Wine Talk: 3 Strategies for Finding Great Budget Wines

December 7, 2020 Updated: December 7, 2020

Early on in my wine journey, I developed a healthy respect for budget wines, and not because I was cheap. My goal from the moment I got hooked on fine wine was to put together a collection of top-notch wines from around the world, a noble but expensive proposition no matter where you shop.

What I discovered in those early buying sprees was that I was consuming the collectible wines almost as fast as I could purchase them, which sort of defeats the purpose of creating a personal wine cellar. I wasn’t aging my most precious wines to perfection, because I was reaching for a “great” wine to serve with dinner on a nightly basis.

When I realized something had to give, I developed a strategy. Once a month or so, I would visit a budget grocery store (in my case, it was Trader Joe’s) and snag any number of interesting wines the store was blowing out with deep discounts. I would race home, open each bottle, and taste. Then, I would race back to the store and buy up cases of the one, two, or three wines that had impressed me—before the bargains disappeared from the shelf.

Well-stocked with tasty budget wines for everyday consumption, I was less tempted to raid my wine cellar for the good stuff on a whim. I could count on having an extraordinary wine, sometimes even properly aged, for special occasions.

Having tasty budget wines on hand is especially crucial during the holiday season, when there is a natural inclination to imbibe more in celebration of the season. I recommend a three-pronged attack.

First, visit the equivalent of Trader Joe’s in your neck of the woods and take advantage of the aggressive discounts.

Second, consider buying online. The selection will be greater, and online purveyors such as Wine.com typically have specials galore. WineSearcher.com can also turn up generous deals from brick-and-mortar wine merchants that are set up for shipping.

Third, find out where in your neighborhood the Cameron Hughes brand is sold.

Cameron Hughes is a longtime wine industry pro. He developed a unique business model several years ago, buying up odd lots from top-of-the-line wineries in the most fashionable appellations. Hughes knew that even wineries with tremendous star power produce wines that don’t make the cut for the final blend. Those wines are often sold on the bulk market and blended away into large batches of generic wine.

Without giving away the name of the winery (which would undercut the star-power winery’s pricing), Hughes assigned each of these wines a “lot” number to go with the fancy appellation on the label. Cameron Hughes wines are typically sold for a fraction of the price they would fetch if the winery of origin were printed on the label.

Hughes sold the Cameron Hughes brand to Vintage Wine Estates a few years ago but continues to oversee the operation, which is now global, with wines from famous appellations around the world. A Cameron Hughes wine is the epitome of a wine that underpromises and overdelivers.

And this, dear reader, is how you serve great wines through the holidays on a budget and preserve your “good” stuff for just the right occasion.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer’s enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Nick Goldschmidt 2018 Fidelity, Alexander Valley ($20): Winemaker Nick Goldschmidt, a transplanted Kiwi, knows the Alexander Valley well, having spent a fair amount of time as winemaker at Simi. On his own, Goldschmidt oversees a number of brands including this one bearing his name. It’s a stunner for the price: a supple, inviting blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot that delivers aromas of ripe blackberry and plum, a generous shot of oak vanillin, and supple tannins so that you can enjoy the beauty right now. Best Value. Rating: 90.

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Nick Goldschmidt 2018 Fidelity, Alexander Valley. (Courtesy of Goldschmidt Vineyards)

Spottswoode 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena ($225): The Spottswoode estate vineyard in St. Helena is one of the Napa Valley’s greatest treasures. Early on, Spottswoode sold its grapes to a number of high-profile wineries but turned to production of cabernet under its own label at the encouragement of the likes of Dan Duckhorn and legendary winemaker Tony Soter. If Napa had a classification system similar to the 1855 model in Bordeaux, Spottswoode would be a First Growth by any reasonable measure. The 2017 vintage is a classic Spottswoode, impressively structured; beautifully balanced; and showing its signature aromas of cassis, blackberry, blueberry, and spice. It’s pricy, but if you’re ever going to splurge, this is the wine. Rating: 98.

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Spottswoode 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena. (Courtesy of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery)

Ladera 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Howell Mountain ($115): A big, mountain-grown cabernet from Napa generally takes a number of years to come around. That means you typically need to cellar it for a couple of years after purchase. Ladera does that for you, aging its reserve cabernet prior to release. Hence, the 2016 is now available when other wineries are selling the 2018 vintage. The 2016 from Ladera is a bold wine, powerful and rich in dark fruits, with impressive palate weight and a very long midpalate and finish. Rating: 96.

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Ladera 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Howell Mountain. (Courtesy of Ladera Vineyards)

Dutton Goldfield 2018 Pinot Noir, Dutton Ranch ($45): This is one of Dutton Goldfield’s most affordable pinots, and it’s always solid and reliable. The 2018 vintage is more of the same, showing good palate weight with layered aromas of raspberry and blueberry, a touch of wood spice, and nicely integrated tannins. Rating: 90.

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Dutton Goldfield 2018 Pinot Noir, Dutton Ranch. (Courtesy of Dutton Goldfield)

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com