How to Find a Super Wine in a Supermarket

stop-n-go-merlot In many places around the country, you can buy a bottle of wine at a gas station. It’s usually crammed between the cases of motor oil and racks of beer nuts and often comes with a daily special that includes a tepid corn dog and a pair of cheap sunglasses. Don’t buy it.

Or, on the opposite spectrum, you can visit an exclusive wine store where a sophisticated shop keeper slowly inspects you from head to toe, concludes that you’re more of a wino than a wine aficionado, and then points toward the bargain bin. You’re not ready, yet.

Wine Snob

For the best learning opportunity in shopping for wine, test your abilities in a safe and familiar environment: your supermarket. You may have noticed that most grocery stores carry wine, and the aisles are becoming an adult version of Adventure Land with so many tempting labels, fancy bottles, and mind-numbing choices. You can find the best selection if you have the spirit of Marco Polo and the diligence of Nellie Bly.

Grocery Store Sommelier

Marco Polo was a Venetian explorer who lived from 1254-1324. His brave journeys and subsequent journals introduced pre-Internet Europeans to the wonders of the Far East. Just as Polo did, you should keep a diary but list wines (and port) instead of foreign ports on the map. Record which ones you like, which choices made you gag, and the wines that holler, “Open me now and find paradise!”

Nellie Bly was the pen name of an American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane who lived from 1864-1922. She was an intrepid and gallant reporter who traveled around the world in 72 days to challenge Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg. You can emulate such devotion to research and truth by sampling various wines and determining which ones to serve at your annual Bacchus Roman Stampede or at the more refined Garden Gazebo Wine Tasting Soiree.

iPhone with running and analog wine journal Use to track your wines instead of a wine journal

Both explorers kept records of their adventures as a guide for future reference. With the assistance of modern technology, you can use handy, easy wine tracking programs such as to document your adventures with wine. Then you’ll never again struggle to remember the name of a delicious wine as you describe to the sommelier at a fancy restaurant, “It was red and had a horse on the label. Or, maybe it was a deer. Do you know which one I’m talking about?”

Woman ordering wine in restaurant

Amazing Wines in the Supermarket Maze
As any shopping expert knows, go to the grocery store in the middle of a weekday, preferably after you’ve eaten. Avoid the free samples of stale food and go directly to the wine section. Focus on your mission: find a good wine at a good price.

Wine shelf placement chart in grocery store

Placement is key. The most expensive wines are on the top shelf; an unfortunate fact it you’re short. The cheap stuff is on the bottom rows, an unlucky dilemma if you’re a tall cheapskate. Only look there if you’re buying wine for someone you don’t like. If doesn’t matter if your cousin’s neighbor found a great deal on boxed wine that will stay drinkable for three weeks after it’s opened. That is not the sign of a good choice. Any excellent wine won’t need that attribute because there shouldn’t be any remaining in the bottle after three days, let alone three weeks.
Stores can vary their displays, but usually the white wines are shown in groups, and the reds are kept together. It’s okay to remove a bottle and hold it to the light because a rosé can appear lighter when it’s not surrounded by dark bottles. Look for wines by region; some stores have a separate International section that is away from the local or regional aisles. Once you narrow down the correct category, it will be easier to eliminate what you don’t want.

Two Buck Chuck isn't worth the calories
Anything under $5 isn't worth the calories

Don’t be tempted with the cheap stuff. A wine called “Two Buck Chuck” and anything under $5 isn’t worth the calories. Any wine in a box is an insult to the distinguished and historical tradition of bottled wines. And, as many learned in their early days of drinking alcohol, the cheaper the wine, the bigger the headache.

In defense of lower prices, don’t overlook bargains offered by your local grocery store. Many offer a discount if you purchase six or a dozen bottles. New distributors often advertise special incentives to entice consumers to try new products. It’s always fun to try a new release, especially if the price is right. If you find a new brand that you like, it’s a win-win situation and you’ll buy it even after the sale is over.

