Wine, grape and winery reviews and criticism as written by wine veterans
INEXPENSIVE WINES CAN BE FOUND
It’s hard nowadays to find a decent wine under $15. Sure, you can find some swill that comes in a bottle the size of a fish tank, but would you serve it to guests – besides the in-laws? Wine costs have steadily risen over the years and that bottle of zinfandel we liked so much 10 years ago is no longer $8 a bottle. Even Two Buck Chuck is no longer $2.
Consumers concerned about cost have been forced into buying wines of lower standard, which may still give them the same pleasure as more expensive wines. But, if you would rather drink less but drink better, there are more choices in the $15 category. And, it gets remarkably better at $20. Wines at this price develop more complexity from oak barrels and use fruit from better sources.
Reasonably priced wine comes in most flavors and from most regions with the exception of pinot noir – a delicious wine with stratospheric prices. Don’t waste your time looking for a $15 Bordeaux either. But Italy, Spain, Australia, California and obscure regions like Romania and Croatia are producing inexpensive wines. Most of these producers don’t own vineyards or even wineries, but instead buy grapes and have them vinified at a custom-crushing facility. Instead of relying on one vineyard, these producers blend grapes from a number of broad regions. It is not unusual to find “California” on the label as the source of the grapes.
Here are a few modestly priced wines we recently found.
· Chronic Cellars Purple Paradise 2013 ($15). This quirky wine with a label made for Halloween parties is the creation of Jake and Josh Beckett of Paso Robles. All of the producers’ wines are blends, this one being a combination of zinfandel (70 percent), syrah, petite sirah and grenache. Very aromatic with ripe strawberry fruit and a hint of chocolate. This would be a great match for hamburgers and pizzas. The label alone will draw comments.
· Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($15). Using grapes from the hot and often ignored Lodi region, Carnivor has managed to produce a decent cabernet for the money. A bit of petite sirah has been added to fortify the structure. It has classic cabernet flavors with dark berry flavors, cassis and herbal notes.
· Tom Gore Chardonnay 2013 ($15). Tropical and apple fruit flavors dominate this wine the producer calls “a farmer’s wine.” Tom and Erin Gore manage a small farm of fruits and vegetables. Slightly sweet, it offers round and delicious flavor.
· LangeTwins Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2012 ($15). If there is one thing you get from zinfandel, it is copious, ripe fruit. That’s a perfect match to barbecue sauces on ribs, pork and burgers. This one has the classic raspberry and blackberry notes with a dash of black pepper.
· Inama Soave Classico 2013 ($15). Made from garganega grapes, Italian soaves are often overlooked by consumers. Yet they offer an alternative to chardonnay, if you seek a wine adventure. Elegant with simple, quaffable characteristics, this soave has floral notes with a distinct mineral thread and a dash of almonds. Fresh rockfish is in order here.
· Madras Modello 2013 ($15). We love Spanish modello. It has the texture of chardonnay, but with unique mineral flavor and tamed acidity. Deceivingly big in body, it offers generous pear and melon flavors. This is a good match for seafood.
· Burgans Albarino 2013 ($15). Albarino is one of the best white wines made in Spain and perhaps the one most overlooked. From the Rias Baixas region, it is made to accompany seafood caught off the Spanish coast. Very floral in the nose with apple and peach flavors.
· Decopas Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($12). Nothing complicated here, but it refreshes the palate with good acidity, generous grapefruit notes.
· J. Lohr Estates Wildflower Valdiguie 2014 ($10). Valdiguie is a blending grape common to the Languedoc region of southern France. Even though it’s not sturdy enough to stand on its own, J. Lohr does a credible job making a Beaujolais-like, quaffable version for a very reasonable price. A great wine to serve with hamburgers or pizza.
· Nieto Senetiner Bonarda Argentina 2013 ($12). 100 percent bonarda , which is the same as a grape called charbono sometimes grown in California, and aged for 6 months in French oak barrels. Full bodied and fruit driven with intense berry flavors and nose. A great summer barbeque wine served slightly chilled.
