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Finding a great cheap wine while out to dinner

Seem like an impossibility? Edward Deitch confronts restaurant wine prices, and hits the jackpot with this French red.
/ Source: TODAY

I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to ordering wine in restaurants, I'm a real cheapskate. It's because I know that most restaurants take huge markups — three to four times the price I would pay for retail (and restaurants are buying their wines wholesale!). Yes, I realize that wine represents an important profit center for restaurants, but that doesn't mean I have to go along with it, especially when I'm on a budget and when going out to dinner for a family of four in New York will put a significant dent in the bank account.

In fact, a part of me would rather order takeout when the restaurant urge strikes so that I can taste my own wines — several of them if I choose — without paying restaurant wine prices. But the other night, after a long week, I gave in to popular demand, and a few minutes later we were sitting in our neighborhood bistro.

Now of course I looked at the wine list first. It was a nice list, easily navigable with only a couple of dozen wines or so. We were in the mood for meat so we wanted something red. The wine cheapskate in me will scan the entire list but will inevitably double back to the first wine, which is often among the least familiar but is also usually the cheapest. In this case it was the 2004 Saint-Chinian Grand Reserve from Maison L'Aiglon.

I wasn't familiar with this particular wine but knew that Saint-Chinian was a southern French appellation (the wine list gave no clue). The wine would probably be a relatively light, Rhone-style blend that would match well with our food. While it was the least expensive red on the list, it was still $28. But that was better than ordering the same wine by the glass at $8.50 a pop. As a rule, if both of you are going to have a couple of glasses of wine, it always pays to order a bottle (keep reading to see how much this wine costs if you buy it in a store).

Saint-Chinian is in the Languedoc region south and west of the Rhone Valley. One of my favorite wine references, Rosemary George's delightful "Country Wines of France," notes that records of grape growing in Saint-Chinian go back to the ninth century, when a monk planted vines in 826.

With that kind of history you would expect them to know something about making wine, and Maison L'Aiglon's Saint-Chinian shows that they do. The wine, which I have seen listed online for as little as $6 or $7 a bottle — yes, a bottle — is a real steal at those prices and worth hunting around for. A blend of grenache, syrah and carignan, it shows a complexity that belies the price. I liked its ripe blueberry and raspberry notes, combined with touches of pepper and herbs that are typical of wine from the area. The tastes are framed by good tannic structure that allowed the wine to stand up well to our steak and leg of lamb. Alcohol is a modest 13 percent. I swirled the bottle around in an ice bucket for a few minutes, bringing the temperature down just a bit to make it more refreshing.

Ultimately, we had a very good dinner with excellent food and a satisfying bottle of wine that I will be buying again — only this time to pour at home for well under $10 a bottle. The importer is AIG Wine & Spirits, New York.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at