Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

If only Homework was this much fun

I am always fascinated by how we make choices regarding the wines we purchase and drink. Whether for everyday consumption or for special occasions, we can all agree that quality wines are worth seeking out. I spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the shelves of beverage shops, surfing the internet and reading food and wine magazines all in the quest to find that next bottle of liquid bliss. But casting hyperbole aside, I’m really not searching for the perfect bottle of wine. Just one that tickles my taste buds and doesn’t break my piggy bank.

Those of you who faithfully read my ramblings (thank you, by the way) know that I am also looking for wines that offer value as well as quality. When I first fell in love with the fruit of the vine – not long after dinosaurs roamed the planet- it was easy to despair of the notion that you could find good wine at reasonable prices. And, yes, there are still stratospherically priced wines that seem to defy conventional economics, especially ones from old world places like Burgundy or Bordeaux. And there are several California wines that have been granted (not sure by whom) “iconic” status and can fetch upwards of a thousand dollars a bottle – or more.

But, brothers and sisters, let me loudly declare this from my wine-stained pulpit: there has never been a time like now to find good wine at reasonable prices. You just have to do your homework! And that involves sorting through all the vinous clutter out there to find the good stuff. Today, we’ll explore a few ways to make your homework assignment easier.


First, you might check out wine regions that are less well known, but which offer good tasting value wines. For example, instead of looking for wines made in the highly regarded Napa Valley, consider varietals from lesser-known regions of California such as Lake County, Paso Robles, or Lodi. The same goes for wines produced in the most sought after foreign wine appellations. Instead of looking for bottles from Bordeaux or Burgundy, consider other French wines like ones from the southern Rhone Valley or Languedoc -Roussillon.

You can also find tasty wines with modest pricing by switching from well known varietals like cabernet sauvignon to reds like sangiovese, petit sirah or cabernet franc. The same goes for trendy whites like chardonnay. You might consider trying wines such as sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, Alberino from Spain or Verdicchio from Italy. And forget about pricey Champagne. Instead, search for pleasing bargain sparklers like Prosecco (Italy), Cava (Spain) or Crémant (Alsace in France).

One of the best places to find those value wine gems is to visit your local beverage purveyor. The Wine and Cheese Shop at Capitol Market has an excellent selection of wines from around the world. More importantly, this establishment has very knowledgeable staff who can assist in helping you find good wines at reasonable prices. The Wine Shop also holds periodic tastings where you can sip and evaluate wine. I also like the variety and selection of wines at the Drug Emporium stores in Charleston as well as the Kroger store in South Hills.

When you ‘ve settled on the wines you think may meet your price and quality standards, it’s time to taste them. Attending a wine tasting or conducting your own tasting at home is a great way to discover that special wine, and it’s fun too. You might ask friends to bring a specific type of wine, say zinfandel, to your tasting. Have each friend place the wine in a paper bag to hide the label. This “blind tasting” is the most objective manner to evaluate wine because it eliminates any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality. I’m always surprised – and pleased – when the least expensive wine is chosen as the best of show at blind tastings.

There has never been a better time to drink good, reasonably priced wine. All you need is a willingness to do your homework. If high school had been this much fun, I would have been the valedictorian.

John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book Augie’s World, is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. Both novels are available in print and audio at Amazon. You can find out more about his novels and wine columns at


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