On the Cheap

My Wine Epiphany


Penascal Tempranillo

Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against really good wine. I'll drink it whenever I can—especially if someone else is buying.

However, most of the time, I'm on a mission to find something drinkable that I can afford. One friend dubbed this a quest for "the finest of cheap wines, or the cheapest of fine wines." This is not as simple as it seems, or as it once seemed to me. It turns out there are a LOT of cheap wines, most of them deservedly so. There are only a few wines that are worth much more than their piddling price would suggest.

Every once in a while, a small unknown company—often from a part of the world that has not yet been discovered by wine connoisseurs—produces an absolute elixir, but either doesn't know it or doesn't think it has a name prestigious enough to justify a higher price. Somewhere in a wine store, tucked away in the discount section that serious wine drinkers rush past on their way to the Wine Speculator's latest 95-rated wine, these unheralded and ignored gems wait to be discovered.

In a perfect world, I would find one of those magical wines and be happy for life.

Alas, I am not alone in my quest. Who could imagine that, out there, someone as stingy as me would be scouring the also-rans for a real winner? The fact is, there are entirely too many of us. Whenever one of these special wines is found, it seems like everyone finds it at the same time. That damned supply-and-demand rule kicks in, and in no time at all the wine is priced out of my reach. Consequently, like the Flying Dutchman, I must forever search the world for true love.

One summer, maybe twenty years ago, I picked up a bottle of Peñascal, a Tempranillo from Spain that may, or may not, have been labeled with a vintage. In my price range (five or six bucks, back then), vintages were hardly important considerations. I took it home and served it beside a plate of Linguine con Pesto al Genovese.

Now I may be cheap, but I read. I've learned a bit about wines—mostly wines I will never taste. I've studied which wines pair well with certain foods. I can tell the difference between varietals, and can even recognize some stylistic differences between different wines made from the same varietals. In no way, do I qualify as a connoisseur—let alone a wine snob.

I drink the stuff and I (usually) like it.

What always puzzled me, while reading wine books, was their mention of some mysterious effect that occurs when certain foods are matched by certain wines. I could understand that a wine might make a food taste better (or worse), and that the taste of some food might bring out some elusive taste or aroma of a well-matched wine—but wine writers said that, under certain conditions, a combination of wine and food could produce an entirely different flavor, something that wasn't in either beforehand. They were describing some kind of synergistic effect that was the culinary equivalent of Tibetan throat singing.

I didn't believe them.

It is, after all, possible that some experts—in an esoteric subject such as wine—might have a difficult time resisting the urge to show off their prodigious sensory skills, even when such skills are non-existent. How can we, mere mortals, know that they're not just making it up? I'd often read elaborate sensory analyses of wines, listing dozens of rare and unusual aromas, mouthfeels and finishes that—frankly—I never noticed at all.

I could see no reason for believing in all this organoleptic hocus-pocus.

Then, right after swallowing a mouthful of pesto-laden pasta, with garlic and basil still infusing all of my senses, I took a sip of the Peñascal. It was okay, certainly a possible candidate in my good cheap wine quest. Gradually, after swallowing the wine, I became aware of an unexpected presence, somewhere I couldn't quite identify. Emerging in a place that wasn't really my tongue, palate, throat or nose, an ethereal note—exactly like those Tibetan overtones—a ghostly toasted hazelnut manifestation

It briefly shimmered, then faded—leaving me unsure that it had ever really been there.

Gary Allen’s latest book, Herbs: A Global History, is scheduled for publication next spring. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) stick in his mouth—his own foot being a prime example of the latter—at his website www.onthetable.us.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    Ha! Still haven't hit that food and wine epiphany yet myself. Don't get me wrong, I love pairing food and wine, but the magical third flavor has yet to appear.

    Great stuff, thanks.

    Aug 16, 2011 at 12:55 PM

  • Thanks, Mark, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    And, yes, that elusive third flavor is not easy to come by -- and believe me, I've tried.

    And tried.

    Aug 16, 2011 at 2:36 PM

  • It was a pine nut from the pesto that hadn't been ground up.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 1:58 AM

  • Snooth User: kcsembos
    916268 20

    I have not yet tried this wine but I really liked your article.

    Aug 17, 2011 at 2:04 PM

  • Nice try, Capek... but pine nuts, toasted or not, don't resemble toasted hazelnuts. Also, repeated attempts to duplicate the experience have failed.
    (& yes, I know what that would imply for a scientific experiment -- but, believe me, there was nothing scientific about it)

    Aug 17, 2011 at 3:38 PM

  • Thanks, Konstantin! I haven't either, at least for a long time. I suspect that it has already either:

    a) gone up in price (inflation alone would raise it as high as ten bucks)
    b) will soon go up in price because of this article (sorry about that)

    Aug 17, 2011 at 3:42 PM

  • Absolutely delightful article! After a wine epiphany many years ago that I have yet to duplicate, I'm going to cook something (menu to be determined) to try with the Penascal Tempranillo.

