The wines CR tested have run the gamut of varietals, blends and vintages. Finding an excellent wine that's also affordable -- say, less than $20 -- is difficult, but not impossible. In past tests, CR has identified very good wines that cost as little as $8.
Even when wine consumption rises, wine prices don't, necessarily. And while a brand of a certain varietal can improve or decline in different vintages -- and the same vintage might even vary among stores -- vintage doesn't matter that much for bottles in the $20-and-under price range.
Value can be elusive with some varietals. So if you want a great wine at a great price, consider different varietals.
If you're looking for a case of that wonderful gewurztraminer you tried in Alsace last year, the Web may be your best bet. There are not only wine websites but wine search engines where you can compare prices, get recommendations and track down hard-to-find bottles.
Just one warning: Your ability to buy wine online from out-of-state retailers might depend on where you live. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 2005 that states must treat sales from in-state and out-of-state wineries the same, leading some states to liberalize their wine-shipment laws and others to consider banning sales. Wine sites will tell you if you can place orders. Or visit www.wineinstitute.org for a brief rundown of state laws.
Here are some tips from Consumer Reports to help you get the bottles you want at the best price:
* Do a Web search. If you're a novice, check out www.winezap.com, where you can enter a type and price range and get a wine list. For each label, the site displays food pairings, reviews and vendors. It also shows the best prices, including shipping and tax. If you already know which wine you want, enter the name at www.wine-searcher.com, which lists wines by price and vendor.
* Watch for shipping costs. Not only is a bottle of wine breakable and heavy, it's perishable, too. Practically speaking, that means shipping is an expense that somebody's got to pay for. Shipping costs range from free, at www.mywinesdirect.com, to a flat $1.95 a bottle at www.wineexpress.com, to more than $8 per bottle at other sites.
* Order by the case. By ordering in bulk, you'll not only get a break on shipping costs, you might also score a discount on the wine. Retailers and wineries may offer 10 or more off per case.
* Check for sales and coupons. CR searched "wine" at www.wow-coupons.com and found a variety of short-term discounts offered at www.mywinesdirect.com, www.wine.com and www.winelegacy.com. Typing in "coupons on wine" at Google.com led to sites such as www.couponseven.com and www.couponcabin.com, which had coupons for use on www.wine.com.
* Consider a wine club. You can join through a retailer or a vineyard. Typically, the club will send you a bottle or two every month for several months. Members are also often privy to specials.
* Pick up the phone. Though telephone sales typically make up a very small part of a winery's business, it is an increasingly common way for wineries to sell wine. Besides getting quick information on available wines, prices, and whether shipping is available to your address, you might gain another advantage by calling. Say you've found a great deal offered by retailer A on a wine from winery B. Winery B might have other wines you want, but less competitive prices. With a phone call, you might find that Winery B will match the best price.
Visit the Consumer Reports website at www.consumerreports.org.