Value Hunting

  • Monday 1 September 2003

Mention of good-value wines from California used to conjure up images of needles and haystacks. Norm roby heralds a welcome change in the balance of power, in favour of the wine lover

Mention of good-value wines from California used to conjure up images of needles and haystacks. Norm roby heralds a welcome change in the balance of power, in favour of the wine lover

It has been a long time since the terms 'bargain' and 'California' sat comfortably together in the same sentence. But after the commercial indulgence of the 1990s, when California wine prices soared way beyond the budget of the average wine buyer, the long-overdue cyclical downturn has set in.

Thanks to wine's enormous over-supply, consumers are beginning to herald a new emphasis on value wines and are turning away from cult wine wannabes. Although we should not expect prices to immediately crash across the board, wine lovers on the home front have realised the potential to demand value.

Around the rest of the world, where the image of the region has been 'expensive', the changes can only bring California back into focus as a potential source of good-value wines. It may take a little longer for the producers to adopt the same philosophy, with some wineries still holding the line on price. But there are encouraging signs of movement elsewhere, as suppliers steadily make their way back to earth.

The typical path taken is to discount prices to the trade, with 'specials of the month' being a common route. Another very positive move means that as wineries progress to a new vintage, prices remain the same or decrease, even if the prior vintage earned good critical reviews. In the past, a good score all but guaranteed a price hike.

A few tips

From the outset, our best advice to value-minded shoppers is this: don't spend too much time exploring the terroir of Napa Valley hoping to unearth some great, bargain-priced Rutherford or Stags Leap District Cabernet from a prime-time producer. Until recently, when looking for any Napa Valley Cabernet, only the 2000 Sterling Vineyards Cabernet or 2000 Beaulieu Vineyard (both at $22) come close to being bargains.

But earlier this year, Don Sebastiani launched a label named Aquinas, featuring a $10 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. To him, 'Napa Valley has entered a period of deluged over-supply, and sales have slowed because consumers are not willing to keep on buying $50 Cabernets.' The opportunity is thus ripe for négociant Cabernets such as Aquinas, which was purchased from one or more wineries, then aged and finished by Sebastiani.

Existing négociant or second-label wines have been resuscitated by the undeniable glut of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Second labels such as Hawk Crest (Stag's Leap), Glass Mountain Quarry (Markham), Foppiano's Riverside and Hess Select (Hess Collection) from 2001 and 2002 now represent good value. Second-tier labels such as Sterling Collection, Beringer's Founders Reserve California line, Mondavi's Coastal wines and Beaulieu's Central Coast varietals have also been upgraded with the 2000 vintage for reds and 2001 for whites.

Streetwise buyers are now successfully looking to other appellations (Sonoma County, Paso Robles, Mendocino and Sierra Foothills) for good deals in Cabernet. Though lacking the flashy image of the Napa Valley, Sonoma County has surfaced as the most fruitful territory for value wines made from one or any combination of its sub-regions. Chateau Souverain, Sebastiani Vineyard, Kenwood, Rodney Strong, St Francis, Geyser Peak and Clos du Bois head the list.

Equally, after being replanted in the 1990s, Alexander Valley is producing excellent ripe, big, mouth-filling Cabernets. You need only look at recent vintages from Murphy-Goode, Frei Brothers, Sebastiani, and Alexander Valley Vineyards to realise how good Alexander Valley Cabernet can be. Pedroncelli Winery and Dry Creek Vineyards are also reaffirming that Dry Creek Valley is not only Zinfandel turf.

With Justin Vineyard raising the quality bar in 1999 and 2000, Paso Robles is another Cab region well worth exploring. The better wines from this warm region are typically toned down with a splash of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, or both. The result is that well-made Cabernet from the Paso region is no longer a step down in quality compared to neighbouring regions. Though Justin is priced at just over $20, other names to check out are J Lohr Seven Oaks, Eos, Wild Horse, Peachy Canyon (excellent meritage), and Eberle. Estancia, a name associated with good value wines, is switching its popular California Cabernet to Paso Robles. Look for the 2001 Estancia Paso Robles. Now developing 990 hectares here for its Five Rivers line, Fetzer will feature Cabernet from its new Paso vines within a year or two.

