VinePair wine enthusiasts, we hear you! Readers have told us how hard it has been to discover new wines during the pandemic. Somms are in short supply, as many restaurants are still closed. Online wine platforms have algorithms that prioritize the same big brands, and many customers are still picking up their wine shop orders curbside. So we reached out to wine professionals we admire to ask for their help. With the challenge to build a 12-bottle case for under $250, these wine pros sifted through hundreds of bottles to find the best case possible — so you don’t have to. (And for wine pros who work with a brand, we also let them choose one of their own wines to highlight.) Then, we choose a retailer that ships nationally, and the pros only learn which retailer they’ll be choosing from after they accept the challenge. Their only guidance? Find wines that will wow wine enthusiasts.

First up is Philippe André, a bubbly-loving sommelier and the founder of The Grand Cru & Co., who accepted our challenge to build an exceptional 12-bottle case from Total Wine. André is a Chicago-based, second-generation sommelier and restaurateur who serves as the U.S. brand ambassador for Charles Heidsieck Champagne. As of June, he is also a board member of the United Sommeliers Foundation. When he’s not educating about wine, André “geeks out” about cigars and foreign cars. He also dabbles in the world of DJing. “Like wine, music can be so personal, intimate and barrier-breaking at the same time,” he says. “Pair the two together, and you’ve got some serious soul healing and recharging going down!”

André grew up in the hospitality industry, working in his family’s restaurant, Oceanique, in Evanston, Ill. While waiting tables, André learned he had a passion (and a gift) for wine. “I put on a Tom Ford suit, and the rest was history!” Today, as the U.S. Ambassador for Charles Heidsieck Champagne, he is the eyes and ears of the winery in the States. He works closely with importers and distributors — as well as with sommeliers and wine collectors through tastings and dinners. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, he is currently “working from home and utilizing video meetings for tastings, presentations, and educational trainings.”

Always looking to discover new wines, André’s approach has had to change a bit during the pandemic: “My success to finding great new wines in this time is subscribing to passionate wine shops and reading their offers and powerful descriptions,” he says. “Kogod Wine Merchants, Tribeca Wine Merchants, Verve Wine, Benchmark all have great consistent offers that I read almost daily.” He recommends that imbibers looking to try new bottles do the same, doing some follow-up research if a particular wine’s description speaks to them. Most important is to “try everything and let yourself be the judge,” he says.

When approached with this challenge, André “literally said out loud, ‘hell yes!’” Though he initially called the team at VinePair “crazy” for requesting 12-bottle cases at this price point, he was apparently “crazy” enough to take on the challenge. To André — a sommelier with Champagne taste (literally) — shopping at Total Wine was “like taking a master chef to Kroger and asking her what she would buy or what she looks for in quality ingredients, it’s fascinating and very personal — was a blast!” He says he’s always been impressed by Total Wine’s vast selection and bang-for-your-buck prices. A lover of large-format wines, he says he never leaves a Total Wine without a 3-liter bottle in hand.

When selecting wines for this case, André had two main goals: Picking bottles with “epic value,” and proving that you can have a “great range of styles while balancing the budget.” He takes pride in the fact that he was able to sneak in a bottle of his beloved bubbles, while still staying within the price limit. “As it takes two decades to make a finished bottle of Charles Heidsieck,” he says, “I’m confident in showing off-the-charts value, and I hope that everyone will agree!”

1: Terre di Talamo Morellino di Scansano Riserva, 2013 ($16.19)

Terre di Talamo Morellino di Scansano Riserva, 2013

Terre di Talamo is a winery based in the Tuscan Maremma. Located by the sea, the wines from this vineyard are characterized by distinctive minerality. This Sangiovese was aged in small oak barrels. “I love a full bodied red that’s silky smooth. With some nice age and classic Tuscan terroir, the Morellino di Scansano Riserva 2013 by Terre di Talamo is a great representation from one of Italy’s most popular regions. Dried earth and stewed fruit collide to erupt out of the glass of this Sangiovese. I’m loving the value from this, and for a wine that is ready to drink, we are right in the sweet spot. I would pair with a pot roast, decant for 15 minutes, and serve at cellar temp.”

