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How to Build Your Own House Wine List

Forget the old commandment about never ordering the cheapest bottle on the wine list. Thanks to sommeliers committed to spotlighting undervalued varietals and off-the-beaten-path regions, the long-maligned “house wine” section of menus has become a reliable source of discovery and everyday enjoyment. As Chris Horn, wine director for Purple Café and Wine Bar in Seattle, says: “A big old Barolo is great—but the finest wine on the planet isn’t necessarily what you want to have with dinner tonight.”

So what about the 300-plus days a year that dinner is burgers on the grill or takeout Thai? If you’re someone who’s serious about wine—or just seriously enjoys drinking it—the surest way to guarantee there’s always a decent bottle on hand at home is to take a page from the professional’s playbook: develop your own “house” list.

Unsure of where to begin? To demystify the buying process and help uncover some sleeper hits, I asked industry insiders for their everyday drinking strategies, and names worth looking to again and again. Their message: Buying wine in bulk no longer has to mean a choice between blowing your budget or settling into a rut with a jug brand. Natural wines are moving out of the margins; smaller, upstart importers are embracing non-marquee grapes and forging relationships in underrepresented regions; and wine clubs are helping to make high-quality, inexpensive, independent wines available from coast to coast.

So, take notes—and prepare to find a lot more excuses to stay in.

Go Easy Think of your house wines as ensemble actors, not scene stealers—versatile enough to do well with just about any role you throw at them. They ought to be good, but greatness isn’t the point. “For everyday wines, I generally stay away from big, bold Cabernets or oaky Chardonnays,” says Adrienne Voboril, founder of Summit Street, a Oakland-based private sommelier and education service. “Not because those bottles don’t have a place—but because your house wine shouldn’t be the star of the show.”

Whether you’re opening a bottle for a Friday-night steak dinner or just chilling on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and the remote, having a roster of easygoing, food-friendly wines will always serve you well. That usually translates to bottles that are medium-bodied, dry and brightened by a bit of acidity or bubbles. “Our house wines run the gamut, but they’re never too precious,” say Orenda and Peter Hale, owners of Maine & Loire in Portland, Maine. “Usually we keep something bubbly around, or a white that’s mineral and savory. With reds, we skew to the lighter side, towards mellow Gamays or lush Pineau d’Aunis.”

For Melissa Gisler Modanlou, owner of the California-based natural-wine club Rock Juice, there’s another essential factor: a low alcohol level. “If I’m going to split a bottle with my husband on a Tuesday night, I need to know I’m going to feel okay when I have to wake up at 6:30 a.m. and pack a school lunch,” she says. “So almost all the wines I drink and sell through the club are less than 13 percent ABV.”

Play It Cool It’s simple enough to recommend “bright, high-acid wines”—but translating buzzwords into concrete shopping suggestions can be tricky. That’s why Vorobil suggests a handy cheat: “If you don’t know where to begin, look for bottles from high-elevation regions.” The tougher growing conditions and cooler temperatures tend to yield wines that are dynamic, taut and lower in alcohol than their warm-climate counterparts. Names to know include the Alto Adige and Piedmont in Italy, Salta in Argentina, Germany’s Mosel, France’s northern Rhône and California’s Santa Cruz mountains.

Drink What You Like “Serious” wine may come with lots of rules, but at home the only mandate is to drink what you like. “Drink what makes you happy,” says Orenda Hale. “In the Maine winters, when we’re all bundled up, I actually want something refreshing—so I tend to drink whites more than reds, and tons of bubbles. There are so many great pét-nats [pétillant naturel, the French term for naturally sparkling wines], you could drink bubbles every day.” One of the Hales’ favorite finds? The Oyster River “Morphos”, a pét-nat made in tiny Warren, Maine, from a blend of Northeastern hybrids Cayuga White and Seyval Blanc, and vinified following the méthode ancestrale, without added enzymes or yeast.

Sip a Story Another strategy: Instead of automatically grabbing a crisp white for your fish dinner or a rich red with a roast, think of how certain wines evoke a feeling or mood because of memories you associate with them. “I always encourage people to attach a story to their wines,” says Vorobil. “Is it a bottle you first had on your honeymoon? Did you discover it at a great little restaurant you love? Recalling those relationships will give you pleasure each time you open the bottle.” I’ve definitely found that to be true. For instance, the latest addition to my house rotation is Cantine Valpane Rosa Ruske, a light, floral, slightly funky Piedmont red that I first sipped at a beach picnic last September on the Rhode Island shore—and have been dreaming of since, along with those long, sunny days of Indian summer.

Chris Horn concurs. “There are certain bottles that I always have on New Year’s or Father’s Day, or that I pop open anytime I cook a particular dish. Those traditions create a ‘mind-mouth connection.’ We’re used to thinking about comfort food that way, but we don’t always pay the same attention to what we’re drinking.”

Bigger Can Be Better Affordability is a factor when thinking about everyday wines—but that doesn’t mean you need to compromise on quality. Instead, Gisler Modanlou suggests keeping an eye out for reasonably priced liter bottles, such as the Cacique Maravilla Pipeño País, a rustic, earthy biodynamic red made just outside Santiago, Chile. “There are regions—like Austria, Chile and parts of Germany—where the liter size is traditional, and if you know what to look for, you can get some amazing value wines. Just because it comes in a larger quantity, doesn’t mean it’s cheaply or poorly made.”

Think Like a Cook Chances are you always have some dried pasta and canned beans on hand for an emergency supper. Why not take the same approach to wine? “When I’m picking wines for my house, I think of it as stocking a pantry or culinary tool kit,” says Horn. “If I have a light-bodied red, a richer blend, a bright Riesling and steely Chardonnay, I can cook just about anything and know I’m covered.”

