California’s finer wines tend to be expensive which makes discovering the State’s best values a major challenge. Wine buyers have a better chance of picking out the value priced gems if they know something about the background of the wineries making the wines.
There are lots of low priced wines with attractive labels that are manufactured on an industrial scale by giant producers. These are “recipe wines” that make use of shortcuts that often include adding sugar, adjusting acids, and using wood chips to simulate “oak” barrel aging. Such wines are far from being natural agricultural products. They show no sense of the places their grapes are grown or normal vintage variations. Their are comprised of inexpensive grapes from many origins that are blended to taste the same every time.
Fine wines are made by inspired and skilled winemakers from very good grapes. To make fine wines that sell for lower prices they must tighten their belts and control their costs. They may venture out of their home territories and purchase lower priced grapes from less prestigious growing regions. They may make the wines from the fruit of their own younger vines that are not yet of the standard required to produce their best estate wines.
These talented winemakers may keep these wines in stainless steel tanks to save the expense of oak barrel aging. They may age some wines in used oak barrels that are more neutral in tone but still add character to the wines. They may release these wines earlier than they do their primary wines to save on storage costs and to get paid sooner. The goal is to control costs with as little compromise to quality of the wines as possible.
Give great chefs some simple ingredients and they will produce better dishes than average chefs. Great winemakers with less expensive grapes and fewer tools to work with will produce far better wines than will average winemakers. Compare their more modestly priced wines to the industrial recipe products and you will notice a giant gap in quality.
Value is in the eye of the beholder or the holder of the wallet to be more precise. Some wines that wine experts consider great values may be priced out of the comfort zones of casual wine consumers. The mission of savvy consumers is to find the very best wines at price points that are in their comfort zone.
Here are our recommendations of value priced wines labeled as alternative brands from superb winemakers. While they fall into a range of prices each wine is a top performer at its’ price point.
Partners Brent Shortridge and Philip Zorn of Anders-Lane produce some of California’s best wine values. Philip makes wines under different labels that share the essential characteristic of “balance” regardless of their grape sources and regions of origin. As alcohol levels of New World wines have reached new peaks Philip’s wines have retained the balance that one expects from classical European wines. The components of his wines are in balance; fruit, acidity, alcohol and oak (when used.) This balance helps to make these “food wines” in the best sense of the phrase.
This winery’s premier label is “Waterstone”. Waterstone wines are Napa Valley designated with a lineup that includes the key grape types.
Anders-Lane’s “Mandolin” label is not a second label of Waterstone but a project of Brent’s and Philip’s focused on more modestly priced grape sources in Monterey County and the Central Coast. Anders-Lane maintains long-term contracts with growers who raise their grapes to the winemaker’s specs. Relying on the same vineyard sites for their grapes each year results in their Mandolin wines being more consistent in style than those of larger wineries who buy by price on the open market.
The 2010 Mandolin Chardonnay and Pinot Noir come from vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County; an ideal setting for these cool climate grapes. The Chardonnay features forward tropical fruit scents and flavors with good acidity and mild oak tones from aging in 1 and 2 year old French oak barrels (formerly used for Waterstone wines).
The 2010 Pinot Noir is one of the only California wines in its’ price range comprised of 100% Pinot Noir grapes and it tastes it. It was fermented in small open top tanks and then aged for 11 months in small French oak barrels. This flavorful Pinot features bright cherry and raspberry fruit with hints of spice, leather and cedar.
The 2009 Mandolin Central Coast Syrah captures the true character of this Rhône variety with blueberry and blackberry fruit, complex hints of spice and vanilla tones from aging for 14 months in 20% new and older French oak barrels.
No winery that we work with regardless of origin garners more praise from leading Wine critics than “Varner”. Brothers Bob and Jim Varner produce stunning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from their estate vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Current releases labeled Neely or Varner (depending on vineyard site) are all rated 93 to 96 points by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
The Varner Brother’s second label “Foxglove” consists of three wines that “over deliver” at their price point. Bob Varner is a superb winemaker who controls the production of their purchased fruit for the Foxglove wines. The 2010 Foxglove Central Coast Chardonnay was rated 90 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate with these notes: “The 2010 Chardonnay is one of the top values in California wine. It possesses tons of ripe, varietal fruit in a style that is quite rich but not heavy. Clean citrus and floral notes add freshness on the long finish...I was blown away by the two wines I tasted from Foxglove…The Varners clearly have the magic touch. These are among the finest values readers will find anywhere in the world.”
The Foxglove Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel wines are made from fruit grown in vineyards in Paso Robles. Both wines are excellent examples of that wine region’s potential. These wines are rich, supple, and true to their grapes types. It is hard to find a better American Cab or Zin for under $20.
Eric Sussman makes some of California’s best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays at his winery “Radio-Coteau”. Eric has long term purchasing agreements with some of the State’s best grape growers. When the market tightened up in 2008 Eric decided to divert some of those top priced grapes into his “County Line” project; a label that he had only used until then for his stunning Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Rosé.
Here is a formula for true value! A great winemaker takes the very best grapes, shortens the fermentation and aging process, uses second and third year barrels, and releases the wines earlier than the first label wines. The County Line Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Anderson Valley Chardonnaysare from world class vineyards and easily rival many other wineries Estate bottlings. Both wines deliver the finesse, beautiful textures, balance and length of much pricier wines.
Francis Mahoney is a pioneer grape grower who planted extensive vineyards to Pinot Noir in the Carneros Region of California. His first “Carneros Creek” Pinot Noirs were eye openers in their day and hold a place in California’s wine history. Francis now produces his estate wines under the “Mahoney Vineyards” label and his second wines are labeled as “Fleur”. Wine & Spirits Magazine designated Fleur as it’s “2010 Value Brand of the Year”.
Fleur produces two delicious Pinot Noirs; a Carneros bottling and a Central Coast bottling. Both are true to type and very satisfying alternatives of this pricey varietal. Fleur’s North Coast Chardonnay offers up pure Chardonnay flavors with refreshing acidity and pretty oak scents and flavors. Fleur’s North Coast Petite Sirah captures the spicy qualities of the grape variety but in a style similar to Pinot Noir. Please note that the Fleur wines are often programmed to allow merchants to offer them at lower prices.
There are many more examples of worthy second label wines in the marketplace. For consistently good values from real “hands on” wineries look for wines from Mandolin, Foxglove, County Line and Fleur.
Our MAY 2013 UPDATE: RATINGS & REVIEWS page is jam packed with up-to-date notes about our wines from key wine publications. There you will find two useful files that may be downloaded as pdfs. “Quotas vs. Priorities” and “Brands vs. Exclusives” are two parts of a series called “Advantage: The Small Wholesaler.” Here Peter Sagansky compares the focus of independent small wholesale wine distributors to the focus of the large commercial houses in today’s tough economic times. These pieces are in a sense our company’s mission statement. Our “MA Trade Only” page allows our Massachusetts customers to download all of our current Price Lists and our Price List version complete with Ratings from major publications.
The “MA Trade Only” page requires that you enter a “User Name” and “Password” to gain access. Please contact your salesperson or send us a message on our “Contact Our Company” page for details on how to log in.
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Thank you for your interest in Charles River Wine Company!
– Peter Sagansky and the Charles River Wine Company Team