Top Ten

As fall nips at our lips, economics remain queasy and wiine morphs into a luxury item. Here are tips for getting a buzzy bargain.

And in reverse order, à la David Letterman:

10) More expensive doesn't mean better. I've tasted mind-blowing $8 wines that smack of $50 and $50 juice that isn't worth jack. Buying from lesser-known regions — thus, less expensive — will pay back with better wines. Look for deals from Jumilla in Spain, Vin de Pays (a lower level, but not down-and-out appellation) from France and the Mendoza region of Argentina.

9) Once you find a wine you like, learn the winemaker's name. Track that person from winery to winery like a rock star stalker. Winemakers can make music in your mouth, so why not treat them as such?

8) Beer is sometimes better. Oh, was that my out-loud voice? I'm loathe to admit it, but there are times when an inexpensive, cold brew merits your time: watching NASCAR, working on a car, during break at a chewing-tobacco-spitting contest, or . . . okay, I'm kidding. Beer is perfect for poolside refreshment and wheat beer definitely pairs better than wine with spicy food.

7) Visit wine country. Kill two habits with one stone — traveling and drinking. I've never heard anyone return from wine country and declare the experience lacking. It just doesn't happen.

6) Local wine shop people know their stuff. Trust them and give them your money. These wine geeks, shrewdly disguised as sales people, taste wine all day, every day, carry more knowledge than the average big-box employee, and in general aren't commissioned to sell you garbage. Otherwise, you wouldn't be back, right? They need their jobs.

5) Grocery and warehouse stores sell cheaper wine. Not always, but they buy in bulk at lower prices than smaller shops and should send the savings to the customer. Prices can fall $3-$4 less (but buying locally still trumps).

4) Drink imports. Although prices are rising as the dollar tanks (and tankers cost more to gas up), imported wines still emerge better values, especially those from Spain and Italy. Read up on their unusual varietals to see what might tickle your tongue, or, better yet, see No. 2.

3) Not all wines are created equal. A merlot from one region may taste completely different from another. So don't gauge all varieties by their brethren. You wouldn't want someone to judge you by your family, would you?

2) Studying wine will make you wine-smart, drinking wine will make you wine-savvy. Taste, taste, taste. It's not like homework you once avoided. Drinking is fun. Yes, you can memorize all the obscure (and inevitably useless) factoids about wine regions, but if you haven't physically tasted the difference between a French pinot noir and an Oregon pinot, the book is bunk.

And the No. 1 thing you need to know about wine . . .

Weather matters. Not all wine regions are created equal. Due to differences in soil, sun, and rain, one vine's Mecca is another vine's Sahara. When choosing a bottle, be aware of the appellation's climate listed on the label (by law, wineries must report the grapes' origin) and consider the source. For instance, a pinot noir labeled "California" could mean a mishmash of grapes from anywhere across the Golden State. But if you see Carneros or Santa Maria Valley — that have cooler, maritime weather — you'll find happy, tasty pinot.

Recommended Wines

St. Francis 2004 Red Sonoma Valley (California) Great "house" wine with a palatable price. Warm, pepper-dusted, ripe cherry with earthy chocolate and a hint of mint and worn leather. Full-bodied and fun, it's a luscious blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and zinfandel. $13. ***1/2

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 Riesling Columbia Valley (Washington) Subtly sweet with a clean, dry finish. Apricots and peach with a squeeze of lime on the tongue. Mmm. $12. ***1/2

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