We scoped out your best budget wine bets for the holidays at a Fresh & Easy tasting last night: No two-buck chuck was on hand (Chao, Saludas! Hang Ten, The Big Kahuna! Take a hike, Flat Rock! Bon Voyage, Cape Peak!), but every wine we tried was less than $10 a bottle.
Fresh & Easy must shelve the Mad Libs when it comes budget as opposed to bargain wines, as the adjective-noun pairings and land formations fill-in-the-blanks are kept to a minimum. We did, however, ask Fresh & Easy Wine BuyerRichard Wherry about the naming practices: "I wish there was a science!" he says. Turns out it's either a democratic vote or office competition that gets a name (and a label) slapped on these bottles!
We try Hilltown Chardonnay first: Unoaked, this wine lets the bright fruit flavors shine as opposed to the buttery, toasty, hit-you-over-the-head-that-I-was-aged-in-an-oak-barrel notes of most American chards. Richard Mansfield, the winemaker behind brands like Stag's Leap, made this one for Fresh & Easy with a price tag of $7.99, instead of $50-plus like the others
"More expensive does not mean better," Wherry says, "Yes, there's a difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle, but there's not much between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle."
Wherry recommends either sticking to the $10 and under price range or bumping your budget up past $20. "There's not going to be much improvement in quality between $10 and $20," he says.
Click through for Wherry's budget entertaining tips, and the wines you'll want to stock up on at Fresh & Easy to make it through the family turmoil...
"Think about the food you're serving first," Wherry says. "Heavy, rich foods need a full-bodied wine. Light foods need a light-bodied wine. And foods with intense flavors need an intense wine."
Wherry advises against pairing a big Cabernet Sauvignon or an oaky Chardonnay with the turkey and ham you're likely to be serving. We'd recommend steering away from the Castillo Rioja, a tempranillo blend we tried, too. We found it to be watered down and flat, and Wherry tells us it might be because it's oaked (we don't care for wood in our wine).
The Ora Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, on the other hand, is a robust red on the drier side that we'd be happy to drink while watching a movie after the holiday feast and, at $4.99, that isn't out of the question.
"Salty foods like ham pair better with more acidic, sweet wines like a Gewürztraminer or a Riesling," Wherry says, recommending a Washington Riesling called St. Helen's, which at $4.99 is half the price of the Château Ste Michelle that Wherry says is comparable if not inferior.
Open up your palette before a big meal with a dry, sparkling wine like the Rene Florancy Premier Cru Champagne that Fresh & Easy's unloading for $9.99, marked down for the holidays from $29.99. Or you could grab a bottle of the bright, bubbly La Gioiosa Prosecco Spumonte we tried on sale for $7.99.
"Don't waste your money on a Champagne for dessert," Wherry says. "Sweet desserts go better with a sweet, sparkling wine or a late harvest Riesling."
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Wherry's best budget bet for the holidays? Spanish Cava. "It's made using the same method they use in Champagne, allowing the wine to ferment in the bottle." Grab a bottle for $4.99 through the holidays.
One last tip: Do your homework before your shopping run."Chances are our employees in the Fresh & Easy stores don't know anything about wine," Wherry admits. "And that's our fault." We'd like to see Fresh & Easy appoint a few point people to help us make sense of the options (especially if all we get from the label is majority rules!). Then again, maybe we could just phone Wherry every time we drop by... Helllllloooooooo, remember us?! We're lost in the wine aisle.
Is budget wine still out of the budget? Check out our Bottom of the Barrel reviews for the wine that'll cost you less than a Lincoln but you can still serve proudly (rather than dumping it down the drain).