Faced with a dilemma about what to choose for this week’s wine of the week, I called on one of my vast army of secret shoppers. Her instructions? Find an $8 to $12 wine at a national retailer that meets our exacting wine of the week requirements. Also part of the mission: Ask a store employee for help in selecting the wine. What would he or she recommend at that price (without revealing, of course, that their advice would be revealed to the vast cyber audience of the blog)?

The secret shopper — call her Deep Wine — told the employee she needed several bottles for a party, and that the person who brought the wine that the other guests liked the most would win a prize. (This is actually a nifty way to throw a wine party, which I have been meaning to write about for a couple of years but never seem to get around to.) The retailer recommended three wines: a $7 Chilean pinot noir that didn’t taste remotely like pinot noir, a $9 California merlot that made me wonder how far cheap California merlot had fallen, and the La Vieille ($8, purchased, widely available).

The retailer’s recommendations are fascinating, and well worth delving into later. Her first two choices were dry wines that were full of sweet fruit, not unlike the livestock wines that dominate the under-$10 market. The La Vieille, on the other hand, tasted like wine. A red blend from southern France, it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there was not a glop of sweetish black fruit toward the front that covered everything else up. Instead, it was balanced, with some red fruit and enough tannins to be noticeable but not annoying.

This was not surprising, since the La Vieille has been a sturdy, if not always consistent, cheap wine for almost as long as I have been doing this. Deep Wine, while not as unhappy with the merlot as I was, thought the La Vieille easily the only quality wine of the three. It’s an excellent example of a wine to keep on hand when you feel like a glass of wine.