2: Susana Balbo Malbec, 2015 ($19.97)

Susana Balbo Malbec, 2015

Susana Balbo is a family-run winery whose owner and namesake is considered one of the most influential women in wine. The winery is located in the heart of Luján de Cuyo Mendoza, an Argentinian region near the Andes Mountains. This Malbec is part of Balbo’s Crios collection, which is dedicated to her children. “The Susana Balbo Malbec is a refreshing representation of balance in a world that is often celebrated for decadence. The restraint and finesse makes this your go-to Malbec from Argentina. Family-owned and operated since 1999 by one of the most influential female winemakers of our time, … this property is always on my radar. Pair with a marinated flank steak and chimichurri. Decant for 20 minutes, and don’t forget that cellar temp!”

3: Chateau Musar Cuvée Jeune Red ($16.19)

Chateau Musar Cuvée Jeune Red

Chateau Musar is a family-owned winery located two and a half hours outside Lebanon’s unheralded Bekaa Valley region. This wine is a blend of Cinsault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and was fermented in cement-lined vats; it is unoaked. “By far one of the coolest historic wineries you’ll never hear about. The Chateau Musar Jeaune Red shows a polished approach and incredible value from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Unoaked Cincault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon are the players here providing medium tannin and herbaceous aromatics that tie in the total package. Pair with rack of lamb, and grab an extra bottle to drink while prepping. Decant for 15 minutes and, as always, serve at cellar temp!”

4: Can Blau Montsant, 2016 ($13.94)

Can Blau Montsant, 2016

Can Blau is a winery run by one of Spain’s great wine dynasties, the Gil family. It is located in Montsant, a wine region right next to world-famous Priorat that is becoming known for its wines. This wine is a Carignan, Grenache, and Syrah blend that’s aged for a short time in oak. “I first tasted this wine years ago back in my restaurant days while working the floor and was thoroughly impressed. Spain as a country has always over-performed and Can Blau is a killer value. I love the texture and how approachable it is for all wine lovers. This is a wine that will break some barriers without breaking the bank. Decadent package caries to the palate, throw some chorizo or a pork chop in a cast iron and thank me later. Decant for 20 minutes, and serve cellar temp, pretty please!”

5: Hedges Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon ($16.19)

Hedges Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon

Another family-owned producer, Hedges Family Estate produces wines in Columbia Valley and Red Mountain — two of the most renowned regions in Washington State. This Cabernet Sauvignon was produced in the former region and was fermented in both American and French oak barrels. “I have had an affinity for the wines of Washington State for quite some time. I’ve found they show a sense of place, vintage variation, and give an authentic representation of the varietals. Hedges is a leading family-owned small producer that checks all the aforementioned boxes. Hitting above its weight class, this is a balanced representation of Cab Sauv that will surprise many wine lovers. Pair with a thick patty, mid-rare burger, and don’t forget to sauté some onions! Decant for 30 minutes. And like a broken record, serve cellar temp, yall!”

6: Château Bertinat Lartigue St.-Émilion ($20.69)

Château Bertinat Lartigue St Émilion

Château Croix de Bertinat produces wine from four appellations, including this Merlot-based Bordeaux blend from a site near the village of Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France. Grown in sandy soil, this wine is flavorful and easy drinking. “Bordeaux y’all! Step into this freshness and let’s go! Loud aromatics, classic terroir St.-Émilion is here to stay. Ballin’ on a budget is this golden ticket [to] kick off your weekend or impress the in-laws. Fresh plums and black cherries in a lush garden of lavender. Pair with a curated charcuterie board — don’t skip the bresaola! Decant for 30 minutes and like your boy said, serve cellar temp!”

7: Elk Cove Pinot Noir Willamette, 2016 ($24.97)

Elk Cove Pinot Noir Willamette, 2016

Elk Cove Vineyards is a family-owned winery based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The vintners consider themselves “Oregon winegrowing pioneers,” having planted their first vines in 1974. This Pinot Noir was made from fruit grown at all six of Elk Cove’s vineyard sites, representing various soil types. “I’ve visited the Willamette Valley in Oregon more than any other wine region. There is an excitement every time I land and I know I’m back in my home away from home. Elk Cove Vineyards is a 45-minute drive from Portland. A beautiful property, including a few legendary Pinot Noir vineyards run by second-generation family-owner and winemaker Adam Campbell. The 2016 Pinot Noir is a boss in the glass and represents a region founded by hard work and passion — something I experienced while working harvest in 2013. An awesome balance and complexity, [this wine] offers one of the best representations of Pinot in this great nation. Pair with baked salmon and decant for 30 minutes and please serve at cellar temp.”