    Aug 22, 2011 at 8:25 AM

  • Thanks, Annie! It was, for a time, our "house wine," then replaced by a different "house wine," which was, in turn, replaced by a different "house wine," again & again. I'm not sure why we rarely return to a former favorite, but it's certainly worth a try!

    Aug 22, 2011 at 9:57 AM

  • Snooth User: winmorgan
    919822 0

    "Ghostly toasted hazelnut manifestation" was worth the price of admission.

    Aug 22, 2011 at 2:50 PM

  • Thanks, Winmorgan.

    It's a well-kept secret (up 'til now, anyway), that most of what is written these days is actually created by random word generators, and the only skill a writer needs to have is knowing what to discard. I had to throw out the equivalent of ten copies of War & Peace to find those four words.

    Writing is hard work!

    Aug 22, 2011 at 5:02 PM

  • Snooth User: snoopi
    919987 0

    Love a wine story that knows its stuff , has a light touch, and is funny too!

    Aug 22, 2011 at 7:25 PM

  • Thanks, Snoopi -- if you're looking for something light, you've probably come to the right person. Anyway, glad you enjoyed it.

    Aug 22, 2011 at 9:21 PM

  • Snooth User: tamaruska
    920281 0

    Entertaining story. Thanks, Gary

    Aug 23, 2011 at 4:30 PM

  • Thank YOU, Tamaruska!

    Aug 23, 2011 at 4:49 PM

  • I remember that wine. Quite tasty. Especially at the price. Good story.

    Aug 31, 2011 at 2:03 PM

  • Thanks 925472! It was nice at twice the price -- that is, twice the price it was THEN.

    Aug 31, 2011 at 4:12 PM

  • Snooth User: Anne Min
    930935 0

    Great writing! Thank you...and I'm going to look for a bottle of Peñascal Tempranillo!

    Sep 08, 2011 at 3:30 PM

  • Snooth User: eileenmc
    930954 0

    Found this article via Anne Minervini, a friend from New Paltz days...living in the land of the wine snob, I found your story particularly entertaining and informative...and I completely agree that price does not determine quality....thanks!

    Sep 08, 2011 at 4:04 PM

  • Thanks, Anne... and try it with some pesto while the basil lasts (at least whatever the slugs haven't gotten to first!).

    Sep 08, 2011 at 4:09 PM

  • Haven't spotted Penascal Tempranillo yet in the Wine Speculator, so perhaps it's still affordable. Hope I enjoy it as much as your story!

    Sep 08, 2011 at 4:13 PM

  • Hello Eileenmc! In which land of the wine snob do you live (there are so many of them)? Price is a matter of timing... not just of vintages, but of how long it's been since cheapskates, like me, have discovered an under-priced wine of quality.

    Sep 08, 2011 at 4:14 PM

  • Thanks, Diana! The Speculator is like Zagat... great places to find out what too many people already know about.

    Sep 08, 2011 at 4:17 PM

  • Snooth User: eileenmc
    930954 0

    I live in Sacramento, about an hour from Napa...we visit 2 or 3 times a year to stock up. I find wine language entertaining....your article was well written!

    Sep 09, 2011 at 10:00 PM

  • Thanks, eileenmc! "...an hour from Napa" is snob country indeed! I've often felt that wine language was like the Latin Mass, or the Sanskrit chants used by today's Buddhist monks -- they are meant to sound incomprehensibly mystical to impress those of us among the laity.

    Sep 09, 2011 at 11:58 PM

  • Snooth User: eileenmc
    930954 0

    Agreed, Gary. I love to listen to them and then I buy what tastes good...and I used to know that Latin Mass inside out.

    Sep 10, 2011 at 12:20 AM

  • Snooth User: millb96
    935644 23

    hadn't seen this story, til just now. Congrats on the win Gary, enjoyed the piece. Like you I've always been skeptical of all the adjectives, but i lumber on, hoping my senses will come to their senses. cheers

    Sep 16, 2011 at 10:24 AM

  • Snooth User: tonystro
    554776 26

    Several years ago while visiting the Maine Coast I bought a Casa Solar Tempranillo for a $6. It was every bit as good as the Moulin-a-Vent I normally enjoy at $25 a bottle. Have tried other Tempranillos since and have yet to unearth any that I really like.

    Sep 16, 2011 at 2:14 PM

  • Snooth User: genkihito
    845884 19

    I'm even less an expert than the author, but I can attest to the synergistic elusive third flavor concept. It's amazing. In brief, simply try the wine pairing menu at Cyrus in Sonoma (of course for a very special occasion)

    Sep 16, 2011 at 9:05 PM

Add a Comment

Search Articles

Best Wine Deals

See More Deals

Snooth Media Network