrontes is rapidly gaining popularity as well.

2013-07-04 18.11.35A years-long Argentinean mainstay in Lexington has been the wines of Parrot Mountain, and last week while picking up our CSA box, I was able to taste through several of their latest releases.  Unfortunately for you purists, Parrot Mountain is not some quaint mountaintop Argentinean bodega.   It is a private label brand created by Liquor Barn in partnership with Kysela Pere et Filis, the wine’s Virgina importer.  (A wine contact of mine in Argentina verified this to be correct, to the best of his knowledge.  On the plus side, Liquor Barn has kept the price of these wines steady at around $10 per bottle for many years.  

The first time I tried Parrot Mountain several years ago, I found the wines to be quite enjoyable.  Unfortunately on the latest go-around, the results were much more mixed, so either quality has slipped or my palate has changed.

2012 Sauvignon Blanc – Crisp, grassy and lots of citrus – exactly what you’d expect from a South American Sauv Blanc.  Not unique, but certainly pleasant.  I’d be curious to do a side-by-side tasting with it and the Cono Sur Sauvignon Blanc – a value-priced label from Chile.  

2012 Rose Malbec – This is a crisp, tart, dry Rose.  But the tartness overwhelmed the fruit and I thought it tasted like watered-down cranberry juice.  To be fair, I’m not a fan of rose in general, so my bias probably worked against me here.

2012 Chardonnay – This was the downer of the night.  Usually South American Chardonnays are really pleasant, but this one had virtually no nose, and it tasted of weak citrus.  It was barely even distinguishable as a Chardonnay.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon – This wine caught me off guard.  Incredibly aromatic, and a great balance of flavors.  Dark fruit and some cocoa, but light on the tongue.  For $10, this is a bargain.  My favorite of the flight.

2012 Malbec – Based on the Cab, I had really expected to enjoy this. But it seemed unbalanced, and a little tart.  Certainly drinkable, but for $11 I think there are better options.

These wines are sold exclusively through Liquor Barn (and presumably LB Express) and they make two or three other wines as well, including a Torrontes.  If you’ve been curious to try out Argentina’s style of winemaking, these wines make for an affordable experiment.


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Great (or at least palatable) wines for under $10

The problem with traveling to the California wine country every year is that I can’t afford half of what I taste! After a few days of drinking the best wines that Cali winemakers have to offer, the stuff I have been drinking at home just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore, so it always takes a few weeks for my palate to get back into line with my budget. Yet I find that every year my palate ratchets up a notch or two, so I have to work even harder to find wines that I can consider both “good” and “affordable.”

I always keep a couple of really nice bottles of wine in my cellar for special occasions, but most of what I drink comes in at the $15-$25 range, with anything over $40 being a “nice” bottle. That being said, December was a rough month as most of my hobby money was shifted over to Christmas gifts. So for December I went on a quest, patronizing only wines that cost less than $10. For the most part I was successful… I think I ended up going as high as $12. Below you’ll find the best of what I came up with. My favorite place in Lexington to shop is Shopper’s Village on Euclid. (Ironically, I’d never ever heard of SV until a winemaker in California mentioned it to me.) In Cincinnati I’m still partial to Trader Joe’s, although Jungle Jim’s has a really nice wine program as well.

At Trader Joe’s, give their 2005 Abrazo Del Toro Cariñena (Spain) a shot. At $6 ($8 for the Reserve) these wines exhibit lots of earth and dark fruit. They’re simple, but pleasant.

And here are my notes on the 2005 Mezza Corona Pinot Grigio (Italy) a nice white wine available at TJ’s for about $9, but also widely available in Lexington. “Very pleasant wine, and easily approachable for non wine-drinkers. Very unusual nose – I get citrus, mango and banana. Equally soft on the palate with the fruit coming through. The finish is pleasant and long – resembles a California Sauvignon Blanc. I’d serve this wine a touch warmer than most of my whites. The cold just mutes that fruit way too much.”

I was also impressed with the latest offerings from Aquinas and Smoking Loon, two inexpensive labels from the folks at Sebastiani. I’ve always been a big fan of Sebastiani wines, so when a friend held a blind Cabernet tasting where Aquinas beat out some very expensive bottles, I had to seek them out. Indeed, the Aquinas Cabs are consistently good. Sadly, I didn’t take notes on my last bottle of Aquinas, but here’s what I wrote about the 2005 Smoking Loon Syrah. “Pretty jammy upon opening, but balanced out nicely on the second day. For $8 (Shopper’s Village), a pretty solid everyday wine. Will have to try it again on pizza night.” Aquinas is tricky to find in Lex – The Village Vineyard on Harrodsburg Rd. occasionally carries it. You can also find it at Bigg’s Supermarkets in Cincinnati.

Another $8 Cabernet I was impressed with is a quirky little wine called Pizza Vino (USA/California). I actually picked up a bottle at a Columbus, Ohio gas station… intrigued by its claims to be a simple, everyday pizza wine. A name like that was a dare to try it. I fully expected to take one sip and dump the bottle, but instead was treated to a remarkably bold California Cabernet. I’m told Pizza Vino is widely distributed in the Columbus/Cincinnati/Northern KY area… or just go the the Speedway next to Port Columbus Airport.

Another favorite for the month was the 2005 Peachy Canyon Incredible Red (USA/California). ($12 at TJ’s) “I thought this one was pretty well balanced. Cedar and hints of chocolate on the nose, oak, toast, black raspberry and pepper on the palate, and a long finish that reminded me of a decent quality cigar. I’ll be buying this one again.”

I’ll leave off with a wine for the non-wine drinkers, or those who want wine but can’t drink alcohol. The Ariel Blanc (USA/California) $8 is a non-alcoholic wine made by J. Lohr. Most non-alcoholic wines are terrible, but this one is quite pleasant as J. Lohr uses a different method of extracting the alcohol from the wine. It resembles a Sauvignon Blanc, is slightly floral, and actually has notable complexity.

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