But it’s not just wine as an ingredient that’s worth considering—it’s also the ingredients in the wine itself. “Do you make a point to eat organically and avoid chemicals and additives? If wine is something you’re putting in your body almost every day, you should choose one that’s the same quality as your food,” says Gisler Modanlou. “Grapes are always on the ‘dirty dozen’ list [for pesticide use]. But people forget wine is an agricultural product—even among people who know exactly where their kale comes from, there’s a disconnect.”

Drinking naturally used to require an investment of both time and money, but the surge of interest in organic and low-intervention wines means that more reasonably priced bottles are making their way into the mainstream. Le Telquel, an easy-drinking Gamay from Loire Valley producer Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme, is a perennial favorite among wine pros and a great gateway to the world of natural wine. Another of the Hales’ go-tos is the Boutanche line, a collaboration between importer Selection Massale and a roster of small European producers that’s designed to offer high-quality natural wine at a price below $20. Closer to home, in California’s Santa Barbara and San Ynez AVA, childhood friends Mike Roth and Craig Winchester are making a line of lovely minimalist wines under the Lo-Fi label that strike a balance between Old World restraint with New World ripeness.

Explore the B-sides Marquee varietals like Cabernet and Pinot Grigio may be easy to pronounce, but because there’s such a glut of them on the market, it can be challenging to separate the surprises from the swill. That’s why it’s helpful to identify a region you like, then look beyond the headliners to the B-sides. “If you love Sancerre, try a Touraine; if you like Chinon, try Anjou Rouge,” suggests Morgan Calcote, wine director and general manager at FIG in Charleston, South Carolina. Oregon may be renowned for its Pinot Noir, but in the south end of the state, winemaker Herb Quady of Quady North is making a line of excellent Rhône-style table wines including a rich, tangy white blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc called “Pistoleta”. “When you look beyond the usual suspects like Chardonnay and Cabernet, you can find a lot of surprising values,” says Calcote. Horn agrees. “If you talk to winemakers in the Piedmont, they’re more excited about their Barbera than their Barolos,” he says. “Those are the wines they’re making for themselves.”

Get a Guru You don’t have to be a wine geek to drink well at home—but it does help to know one. “Start a conversation with the folks at your local wine shop,” says Calcote. “They’ll be able to look at the wines you’ve enjoyed in the past and help curate a mix of others you’ll like.”

That strategy works well in cities where there are thriving wine scenes and deep distribution channels. But what about drinkers who live in towns where most wine is sold in grocery and big box stores? The Hales suggest that if you can’t find a full-service retailer in your town, noodle around online until you find a quality shop that offers shipping and foster a relationship with them in the digital realm. “Those sorts of relationships are what we love about our business,” they say. “Wine is difficult to make but doesn’t have to be complicated to enjoy.”

Social media has also made once-insidery wine circles more accessible. “Instagram is a fantastic resource,” says Vorobil. “It’s such an effortless way to peep in on what people you admire are drinking.” Another trick? The next time you’re facing down a wall of bottles in a shop, study the back of the labels—that’s where you’ll find the importer’s name. “If you keep seeing the same name on bottles you like, follow them,” says Horn. “That name is a person saying they believe in this wine.”

Among Horn’s importers to watch are Becky Wasserman, who specializes in Old World Burgundies, and Neal Rosenthal, who’s known for terroir-driven European wines. If you’re interested in natural wines and smaller, up-and-coming producers, importers like Zev Rovine Selections, Louis/Dressner, T. Edwards, Jenny & François, and SelectioNaturel are all reliable sources. “Good importers treat their portfolios like a living thing, a changing thing,” Horn says. “When you’re drinking with them it’s like listening to college radio, not the Top 40 station.”

Take Notes Coming across a memorable wine at a dinner party or a restaurant is a great way to expand your repertoire, but only if you can remember the name when you head out to shop. A pocket-sized notebook is easy, or a snapshot on your phone gets the job done. (And once you’ve taken a few, organize all those label shots in a dedicated folder.) Or take it a step further with a wine app like Vivino, which not only recognizes wine labels, but also allows you to build a personalized catalog of bottles you’ve enjoyed, read reviews, search for similar wines and shop online. And did you love the way that Beaujolais paired with the pork tenderloin you made last night? Scribble a note of its name right in the margins of the cookbook, so the record will be there the next time you start cooking.

Join the Club With a slew of new sommelier-led services transforming the market, many wine clubs are now aimed at bridging the gap between industry insiders and casual wine enthusiasts. These curated monthly or seasonal mailings speak to different budgets and niches and offer access to high-quality wines, often sourced from smaller, under-the-radar producers that might never make it onto shelves at local stores.

At the Dedalus Wine Shop, Market & Wine Bar in Burlington, Vermont, the focus is on value. Members of the $30-per-month “Thirst” club receive two bottles of gulp-worthy house wines from up-and-coming regions each month. Sign up for the $100 “Glou Glou” subscription from Boston’s Wine Bottega and you’ll get a monthly mailing of two reds, two whites and two wild cards—which might include rosé, orange wines, sparkling wines or even cider.

After Gisler Modanlou sold her San Francisco wine bar and retail shop in 2012, she was beset by calls from friends and former customers hoping she’d still help source their favorite natural wines. Thus, Rock Juice was born. “I realized that so many people wanted access to natural wine but just didn’t know how to find it on their own,” she says. What started small, with a network of friends and friends of friends, grew organically and has kept going. If customers fall hard for a particular mailing, Gisler Modanlou is happy to help order in quantity (and offers a case discount). “These aren’t cellar wines; they’re fun and meant to be enjoyed right now,” she says. “You may not find them on the shelf at Safeway, but once you know how good they are, you can’t unknow it.”

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