Pairing isn’t Just for Socks
Food pairing with wine visual Every wine lover knows that pairing wines with food results in an exquisite taste experience. A bite of steak improves with a sip of bold Cabernet. A dish of white fish is complimented with a soft white Pinot Gris. And, a sweet dessert finishes a perfect meal with a Prosecco or Sparkling Rosé or a vintage port. Learn which wines compliment the flavors you will be consuming. Of course, there is an exception to every rule. If you really want to drink a sweet Riesling with a plate of meatballs smothered in authentic Italian red sauce, go ahead. (Just don’t be offended if someone opens a dry red Barbera.)

Start safe.
Beaujolais Wines Every store has Beaujolais – a lively red from France that appears in the fall, and most stores have several varieties of Pinot Noir, a light red wine. Don’t confuse the name with Pinot Grigio, a white wine. These wines can be found for around $8, and they pair nicely with a variety of food. Check the dates. An older vintage may be more expensive, depending upon the ranking for the year and the region. If you see any wine from 1997, buy it.

Be bold.
Don’t stay with the “safe” choice of Chardonnay just because many people like it. After tasting so many other excellent choices, you may rarely taste Chardonnay again because you’re enamored with a delightful Chianti from Italy, or a dashing rioja from Spain, or a tasty blend from South Africa, or a delicious Malbec from Argentina. Again, venture out of your comfort zone and try other brands in addition to the reliable standards that include Santa Margherita, Bogle, Kendall-Jackson, and Sutter Home. Regional wines can become favorites, for example the familiar winners from Sonoma County, California, now have some stiff competition from Walla Walla, Washington.

Set a budget.
If you can find a good wine for $8, by all means buy it. Also, note that the same bottle of wine may vary in cost by several dollars at different stores. You might increase your budget for a special occasion, and many supermarkets and grocery stores have locked cases of more expensive wines that cost more than $50 each. That’s still less expensive than experimenting at a fancy restaurant and paying twice that for a bottle you don’t like.

Play often.
Stores circulate their supplies regularly, and your new favorite wines may not be in supply from week to week. Find out when the next shipment arrives and ask if you can request that the store save some bottles for you. There is also the welcome possibility of finding a single bottle that has been marked down. It’s always fun to experiment at the local grocery store before you venture forth into the exclusive wine stores and sign up for costly memberships.

Wheel of wines

Chilled or Warm?
Wine refrigerator In the grocery store, you’ll notice some bottles of white wine are shown in the coolers along with the beer. That wine is for people who want their wine chilled for immediate drinking. People have their own preference for the best temperature for wine, but usually white wine is served chilled at around 45 degrees F, and red wine is best at 55 to 65 degrees F. or room temperature. The fastest way to break the heart of a wine lover is to pull out an expensive bottle of red wine that’s been stored in the refrigerator. Conversely, temperatures higher than 70 degree F will age the wine and reduce the quality, so don’t leave a bottle of white or red sitting out all day on the patio in the sunshine. That should be against the law.

After you arrive home, don’t store your wine in the garage where it can get too hot or too cold, and never freeze wine. A cool, dark space is best for keeping your bottles. The bright lights and steady temperature of a supermarket doesn’t ruin wine because the high turnover reduces the chance of damage. On the other hand, if you see thick dust on a bottle sitting directly under a light, you might consider another choice. Consider purchasing a wine cooler, and experiment with different shapes and sizes of glasses to further enhance the tasting experience. Remember to keep track of your favorite wines and what storing and serving techniques worked best for you.

Toasting two wine glasses against the blue sky You don’t need to be as adventurous as Marco Polo or as daring as Nellie Bly, but you can enter the world of wine with enthusiasm and a willing palate. Take time to research the names, varietals, and regions connected with good wines. And finally, don’t depend upon the grapevine to determine your selections. Finding it by yourself contributes to the enjoyment of tasting wine.

The New Year brings the perfect time to begin your own exploration with wine. When making your grocery list, write down Pinot Grigio for when you plan to fix chicken and a Merlot for the beef roast. Don’t forget to include something new for tasting without pairing with food. Soon it will become a habit to include a glass of wine with dinner, and the wine aisle will be your favorite place to travel to when you want to sightsee and experiment.

Elaine Ambrose is an award-winning author and syndicated blogger from Eagle, Idaho. Find her blogs and books on