Thrill of the hunt 

Bargain wines can astound or abash

You walk a tenuous line when trying to impress with wine. You can't exactly offer up an everyday jug at your boss's fancy shindig or when your significant other announces a romantic soiree, but opening an unknown wine means risking the possibility of imbibing an embarrassing underachiever. But remember that wine lovers can be impressed with either cheap or expensive selections -- just keep the price tag stowed away. Unknown, bargain gems deliver delight like none other, and there's always the smug satisfaction of seeing the boss raise an eyebrow in approval.

Uncovering the latest wine deal is really a game. You have to be comfortable diving into the unknown, since established brands know they can charge higher prices, even for their low-end slop. Once in a blue moon, a big-name winery might release a value-priced label to grab interest. But inevitably they sneak the cost higher when demand grows.

Foraging for Foreign Finds

One rule of thumb: Imported wines always impress. Because Americans are numbly accustomed to California Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet, the foreign names seem more exotic, whether they're better or not. But extraordinary wines are now coming from Argentina, Chile and Spain. Don't be afraid to risk paying a lowly $8 for a bottle of wine from any of these countries; there's a good chance it will pay you back tenfold.

Label Gazers Beware

The vast majority of the time, bottles with pretty labels mask crappy wine. Georges Dubeouf, importers from France, often employ the tactic of fanciful, color-laden labels to disguise insipid wines, especially on their Beaujolais Nouveau. Don't fall into the trap. Also avoid bottles constructed of beautiful colored glass with sleek, artistic labels. Luna di Luna corners the market with their gaudy blue, purple and red bottles. Like a cruel but beautiful person, it's ugly inside -- avoid it. They don't even try to mask this marketing tactic. On their website, Luna di Luna says, "The new purple bottle will ensure that it stands out on shelves, grabs consumer attention ... further establishing brand awareness and propelling sales to ever higher levels."

Up and Comers

To really impress, follow your instinct to the nearest funky grape. People dig novelties, and you can bask in the glory of introducing it. Hot grape varietals to bust out right now include California Petite Syrah, Germany's Gruner Veltliner, California Viognier, Argentinean Malbec and Chilean Carmenere. Slip one of these into the mix at your next dinner party and watch people ask questions.

Exploring the out-of-the-ordinary can pay off down the road. You may never know how the boss decides who gets the accolades or the ax, but you can be certain it won't be because of your lackluster wine choice.

Wine Recommendations

2000 Bodega Faraon Malbec ($10) : Like a smooth port wine without the sweetness, this Argentinean Malbec boasts figs, prunes and a bold potpourri-like aroma. A conversation piece, with a price to be proud of.

Calina 2001 Carmenere Reserve ($10) : A bargain if I've ever tasted one. Meaty and rich with fruity notes of blackberry and vanilla, with an intriguing kickback of peppery earthiness.

Fess Parker 2000 Viognier ($20) : This beautiful Santa Barbara wine drips with honey, peaches and a hint of coconut. Rich, full and loaded with personality. Love it.

David Bruce 2001 Petite Syrah ($18) : Face slapping bowl- of-berries flavor, yet smooth and drinkable. Tannins are manageable in this grape, which is normally known for its rich tannic content.



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