To avoid crowds, we went shopping at 7 a.m. the other day at a grocery that has a large wine section that includes many discounts.

With only four shoppers in the store, we had a chance to carefully peruse the wine “bargains,” which led to this column: what clues do I use when searching for real deals?

With wine closeouts, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get a good deal — or even a drinkable wine. And I’ve been ripped off enough times to know that buying wine can be like a camouflaged pit.

(In the late 1970s I stopped in a Central Coast winery tasting room where I tried a Chenin Blanc that was excellent. The price was $3.50 a bottle, but the tasting room had a special: $25 per case. I bought a case. Days later, back at home, I realized that the wine wasn’t the same. It was truly awful. Calls to the winery were fruitless. As was the wine.)

Here are a few things to look for when considering unknown brands that seem to be discounted.

  • Seek small appellations

A “California” appellation tells you nothing about the source of grapes. More reliable are wines from smaller geographic areas, such as Sonoma County or Monterey County.

  • Better yet, seek wines from cool regions

Cooler appellations (such as Russian River Valley or Mendocino County) usually make better-balanced wines. This is especially true of Pinot Noir. Santa Barbara and other Central Coast areas often produce excellent lower-priced Pinots.

  • Some European wines offer good value.

Wines of the Loire Valley, Spain, Sicily, the south of France, Rhône Valley, and Beaujolais can be good alternatives at fair prices.

  • Stick with recent vintages.

Bad storage conditions can ruin any wine, and the longer a wine sits around in storage locations that are not ideal, the more likely the wine is to be tired.

This applies to most whites, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris. Some older vintages may have survived, but most are best while fresh. To be safe, buy no older than 2018s.

This also applies to older reds. A Napa Valley red blend we saw on a shelf the other day from 2004 was “only” $15. I assumed the winery lost some in the back of its cellar. Alas, it was well past its prime.

But a 2012 Cabernet Franc from Walla Walla Valley ($9.99) was sensational!

  • Be suspicious of odd bottling locations.

We recently found two different Pinot Noirs (roughly $10 each). Both came from Russian River Valley grapes. But both were bottled in Lodi. Why did Sonoma County wine end up being bottled three hours east? Did that side trip harm the wine?

— Watch vintages.

One of the above Pinot Noirs was from 2015. Someone first tried to sell this wine for four years. Why didn’t it sell?

The vintage argument is especially important for rosé wines. Not all older pink wines are tired, but many can be. We bought a 2018 pink wine from the south of France the other day and it was very good. But adjacent to it was a 2016 rosé. Even 2017 pink wines today are suspect. Beware.

— What grapes are used?

In some wines, the grapes are stated on the label, but in some blended reds, you have no idea. A blend with lots of Cabernet may be pretty tannic. Merlot is usually a better blending grape.

With rosé wines, a preferred grape is Grenache, notably those from the south of France. Grenache often is listed as the dominant grape. Though Syrah also makes a nice rosé, I don’t consider it as reliable. Cinsault can be an attractive support grape for rosé, but without Grenache, many such wines are merely passable.

— Good Rieslings rarely are closed-out, but exceptions can be sensational.

Over the years, we’ve occasionally seen Australian Rieslings that were discounted when the wholesaler had no success marketing them. Almost all Australian Rieslings are dry, and most age phenomenally! In 2009, we bought a case of a 2004 Aussie Riesling (a $17 wine) for $1.99 a bottle. It’s still terrific.

— Cold climate or cold-year red wines can be sleepers.

We have occasionally found remarkable values in older reds from cooler years. In 2009, we discovered a 2003 Australian Shiraz from a cold region, a $25 wine, marked $2.99. We bought a bottle. It was terrible. A few days later, back in the same shop, we noted a few bottles of the same winery’s 2002, from a very cool year.

That bottle was simply astounding. We bought the store’s last five bottles.

— Check the listed alcohol.

Better-balanced wines are usually more reliable than massive blockbusters. I’m always concerned when I see a wine label listing an alcohol of 14.5% or more. (That may mean the alcohol might actually be well over 16%.)

Wines from France, Italy, and Germany are frequently lower in alcohol than are California wines.

A few specifics:

— Sauvignon Blanc: New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are usually good value without any discounts. Alternatively, Lake County is extremely reliable with that variety.

—Red blends: Paso Robles and Mendocino County make richer, bolder red blends, but I prefer Sierra Foothills blends that use Barbera for food compatibility.

—Petite Sirah: This once (1970s and early ‘80s) was a popular if heavy/brutish red wine. In the last decade, it has made more elegant, interesting reds and is now more popular than Syrah. Literally dozens of wineries now make one.

—Grenache: This grape, often found in Rhône blends, has been seen on its own and it can be a superb slightly lighter-styled red wine. It’s rarely discounted, but can add great nuances to red blends.

Wine of the Week: 2018 Dr. Loosen Dry Riesling, Mosel “Red Slate” ($15) – Delicate blossoms mark the subtle Mosel (fruit-driven) complexity of this dry version of the slightly richer “Blue Slate” wine also made by Dr. Ernst Loosen. Here, the wine’s minerally aroma comes through also in the mid-palate, and there is a trace of sugar to keep the acidity from taking over. A lovely mainly dry wine to serve with pan-fried seafood with lemon butter. Good value.

In keeping with the theme “how our lives have changed seemingly forever because of sheltering in place,” it’s clear that our wine consumption patterns are changing in subtle ways. Or not so subtle.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.