The phrase is often true: You get what you pay for.

My husband and I live in different states and maintain two separate households. That gets expensive, so we’re budget-conscious when we can be.

Yes, life’s too short to drink bad wine, but balance exists between special-occasion reds and house wine—the everyday stuff you sip while watching reruns of Arrested Development on Netflix.

Discount wine. I didn’t want to knock it ’til I’d tried it.

That’s why we recently checked out the wine selection at a discount grocery chain, aka a flea market for food.

My neighbors recommended the store a while back. Good selection, ever-changing. I tried not to wrinkle my nose or say: “Wine there? How do you know where it’s been?”

I kept those thoughts to myself, hoping the neighbors wouldn’t think me a wine snob. To prove my lack of pretentions, I made the trek and discovered a chaotic variety. The store sells cupcake pans and organic shampoo next to spices, produce, milk, eggs and car floormats.

And then there’s the wine section. My eyes actually lit up when I saw a Karly 2010 Pokerville Zinfandel from Amador County—for $6.99. I’ve been to the Karly tasting room. I love their zin.

I bought that and two even cheaper wines, a 2012 Harlow Ridge Lodi Zinfandel and a Backstory Cabernet Sauvignon—$4.99 each. Lucky me, it was Wine Sale Weekend, and bottles were discounted another 20 percent. Total for three bottles: about $15.

Impressed? Hang on.

At home, I decided to open and taste all three. They were on sale, right? If they weren’t half bad, I could go back and buy more. So I uncorked the bottles and unscrewed the Karly cap. (I didn’t actually sniff it. Sniffing the cap, though the name of this column, is merely metaphoric, a signifier for open-mindedness.)

I decided to pair the wines with Spanish manchego, theorizing that even a low-brow red might rise to the occasion. I’d purchased the cheese at Costco, another commodity warehouse that sells wine at reduced rates. Costco’s wine sales add up to more than $1 billion per year, making it the largest wine retailer in the United States. I’ve never flinched at buying Costco wine. So why would I be so dubious about this wine?

Let the tasting begin.

First up, the 2012 Harlow Ridge Zinfandel (Lodi). This label’s the brainchild of Fred Franzia, a.k.a. Mr. Two-Buck Chuck. Harlow Ridge is the comparable offering for folks who don’t shop at Trader Joe’s. The label’s attractive. When I bought it, not knowing about the two-buck connection, I wondered if I’d been to this Lodi winery.

What’s the wine like? Pour zin, observe color, insert nose. The first word that popped into my head: Bacon. Salty pork just before it hits the pan.

Some people enjoy that kind of thing. I’ve encountered weirder smells—some of which have set me back a lot more than $4 or $5. (Insert anecdote in which my husband notes that a bottle I’ve opened smells like dill pickles. I poo-poo his dismal suggestion and read the text on the bottle. Indeed, the bottle text actually brags about the wine’s notes of dill pickle … and cotton candy, no less. We pour $25 down the drain.)

The Harlow Ridge was not as bad as the dill-pickle wine, but it was dull. You could absolutely pair this with Hot Cheetos smothered in nacho cheese sauce. (I read recently about this Texas treat. Gooey.)

Moving right along … the Backstory Cabernet Sauvignon. What year? Who knows? What region? Oh yeah, California. That narrows it down.

Open, breathe, pour, smell. Nothing. Swirl, smell. Almost nothing. Maybe ripe red raspberries, but they’re a couple stories up or down—way back. So not much in the way of aromatics. The same goes for the disappearing flavor. No body, no viscous mouth feel.

Also missing in the Backstory was the thing winos call finish—a flavor that lingers on the tongue after you’ve been a good girl and swallowed. The longer, the better.

The Backstory brand is a creation of O’Neill Vintners, which intends the wines to be competitively priced and “varietally correct … for restaurant house pours, catering events, and your casual party wine.” It was drinkable, and I was snacking on delicious cheese. So $4 worth of fine.

The Karly was the buy of the day, of course—an extra $2 well-spent on Amador zinfandel.

Karly’s brand and vineyards were purchased more than a year ago by Turley Wine Cellars, which has a giant tasting room and event venue just up the road in Amador.

The Pokerville’s never been a fine or expensive wine. The “rowdy young vine zin,” to quote the label text, was bright and fruit way forward. It looked and smelled Barney purple—big, ripe and happy. Perfect to pair with zingy pizza or pasta.

I don’t exactly feel like I wasted $15 on these three wines. The experiment was worthwhile—but I won’t go back for more. I don’t need to, because now is the season to buy wine from the winemakers. Plenty of small family wineries offer terrific deals before Christmas, some with prices comparable even to those at bargain stores. And that’s my biggest problem with buying warehouse wine—especially if you live within a few hours of tasting rooms.

Last year before Christmas, I bought some terrific cases of boutique wines for around $80 or $90 (less than $8 per bottle) at tasting rooms in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi and Mendocino. If you walk into the right winery at the right time, you can nab some cases for $60 or $70—that’s $5 or $6 per bottle. At the Tulip Hill tasting room in Rancho Mirage, the Trace Sauvignon Blanc was selling this fall for $49.95 a case, about $4 per bottle, and the 2009 Merlot was $69.95 a case, or less than $6 per bottle.

When you buy in a tasting room, you know what you’re getting. You know who made it. It’s gonna be good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have cheap wine to finish and some top ramen left over from the above photo shoot.