A Top Sommelier Shares His 5 Favorite Bargain Wines (and 5 Fancy Splurges)

Take it from a pro and snag these bottles ASAP

March 7, 2024 7:58 am
a pattern of diagonal wine bottles on an orange background
Time to try one of these expert picks
Courtesy of brands / Olivia Sheehy

Eduardo Bolanos got his start in wine by being paid with it — literally. After burning out as an EMT, he began working at Spago in Beverly Hills, thanks to his sous-chef brother, who secured him a job as a busboy. “I essentially was very unsure of what I wanted to do with myself,” Bolanos says. “We had a new wine director come in, and I kind of just wanted to learn more about wine, so I asked if I could help.”

While the director was happy for the extra hands, he didn’t have the budget to pay Bolanos overtime. “He would give me a different bottle from a different area every night that I helped out,” he says. “And that’s where I ended up just falling in love with wine.”

It’s a love that’s remained constant. Bolanos has since gone on to become a CMS Advanced Sommelier, an important step on the way to the ultimate goal of becoming a Master Sommelier. And he recently earned one of three coveted Gérard Basset Foundation Golden Vines Diversity Scholarships, reflecting the Guatemalan-American’s mission of building a more inclusive industry following years of racist microaggressions on the part of local patrons.

“When someone would ask for the sommelier, I would go to the table and they kind of sent me away saying, ‘Oh, no, we don’t need water,’” he Bolanos says. “And I’d say, ‘no, I’m here to talk to you about wine.’ It was always just kind of a disbelief that people wouldn’t think I was a sommelier.”

He isn’t just leading by example with his work in wine consulting, private tastings and as a wine buyer for Los Angeles’s 40-year-old Wine House. Bolanos has also devoted himself to outreach, teaching wine basics to students at local community colleges, many of whom he says, “have never been talked to about wine.”

The people behind wine are indeed perhaps the most essential part for Bolanos. From the very beginning, the winemakers and their stories were a large part of what captivated him. “Whenever you visit any winery, there’s a story behind it,” he says. “These people put their heart and soul into what they’re making.”

It’s this passion and drive — nearly as much as what’s in the bottle — that helped him zero in on his favorite bargain wine, plus the desert island splurges that should be on your radar.

5 Bargain Bottles Under $25

Weingut Leitz Klosterlay Kabinett 2020

While Joseph Leitz makes a wide range of rieslings priced anywhere from $20 to $500, for Bolanos, this “entry-level” bottle is “honestly still one of my favorites.” Despite common misconceptions, most rieslings are vinified dry, and this one is no exception. It nevertheless remains aromatic and luscious, perfect to enjoy around a fire with friends. It’s a particularly lovely pair with ice cream.

Adega Algueira Mencía Joven 2021

It was while he was living and working in San Sebastiàn, Bolanos recalls, that he was “introduced to a lot more esoteric Spanish wines, which at the time were wines you didn’t see a lot of outside Spain.” This light, easy-drinking bottle is one of them, made from mencía grapes that hail from the northwest of Spain. “For me, it drinks kind of like a cross between a pinot noir and a syrah,” he says. “It’s light and fresh but has those spice notes of pepper and coriander.”

Bodegas Zárate Rías Baixas Albariño 2022

Albariño is definitely having its moment, and Bolanos discovered this particular bottle in Galicia in November of last year. “It’s maybe the best albariño I’ve ever had,” he says. “It drinks like Chablis from France, and it’s a third of the price.”

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Ampeleia Unlitro Toscana 2021 

“Elisabetta Foradori is maybe one of the best winemakers in Italy,” Bolanos says, who applauds her creative approach and clean, natural winemaking methods. This one-liter red blend hails not from her eponymous northern Italian vineyard but rather from Tuscany. It’is one of her more approachable creations. “It’s a one-liter bottle of red but it’s less than $20,” he adds. “It’s just a really great sangiovese blend.”

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Clisson 2021

There may be no better pairing for oysters than high-acid muscadet from the western French coast, particularly this one from Pépière. “It’s one of my favorite wineries that makes muscadet,” Bolanos says. “They’re just really great with food and drinking on their own because they’re high-acid, lower alcohol — just easy drinking.”

Even better is the price, which he says has remained almost criminally reasonable for two decades.

5 Luxe Wines Worth the Splurge

Krug Champagne 2008

When it comes to the luxe side of the spectrum, the first thing that comes to Bolanos’s mind is (understandably) Champagne. “I’m a big Champagne drinker in general,” Bolanos says. “Sadly, my funds go towards Champagne quite a bit.”

When given the choice, he usually opts for Krug, and if budgetary constraints are a non-issue, he’s gravitating towards a 2008 he had the chance to try last year. “It’s rich and a little bit brioche, but it’s just really balanced,” he says. “And even if you let it sit in the glass for awhile, even if it loses some of the bubbles, it opens up even more. 2008 is one of the best vintages I’ve had in like 20 years, and this is maybe one of the best Champagnes I’ve had.”

Weingut Keller G-Max 2016 

The specs on this German riesling read a bit like a spy novel, with grapes hailing from a “hidden vineyard.” “They don’t even tell you where they are,” Bolanos says. But that’s not the only reason this vintage is something really special. “There’s just more depth to it [as compared to bargain rieslings],” he adds, noting it goes particularly well with Thai food. “When you taste it, it doesn’t have a finish — it just keeps going.” 

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 2017

Would it be possible to have a desert island wine list without a mention of DRC? For Bolanos, the Montrachet from the storied winery is, in a word, “amazing.” “It tastes like every white wine I’ve ever had put together but the best parts of them in every way,” he says.

Armand Rousseau Charmes-Chambertin 2009

“Armand Rousseau makes some of and maybe the best red Burgundy,” Bolanos says. “I think better than DRC as well.” And while some said 2009 was hit-or-miss, this wine is definitely the former. “I just remember it being the most perfect red Burgundy,” he adds. “It had some age to it at the time, but it wasn’t dried fruit. It wasn’t on its way down. It was still something that was…shining and amazing.”

Lopez de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva 1964

 “Lopez de Heredia is one of my favorite wineries,” Bolanos says. “It’s definitely my favorite winery out of Spain.”

And while there are many bottles he could have chosen, this one has a special place in his heart. It was on his last day staging at San Sebastián’s Michelin-starred Arzac that the sommelier told him, “Eduardo, go to the cellar, go pull a bottle for us to drink, just make sure it’s pre-1970s.”

“And I’m like — I’m sorry what?” Bolanos laughs. So he pulled this ’64 Rioja, which was memorable in more ways than one. “Old Rioja drinks like old Bordeaux in the best ways, and this winery is one of the best ones, because they age it for a long time, before they even release the wine,” he says. “It was just great because I was sharing it with the sommeliers there on my last day.”


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