Until I joined the wine industry, I was the most casual, non-discriminating of wine consumers. Put a glass in front of me and I would happily drink it. Yet I rarely sprang for a bottle unless it was Sutter Home White Zinfandel for a Saturday night with friends, or something slightly more high-end, like a Simi or Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay, to take to a dinner party or give as a gift. At the time, wine was a precious, revered, special-occasion choice; beer, gin and tequila were not only more accepted by my peers, but also easy, committed to memory, no-brainer drinks. Just pour.
While I’m well past that now, having macerated in the wine business for 24 years, I think often about the price barriers that keep many Americans from drinking delicious wines and from making them a regular part of their lives. The subject came up in a big way at last week’s Critics Challenge International Wine Competition in San Diego, where Texan Jeff Siegel, author of “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wines” (Vintage Noir Media, 2013, $12.95), and I tasted several rounds of wines in the $15-and-under category and found some real gems. That stimulated much discussion during and after the judging about the fact that many rewarding and interesting wines can still be found for less than $15, and more importantly, for less than $10, which is approximately the price of a six-pack of craft beer.
Jeff and I are kindred spirits when it comes to embracing inexpensive wines of good to excellent quality, although Jeff is El Jefe. He wrote the above book on how to select and shop for these wines and compiles an annual $10 Hall of Fame review of wines on his blog, winecurmudgeon.com.
So with value -- and summertime -- fresh on my in mind, here are some sparkling, white and rose wines that won’t split the wallet at its seams. Why buy a $20 bottle of wine for casual summer sipping and warm weather, when you can get two or three bottles of something tasty for the same amount?
The prices in parentheses are those suggested by the producers. I added the discounted price I paid recently in Northern California, although discounts come and go and vary by region and state.
Scharffernberger Cellars NV Brut Excellence ($19): Mendocino County’s Scharffenberger Cellars has new life after being acquired by neighboring Roederer Estate, an extension of Champagne Louis Roederer. Longtime winemaker Tex Sawyer weathered the years when Champagne Veuve Cliquot owned the property and branded the wines as Pacific Echo, one of the most ridiculed “serious” California wine brands ever. Quality and complexity have soared at Scharffenberger since Roederer took over in 2011, and the flagship fizz, the non-vintage Brut Excellence, is Chardonnay-dominant with a creamy, baked-bread cloak to the bright apple, citrus, ginger and hazelnut flavors. In California, it’s often priced at approximately $15 and delivers serious bang for the sparkling wine buck.
Korbel NV California Champagne Brut Rosé ($15): To my taste, this is the star of Korbel’s 1.4 million-case-per-year methode champenoise bubbly production. This rosé has sleek lines, crisp strawberry and raspberry flavors, subtle notes of spice and yeast, and a delicate sweetness on the finish (though it qualifies for “brut” status). One can quibble (and I do) with Korbel’s use of the term “Champagne” when its wines don’t come from the Champagne region of France, yet the Sonoma County winery established in 1882 has used the term since day one, and has every legal right to use Champagne on the wines it sells in the United States. But no chance in Europe. The Brut Rosé has a $15 suggested retail price, though I purchase it at my local chain grocery store for around $10 per bottle, sometimes less.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($10): This Washington state Riesling is an annual celebration of great value. Just as the label says, it’s dry (not sweet) and quite vibrant, with tangy apricot and citrus fruit, thus crisp, yet it’s also juicy and mouth-filling, with tangy lime and apricot fruit and notes of candied orange peel and spice. Its sibling, the 2013 Columbia Valley Riesling is similarly priced and offers a somewhat sweeter, yet equally mouthwatering, gulp of fruit and spice. I’ve seen it as low as $7.99
Dry Creek Vineyard 2013 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc ($12): Often under 10 bucks, Dry Creek Vineyard’s Chenin is a knockout every vintage. The Sonoma County winery could easily charge more for this wine and should be applauded for keeping it affordable for almost every wine drinker. It’s round and full, brimming with juicy pear, peach and melon flavors and a zesty citrus punch on the finish. It’s worth the full retail price, though can often be acquired for less.
Edna Valley Vineyards 2013 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($15): Tropical pineapple and mango meld with juicy pear and citrus flavors in this easy-to-drink wine. Some Sauvignon Blancs can be too assertive in their herbal character and/or high acidity for some palates, yet this one has plenty of fruit to balance the grape’s aggressive nature. Some 60,000 cases were produced, so it should be relatively easy to find. Often discounted to $11.99.
Giesen Estate 2013 Pinot Gris Marlborough ($15): From New Zealand comes this floral wine that’s terrific for lunch, picnic fare and as an aperitif. It will also pair nicely with roast and fried chicken, and grilled fish. Plump and juicy, it has bright pear, apple and lychee flavors and enough acidity to counter the body and richness of Pinot Gris. Don’t be surprised to see it priced as low as $10.99.
J Vineyards & Winery 2013 California Pinot Gris ($15): Sonoma County’s J has expanded production of this extremely popular Pinot Gris to 60,000 cases by looking to Clarksburg, Lodi, Monterey and the North Coast regions for grapes. Deft blending knits together a ripe, luscious wine that smells and tastes of fresh pear and red apple, with a squeeze of Meyer lemon. With medium palate weight and all that vibrant fruit, it’s more substantial than the typical Italian Pinot Grigio, yet less heavy than an Alsace Pinot Gris.
Sokol Blosser Winery Evolution American White Wine ($15): Oregon’s pioneering Sokol Blosser Winery in Willamette Valley uses the American appellation on this non-vintage wine because not all the grapes come from Oregon. And who would expect them two, when just about any white grape is fair game, including Pinot Gris, Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Semillon, Muscat Canelli, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Sylvaner? Gently sweet and effusively floral, the 18th edition of Evolution delivers loads of pear, apple and tropical fruit flavor and a crisp, firm finish, at just 12% alcohol. $11.99 to $12.99 is the typical store-shelf price.
Charles & Charles 2012 Rosé Washington ($12): Made mostly of Syrah, with splashes of Mourvedre, Cinsault and Grenache, this pretty-pink blend pops with wild strawberry and raspberry flavor and spice. There is an intriguing herbal note way in the background, contributing complexity, and enough muscle to complement salmon, pork, and maybe even spicy barbecue, thanks to its slightly sweet finish. Expect to pay around $11.
Pedroncelli 2013 Rose of Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($12): With lip-smacking strawberry and cherry flavors, it’s dry and mouthwatering, with enough structure to stand up to hearty fare as well as lighter salads and chicken. There is a hint of Zinfandel’s spice and a pleasant tannic bite, yet there is no mistaking that this is rose. Utterly delicious, and often priced under $10.