Value chardonnay

When it comes to Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, you can now get excellent wines for your money without compromising your standards one iota. With so much Chardonnay planted across the state, prices never went totally wacko and decent value was never as scarce as it was for Cabernet.

But in today's market, Chardonnay represents extraordinary value in the under $20 category. And we're talking good-quality, California-style Chardonnay, not wood-chipped rocket-aged, raspy sweet-tasting glop. The best values are coming from the Central Coast where there is an abundance of choice, and from Carneros, where Acacia, Bouchaine, and Gloria Ferrer have reinstated sane prices for Chardonnay – and, it should be mentioned, for Pinot Noir.

Now more than ever, Monterey and its sub-regions (Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia) should be the first stop on every shopping-for-Chardonnay trip. Recent Chardonnay vintages from J Lohr, Jekel, Wente, Mirassou, Ventana, Paraiso Springs, Morgan, Joullian, Lockwood, and Monterra are impressive and kindly priced. Even the limited Reserve Chardonnay from Jekel and J Lohr delivers tons of flavour and yet falls well within our $20 limit.

Santa Barbara County (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez) is not far behind as an excellent source of value. While long known for its good value Chardonnay – Meridian, Firestone, and Babcock – Santa Barbara has secured its position thanks to Kendall-Jackson's satellite wineries. Now you can enjoy a delightful Camelot 2002 Chardonnay for $8 or splurge with a bottle of Cambria's 2001 Katherine Vineyard Chardonnay at $12.

Reds beyond cabernet

In the $10–20 range, Syrah is emerging as the best-value red. This shouldn't be too surprising, since three of the finest 2001 Syrahs under $20 are from three of the original Rhône-variety leaders – Qupe, Ojai, and Edmunds St. John. With a few exceptions, these three and indeed most wineries making outstanding Syrah – or Shiraz – have avoided the hubris attached to other reds.

A mention of hubris naturally leads us to Zinfandel, whose leading winemakers tried to convince consumers that the best Zins should compare in price with Cabernet Sauvignon. No matter how much (or actually how little) they could squeeze out of an old vine, the argument never washed. Zinfandel has always been a wine to drink, not a collectible fine wine. The inflated pricing strategy was eventually burst when wineries in Lodi such as Jessie's Grove began producing an excellent, truly old-vine Zin for $10 a bottle. Ravenswood's Joel Peterson also found Lodi Zinfandel to his liking and is able to cap his Vintner's Blend Zin at its $10 bargain price. More recently, Rancho Zabaco, a Gallo Zinfandel label, also relies on Lodi fruit in its attractive Dancing Bull Zinfandel.

With its 2000 'Clear Lake' Zinfandel, Beringer was among the first to tap into the artesian well of Zinfandel now available in Lake County. Located north of Napa and east of Mendocino, Lake County experienced an over-zealous vineyard development in the late 1990s. Hence as bargain-hunters make their way through Zinfandels from Mendocino, Amador, and Sonoma County, so too they should look for lively, berry-filled Zins from Lake County.

Despite its ever-expanding popularity, California Merlot and good value are not irreconcilable. Granted, there is a small ocean of Merlot – in name only – being made for the 'drink-anything-labelled-Merlot' market, but a few producers are now doing their utmost to raise the standard of the varietal. Bogle and Delicato, and Washington's Columbia Crest led the way. Today, the Blackstone Winery, serving up a $12 California Merlot and a $17 Napa Valley Merlot, has helped raise the quality/value levels. Chateau Souverain, Geyser Peak, and Clos du Bois also remain among the value leaders with tasty, varietally true Merlots. One other buying tip is to explore non-mainstream varietals such as Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and Viognier. Miner Family's Simpson Ranch Viognier offers the most bang for the buck in a grape that is usually over-priced. Though its acreage has steadily declined, Petite Sirah does well in the hands of producers who believe in it. Foppiano has an excellent Petite from Paso Robles. Guenoc Winery is another to consider. One of California's best value reds these days is Bogle's Petite Sirah. It is challenged by Ironstone's Cabernet Franc, outstanding in 1999. So it is possible to engage in a heated debate about great-value wines from California after all. Times are changing. Let us hope such debates will become more intense in future.

Norm Roby is a Decanter columnist, within the Stateside section.

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