Bottles Worth Bringing

Holiday season means parties. Parties mean showing up with a bottle. But decent, inexpensive wine is a huge world, and one where we often rely on the wine-store clerk’s guidance. To test that method, we went to eight wineshops and asked clerks to recommend a red wine around $25 to bring to a steak dinner party.

We took those picks and had them tasted by a panel of expert palates—Aldo Sohm from Le Bernardin, Tim Kopec from Veritas, Michel Couvreux from Cru, and Peter Jamros from Babbo. Then, for fun, we did our own in-house testing. Not surprisingly, the sommeliers’ overriding sentiment was that the store clerks didn’t know a Pinot from a box of Franzia. Below, the wine-store picks, ranked best to worst, plus some alternatives from the experts. The prices listed are what we paid the day we bought the wines; prices may vary week to week.

Photo: All by Davies + Starr

1. VINTAGE NEW YORK SOHO, (482 Broome St., at Wooster St.; 212-226-9463)
Laurel Lake Vineyards, 2003 Cabernet Franc; $15.99
What the clerk said: “Let’s look for a peppery, full-bodied wine. I like this. I’m a simpleton; I know when things are good, but I don’t know why.”
What the experts said:
Tim Kopec: This wine goes to show you that Long Island has the ability to make good things. It has a beautiful balance and some complexity.
Aldo Sohm: Yes, this is really good, for a Long Island wine. I wouldn’t necessarily match this wine with a steak, though.
Peter Jamros: For $15, this is superb.
What we thought: “It’s an explosion in your mouth.”

2. WINESBY.COM, (23 Jones St., nr. W. 4th St.; 212-242-5144)
Vignaruja, 2004 Cannonau di Sardegna; $23
What the store clerk said: “This is from Sardinia. It’s the same grape as Grenache, so it’s medium-bodied, but very flavorful; it’s an easy, interesting wine.”
What the experts said:
Kopec: This is lighter than expected, but strong in its fruit and very pleasant.
Jamros: It has a decent, well-balanced flavor.
Sohm: For the steak, it’s certainly the best recommendation.
What we thought: “It’s enigmatic; I can’t get a read on it.” “I smell a hint of cough syrup.”

3. ASTOR WINES & SPIRITS, (399 Lafayette St., at E. 4th St.; 212-674-7500)
Château Potensac, 2002 Bordeaux; $22.99
What the store clerk said: “This is a typical French Bordeaux. It has good fruit structure and good tannins and acidity, which is going to cut through the fat of the steak. And it has a classy French style.”
What the experts said:
Kopec: It doesn’t have tremendous complexity, but it’s a good recommendation.
Sohm: It’s a little rustic in style, but it’s okay for the price.
Jamros: It’s not something that after having tasted I would purchase.
What we thought: “I like this one, it has a round taste.” “This is chaos on the tongue.”

4. SEPTEMBER WINES & SPIRITS, (100 Stanton St., nr. Ludlow St.; 212-388-0770)
Château Caronne Ste. Gemme, 2001 Bordeaux $20.99
What the store clerk said: “If you want something a little more elegant, dusty, and kind of earthy, you should go with the Bordeaux. Truthfully, it’s a classic pick for a steak, and complements it well.”
What the experts said:
Sohm: It has nice, sweet fruit, but it’s one-dimensional on the palate.
Michel Couvreux: For the price, it’s fine.
Kopec: It’s not compelling; you’re not drawn back to have more.
What we thought: “It’s light, but good.” “It makes my tongue feel weird.”

5. VINO VINO, (211 W. Broadway, nr. Franklin St.; 212-925-8510)
Ànima Negra, 2004 ÀN/2 $26.99
What the store clerk said: “It’s a full-bodied wine, and I really like it. It’s different because it’s Spanish. It’s a great food wine, and a nice blend for steak.”
What the experts said:
Couvreux: It’s not complex, it’s very light.
Kopec: I have to believe there are massive amounts of margin in that wine—$27 a bottle? I could see that wine costing six bucks.
What we thought: “It’s my favorite so far— it’s really smooth.” “The bottle looks kind of Soviet.”

6. BRITE BUY WINES & SPIRITS, (11 Sixth Ave., nr. White St.; 212-226-4993)
Joseph Drouhin, 2004 Côte de Beaune; $21.98
What the store clerk said: “This is a good bottle, a real full-bodied wine. It’ll be great with steak.”
What the experts said:
Couvreux: It’s soft, pleasant, and drinks well.
Kopec: It’s a quality house wine. The wine delivers what it’s supposed to, but it’s not full-bodied.
Jamros: With any kind of steak with any kind of flavor, this wine would just get steamrolled.
What we thought: “It’s spicy.” “It smells off, but tastes pretty good.”

7. CHELSEA WINE VAULT, (75 Ninth Ave., at W. 16th St.; 212-462-4244)
Hedges Family Estate, 2004 Red Mountain $20.99
What the store clerk said: “I’d recommend a Barolo, but you can’t afford one, ’cause it’s gonna be like $45. This is a pretty good one; it’s a Meritage— a French thing. It’s perfect with steak.”
What the experts said:
Couvreux: It’s one-dimensional.
Kopec: The wine is disjointed. You can taste all the things, but none of them work together.
Jamros: What’s most disturbing is not so much the choice of wine, but the way the store clerk engaged you. “You can’t afford that…” So rude!
What we thought: “It’s full-bodied and has character.” “I like the label!”

8. CROSSROADS WINE AND LIQUOR, (55 W. 14th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-924-3060)
Madigan, 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon; $21.99
What the store clerk said: “Steak is really heavy, so you want something that’s fuller-bodied, like an American wine or a nice German wine. This wine works and is in your price range.”
What the experts said:
Sohm: Pure nail polish.
Couvreux: It definitely does not speak of a Cabernet from Napa.
Kopec: The store clerk’s comment is interesting, because it’s just wrong. Germany’s a cool climate, so it makes a very delicate wine.
What we thought: “It’s grape-juicy.”

Château Maucaillou
2001 Bordeaux; $28.95

Domaine Charles Joguet
2005 Chinon “Cuvée de la Cure” $21.95; Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits, 505 Park Ave., at 59th St. 212-838-7500.

Querciabella, 2005 Chianti Classico
$24.99; Astor Wines and Spirits, 399 Lafayette St., at E. 4th St.; 212-674-7500.

Bottles Worth Bringing