8: Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc Te Muna Road Vineyard, 2019 ($17.09)

Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc Te Muna Road Vineyard, 2019

Craggy Range is a vineyard located in New Zealand. Owned and operated by ex-billionaire Terry Peabody and his family, the winery produces grapes in multiple regions of New Zealand, though the winery itself, is situated in Hawke’s Bay. His wife, Mary Peabody, runs Craggy Range’s award-winning restaurant. This Sauvignon Blanc was grown in a cooler climate and in rocky soil, giving it fruit-forward flavor balanced by minerality. “So fresh, so clean, New Zealand’s vibrant expression of Sauvignon Blanc is well harnessed by the team at Craggy Range. Family-owned and female-run is a powerful combo that sets this property apart from the rest. The Te Muna Road Vineyard is cooler than the other side of the pillow, which brings out great texture and mineral[ity] on the palate. Pair with pork belly buns and kimchi, yup!”

9: Leitz Dragonstone Riesling ($13.87)

Leitz Dragonstone Riesling

Leitz Wein, a winery located in the Rheingau region of Germany, is a family operation run by Johannes Leitz. This Riesling is from Leitz’s Drachenstein (or Dragonstone) vineyard. It is marked by its yeasty, minerally character. “People ask me what I drink the most outside of Champagne, and always in my top three is German Riesling. The Dragonstone Riesling by Josef Leitz is a versatile, bright, and refreshing representation. From the historic Rheingau, [this bottle] is an epic value. Orchard fruits like green apple, pear, and grapefruit are finished with a kiss of honey. The Dragontone will pretty much pair with anything you want to throw at it, but I love it with rich fried fish or seafood. Think McD’s Fish Filet. Do it!”

10: Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay ($13.49)

Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay

Located in Burgundy, France, Maison Louis Jadot was founded in 1859. This is a larger winery, owning 528 acres of vineyards. “My second favorite wine of all time, white Burgundy! This is Chardonnay with pure finesse and structure. Nuance and detail are also at play to give you [the] alter ego to the rich and sappy Chard that made you hate it. Louis Jadot is one of my favorite larger houses that can talk the talk and walk the walk. They make an incredible range of wines from $10 to $1,000, yet I find the level of effort across the board to be a true stamp of integrity and dedication. Orchard and stone fruits with vanilla and baking spice and hint of brioche. Get classy for your afternoon Zoom calls and pair with some chèvre and Brie, or turn off your camera and smash Annie’s White Cheddar Mac — don’t forget to hit the bowl with a turn of fresh black pepper, BAM!”

11: Domaine Loubejac Chardonnay Willamette Valley, 2017 ($14.39)

Domaine Loubejac Chardonnay Willamette Valley, 2017

Domaine Loubejac is a winery located in the Willamette Valley, owned by Laurent Montalieu. This medium-bodied Chardonnay was fermented partly in neutral French oak and partly in stainless steel. “On my first trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I quickly realized how amazing the Chardonnay is. Domaine Loubejac’s 2017 is a Chardonnay with body and structure. Volume is up on this with aromatics and medium-plus weight on the palate. I’m feeling the balance and ripe peach and melon that [are screaming] to be paired with chilled king crab and drawn butter — live a little! And your boy says to make sure you use a big glass to let it breathe (and to boss hog it at the same time).”

12: Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV ($54.97)

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV

Charles Heidsieck is a Champagne house founded in 1851. Of course, as a Charles Heidsieck ambassador, André went with a bottle of the brand’s Brut Reserve — a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend. This bottle is the most expensive in André’s case, but as he’ll tell you, it’s worth every penny. “If you know me, then you know my first love: Champagne! It’s the perfect wine, every time. There is one for every moment, dish, and, of course, the celebration of life! As the first ambassador of the winery to the U.S. in over 160 years, I have some big shoes to fill. Thankfully, the winery team has my back and put two decades of work into this bottle. The Brut Reserve is a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier grapes grown in the historic Champagne region about an hour outside of Paris. At Charles Heidsieck, we vinify each individual wine separately, using only the first pressing’s taste, and then carefully decide when to blend. The final result is a bottle with over 40 percent of aged wines along with a recent base vintage to create the long finish and vibrant, tiny bubbles we demand in our glasses. There is no greater way to set the stage than popping a bottle of the real deal Holyfield. Charles Heidsieck, a.k.a. “Champagne Charlie,” was the first ambassador of Champagne to come to the U.S., and the Brut Reserve is our walk-up song. I love pairing this wine with decadent and rich dishes, but my favorite of late is the one and only Popeye’s fried chicken sando — a home run!”

Cart Total: $256.20

My Discounts: 10% off box of Winery Direct Wines

Total Savings: -$14.25

Subtotal: $241.95