How to Find the Less Expensive Hidden Gems on Any Wine List
It might be the leather-bound doorstop at a Michelin-starred palace, or the tattered one-pager at the corner bistro.
Either way, wine lists can be tricky to negotiate—especially if you’re determined to pick out hidden gems.
Finding steals in the cellar can be a particular challenge at destination restaurants, their collections groaning with pricey trophy bottles from Bordeaux or Napa Valley. But when even neighborhood joints reliably mark up wine by 250 percent to 300 percent, homing in on the overlooked or underrated can help a diner stave off sticker shock when the check arrives.
“If you dine at serious wine restaurants, there are always great alternatives and values on the list,” says Joe Bastianich, whose 30 restaurants around the world include New York’s Del Posto and Babbo. “A $1,200 Grand Cru Burgundy is great, but you can also find a $120 bottle of village wine that will turn your world around.”
Bastianich, the restaurateur, wine expert, and television cooking personality, has seen his share of top-heavy wine lists. But he says places that truly care about customers will balance even superstar rosters with underdogs that anyone can root for. “We’re not there to rip people’s lungs out—we’re there to make them love wine.”
While in the past the upsell might have been a key part of a sommelier’s duties, the field has come to view the practice as tacky and beside the point.
“We’re way past the time when sommeliers were there to get you to spend more,” says Dustin Wilson, a master sommelier (you may remember him from the film Somm) who has run the wine department at Eleven Madison Park in New York. “At the end of the day, seeing that look on the customer’s face, that ‘wow’ factor, is more fulfilling than having them spend an extra $20.”
We asked Wilson and Bastianich for their best advice on how to dig deep into a wine list and find the less pricey treasures buried within. Here are some simple rules to follow:
Look Past the Big-Name Regions
At that expense-account steakhouse, don’t just stab a finger in the direction of the nearest Napa cabernet sauvignon. Instead, cast an explorer’s gaze beyond the safe, big-name growing regions into less established areas. You may be aware of the viticulture boom that has dramatically boosted quality and choices from Spain, Greece, Chile, and South Africa. But don’t overlook the up-and-comers in familiar nations, either.
Do you go for spicy, earthy French reds? Those lip-smacking flavor profiles are a signature of the increasingly popular Corbières, which is an appealingly affordable expression of the carignan grape, in the Languedoc-Roussillon along France’s Mediterranean coast.
In Italy, you’ll find winners from once-overlooked regions such as Calabria, Umbria, Sardinia, and Sicily.
“If you move outside mainstream areas, you’ll find interesting wines for a fraction of the price of the popular varietals,” Wilson says.
Avoid Names You See a Lot
Perhaps counterintuitively, the cheapest and most mass-produced bottles on a list—your supermarket chardonnays and pinot grigios, forgettable merlots, and insipid Chiantis—are typically marked up the most in terms of percentage. They’re not deals at all, yet they often fly out of the cellar because people know them.
Look Under $200
Wilson pegs the sweet spot on a well-curated list at roughly $60 to $200. That’s where you’ll find the gems, with more flavor, terroir, and distinction than big-name, like-priced alternatives. These more esoteric wines don’t sell as well as high-profile counterparts, and that’s your edge: Restaurants price them relatively lower to lure customers.
Indigenous grapes that fell into obscurity, or were nearly wiped out by Europe’s phylloxera aphid blight in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are staging a remarkable comeback.
Bastianich cheers Italy’s renaissance of native grape varietals: the light-bodied, vivacious petit rouge reds of Valle d’Aosta, nestled in the Alps in Italy’s smallest viticultural region. Or the bright and crisp whites of pecorino—the wine, not the cheese—farther south in Abruzzo.
In Spain, which has more acres under grape cultivation than any other country, the underdogs include mencia, whose herbal bouquet blast recalls cabernet franc; or the tempranillo that produces Rioja, the relatively affordable Old World red whose finest expressions stand tall against any Bordeaux.
Greeks are rightly proud of their assyrtiko, the delightfully minerally, bone-dry white grape that first sprouted in the volcanic island soil of Santorini; or the citrusy, full-bodied whites of malagousia.
In Portugal, the touriga nacional, with its firm tannins and dark, leathery concentrated fruit, is an affordable place to zig when others zag to cabernet sauvignon.
Memorize a Few Key Regional Alternatives
Almost every region has hidden gems tucked among their more famous wines, Bastianich says.
Bastianich and Wilson both extol the tannic, black-skinned freisa grape (pronounced “FRAY-zuh”) as a bargain red alternative to the exalted barolos and Barbarescos that hog the glory of Italy’s Piedmont region.
Grignolino, Bastianich says, “is another way to enjoy the best of Piedmontese terroir at a fraction of the price.”
Rather than breaking the bank with Côte-Rôtie, the exalted syrah from the northernmost tip of France’s Rhône Valley, Wilson steers people to the similar, 100 percent-syrah pleasures of the St. Joseph appellation, just a short trip down the Rhône river.
Lovers of New World pinot noirs are well versed in the pleasures of Oregon’s Willamette Valley or California’s Sonoma coast. But farther south, California’s Monterey County, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Barbara County are producing knockouts for typically less money.
Sure, taking a chance on a mystery wine sounds great on paper. Yet wine drinkers, once they’ve settled into a style like a comfy Barcalounger, can be hard to coax out of it.
“People are afraid to go out of their comfort zone, because they don’t want to send a bottle back,” Wilson says. But to get a deal, “you have to be willing to experiment.”
With inspired winemakers cultivating the grapes, consumers do well to cultivate that sense of adventure. Ask the sommelier for something new to you.
To avoid getting lost in unknown terroir, customers need to help a sommelier out. Be straight-up about which varietals or styles you tend to like: a white wine, unoaked, in the $70 range; perhaps a full-bodied red with some age on it for around $120. Don’t be shy about setting price boundaries. Or, simply point to a bottle on the list to discreetly suggest what you’re looking to pay.
“Give the sommelier the price point and what you want, and make it their problem,” Bastianich says.
A good sommelier, Wilson says, “can take what you like and extract that information, and extrapolate it to wines with similar traits, yet something totally new.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Send It Back
If a sommelier steers you out of that comfort zone, and you really don’t care for the wine that he or she has essentially chosen, it’s OK to send it back, Wilson assures. After you taste the wine, “if you’re just not into it, say so and say what it is that you don’t love,” he says. “Any respectable sommelier will take that information and find something more to your liking.”
Of course, there are times when your gut is telling you to stick with a known quantity–but you’d still like to watch the budget. Our experts recommend choosing the lesser designations of a highly reputed winemaker.
One of Wilson’s all-time favorites is a syrah that, on paper, is a humble table wine. Yet it’s produced by the acclaimed Domaine Jamet, just a few hillsides over from the primo Côte-Rôtie appellation. The result is a wine whose quality and character defies its vin de pays classification.
Call in Advance
Diners don’t think twice about asking for the gems on the food menu, Wilson says. But they can still be like men who need directions: They’ll do anything to avoid asking for wine advice.
If you tend to feel rushed and under-the-gun with wine list in hand, and dining partners hanging on your selection, call the restaurant in advance to walk through the list. They won’t feel put upon, Wilson assures. Most sommeliers are flattered to show off the literal fruits of their labors. In the end, it’s a chance to talk wine with a fellow enthusiast.
“That’s the fun part of being a somm,” Wilson says. “You’ve done some serious work to get the wine in front of the guest, and you’re pretty stoked about it.”