Having written several years ago about the dearth of good cheap wines from California, I expected the $15-and-under domestic selection to be grim, and, by and large, it was. I did, however, find a few exceptions—and surprising ones, too. The Gruet Brut nonvintage ($13.99) is—I kid you not—a quaffable sparkling wine from New Mexico, with an attractive, yeasty bouquet and a pleasantly creamy texture. It won't cause Olivier Krug any lost sleep, but it was a lot better than the comparably priced champagne that I tried, the anemic Francois Montand Blanc de Blancs nonvintage. The 2006 King Estate Signature Collection Pinot Gris ($13.99), from Oregon, also impressed me. It was a zesty, refreshing wine with good pear and citrus notes and a fine mineral edge; if you are looking for a summer white, this would be an excellent choice. California wasn't entirely shut out; I enjoyed the 2006 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel ($11.99). The bouquet, bursting with white pepper, put me in mind of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and while the wine was plenty ripe, it was neither jammy nor excessively alcoholic, two traits that have become sadly typical of zins.
They have also become all too typical of Australian reds, and the ones I tried were no exception. I did, however, taste a decent Australian white, the 2006 d'Arenberg the Hermit Crab ($13.99). A blend of viognier and Marsanne, the Hermit Crab delivered a convincing head fake: The nose, bursting with tropical fruits, suggested something confected and plump, but the wine, though ripe, was pleasantly restrained, thanks in part to a subtle and much-appreciated mineral note.
The store also had a formidable array of Italian wines. The 2007 Cusumano Nero d'Avola ($12.99), a Silician red marked by ripe cherries and a good whiff of tobacco, was an easy-sipping wine that would go well with pizza or pasta. Even better, though, was the 2006 Prunotto Dolcetto d'Alba ($14.99) from the Piedmont region, which had crisp, succulent cherry fruit, nice herbal and floral overtones, and excellent acidity. A group of Italians, including famed importer Marc de Grazia, teamed up in 1995 to create an Argentine winery called Altos las Hormigas. The 2006 Altos Las Hormigas ($8.49), made entirely of Malbec, Argentina's signature grape, served up gentle waves of blackberry fruit along with an appealing savory note; it went down very smoothly and is a particularly good value. In a very different vein, I really liked the 2007 Loosen Bros. Dr. L Riesling ($12.99) from Germany. The wine comes from the Mosel area, Germany's Riesling heartland, and has the classic Mosel profile: ripe peaches, a twist of lime, and subtle underlying acidity and minerality that parry the sweetness. It is a wine that begs to be served with Indian or Thai takeout.
All in all, then, a reasonably successful trip to the corner liquor store. And if there's not a Total location in your neighborhood? Anywhere you look, you are going to struggle to find inexpensive domestic wines worth drinking—it's the cardinal sin of American winemaking, in my opinion. Generally speaking, the foreign shelves will have much more to offer. Of course, French, Italian, and Spanish wines can be confusing in ways that, say, California merlots and chardonnays are not. One usually surefire method of finding interesting foreign wines: Let the importer be your guide. The United States is blessed with a small army of superb importers, who bring in excellent wines at all price points. If any of the names on this list are on the label, you can be reasonably certain you've got yourself a good bottle.