ECO-FRIENDLY NO EXCUSE FOR PLONK
Sorry about not posting for a long time. I've been on vacation -- hiking around the national forests of Utah. But I did have a wine experience even in the boondocks.
My wife and I stayed in two lodges, one at Bryce and the other at Zion. Both were spectacular for their location and ambiance, but abysmal for their dining service. Of course, few people other than me expect gourmet when they are hiking in remote locations and Utah's liquor laws are bizarre (food must accompany liquor service). Still, hikers are not necessarily indiscriminate. Why not treat them to good wine after an exhilerating day on the trail?
Bryce was probably the worst experience. The waiter brought the wrong wine -- already opened -- that I had to send back. The second was corked -- not his fault. But my complaint was two-fold: mark ups were about 400 percent and choices focused on wines made organically or bio-dynamically. The list was almost entirely made up of wines from Parducci and Columbia Crest. Stars were given to Parducci because they practiced good environmental stewardship.
OK, I get that for a restaurant surrounded by clean environment. Congratulations. However, there are many more -- and better -- choices from U.S. wine producers. Bonterra, Domaine Serene, DeLoach, Sokol Blosser, Benziger. Frey are a few that come to mind.
In the case of these two lodges (one operated by Xantera), someone put the emphasis on organic without consideration for quality. In today's world, you can do both.
UNRAVELING RESTAURANT WINE MARKUPS
Diners seem to understand the value of restaurant food. Wine, though, is another matter.
The cook in the house knows the price of boneless chicken breast is about $10 a pound in the store. So when a restaurant prices a chicken entrée at, say $32, the home chef can easily calculate the markup.
But what about wine? Does the diner know – or care – about the markup? He doesn’t know the wholesale price. And, unless the wine is something he often buys, he has no idea what the retail price is either.
The home cook is hardly going to complain about the markup on the chicken breast because someone else is slaving in the kitchen to prepare it. But diners grumble when they see the price of wine and assess the effort that goes into putting it in the glass. Unlike the chicken breast with a fancy sauce and sides, there is no difference between the same chardonnays bought in different restaurants.
Most wine you buy in a restaurant costs roughly twice as much as it cost in a retail wine store and triple what it cost the restaurant to buy the wine from a wholesaler. Given what goes into putting the wine in a glass, it’s hard for a restaurant to justify the markup out of the context of a restaurant’s broad financial statement. However, wine and liquor prices often offset losses in the kitchen.
However justifiable, the mystery of wine markups can make for a frustrating experience for a diner facing a wine list of expensive unknowns. Not only does he want to pick a wine that will complement his table’s food, but he is looking for a good value – a wine reasonably price that over-delivers in quality.
We are appalled when we see a list of trophy wines that will impress well-heeled collectors but leave nothing but embarrassingly cheap plonk for those who can’t shell out more than $50. There are plenty of inexpensive wines – many of them not largely known – that offer decent values even with a 300 percent markup, but either the staff is not knowledgeable or the restaurant doesn’t put any emphasis on wine. If that’s the case, order a cocktail and call it a night.
Restaurants try to help by offering familiar wines, such as Cakebread Chardonnay, which is often sold out and unavailable in retail stores. We checked restaurants in our community and found quite a discrepancy in pricing. Prices ranged from $72 to $88 – the chardonnay cost the restaurant $30.
Veuve-Clicquot Ponsardin champagne is popular for those celebrating an occasion and generally restaurants don’t double the price of its higher priced wines. In our community, the price of this champagne ranged from $80 to $107 – the wholesale price was $46. A $27 price difference is a significant difference for many diners.
There’s a difference between the quality of a $50 steak at a real steakhouse and a $25 steak at Applebee’s. Diners get that. But there is no difference in quality between the same wines sold at two different restaurants. We’re not condemning restaurants – just letting the buyer beware.