From left, Castano Monastrell, Alamos Chardonnay, Mark West Pinot Noir, La Carraia Sangiovese, and Casillero del Diablo Red
From left, Castano Monastrell, Alamos Chardonnay, Mark West Pinot Noir, La Carraia Sangiovese, and Casillero del Diablo Red
When Mike Pigeon, the Wine Butler, dared me to build a 12-bottle case of wine for under $100, it was a challenge I couldn't refuse.

Pigeon, a retired Sun photographer, insisted the wines must meet an absolute standard of high quality in order to be in the case. I agreed. "So what's the standard?" I asked.

Pigeon said he'd have to try each selection -- after I paid for them out of my own pocket and assessed their Wine Novice worthiness.

Now Pigeon's no Robert Parker, but neither am I. But he's learning. He can tell a Pinot Grigio from a Pinot Noir. One's white and the other's red, he says. In my book I guess he's qualified.

The Wine Butler makes a good point, though. He's living on a fixed income, loves wine, and there are so many choices from top to bottom on store shelves. He wants the best value for the buck, wines that will stick out on a retiree's price point. "I'm not going to buy a $100 Brunello di Montalcino, but is there a way I can get a taste of it at a bargain price?," he inquired like Pliny the Elder.

It got me to thinking. There are a lot of hidden gems on store shelves within a 50-mile radius of Lowell. I would do my best to build a superb case of wine using the Wine Novice's time-tested standards for exceptionable taste, value and food pairing.

So on a recent Saturday when the heat index reached 105 degrees, I took off with the Wine Butler on a search-and-sample mission, covering five wine stores in about three hours. That was Week One. I headed up north on my own during Week Two, hitting three New Hampshire liquor outlets and Costco. In Week Three, I went to wine shops in Reading and Woburn.

I wasn't surprised by the thousands of different bottlings; what did shock me, however, was the difference in pricing. A sharp-eyed consumer could save $1 to $15 on a certain wine depending on where it was bought. For instance, I saw a bottle of Veramonte's Primus Red Blend, regularly selling for $19.99 in New Hampshire, on sale for $14.99 in Andover. In Waltham, I picked up a $24.99 bottle of France's Nicolas Perrin Syrah/Viognier on sale for $9.99.

Of course, not all my preliminary selections are going to make my Wine Novice Bargain list. Where there was a wine tasting under way, I sampled the wines. Yet for the most part, I used my memory and CellarTracker.com (on my mobile phone) to purchase 24 bottles for consideration. Of course, the Wine Butler and his wife Judy got to sample several of them. Overall, though, the Wine Goddess, my wife Mary Lee, proved to be my most able assistant, preparing the food to match up with the wine and then rendering her dependable opinion.

On Friday, July 26, I posted Wine Novice Bargain No. 1 on lowellsun.com/winenovice. It was a Castano Monastrell from the Yecla region in Spain, a fabulous red wine costing a pocket-friendly $6.49! A short 45-second Tout video accompanies the selection, showing the wine in a glass and its food pairing. Since then, I have posted four other bargain selections and videos.

Since we are in the digital age, you'll have to read about the bargains individually online.

To date, I have purchased five great wines from around the world spending a total of $41.45. I have $58.55 left in my wallet and seven bottles to go.

Case of bargains

The Wine Novice has spent $41.45 on five wines toward the goal of building a 12-bottle case for under $100. Each wine is reviewed at www.lowellsun.com/winenovice. They are:

  • 1. Castano Monastrell, Spain, $6.49
  • 2. Alamos Chardonnay, Argentina, $7.99
  • 3. Mark West Pinot Noir, California, $7.99
  • 4. La Carraia Sangiovese, Italy, $9.99
  • 5. Casillero del Diablo Red, Chile, $8.99