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Wine Steals for the Budget Conscious
By Robert Whitley
Nov 22, 2006
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Everybody loves a deal. Even me. Especially me. I learned about wine drinking Bordeaux, but I was young and hardly flush so the Bordeaux I went after were the steals. Good wines from poor vintages. Unknown Chateaux. Close-outs. Almost nothing gave me greater pleasure as a wine enthusiast than bragging about how little I paid for a seriously good wine.

That was then and this is now. There are few "steals" to be had in Bordeaux these days, but that doesn't mean a wine lover has to scrounge to find delicious cheap wine. The world is full of it, and I've noticed a trend lately that much of the inexpensive wine I find myself liking comes from California's Central Coast.

That said, the world truly is full of wines that "over deliver" on flavor and pleasure for the price. I've put together a small list of "value" wine producers who've impressed me lately, but this is is not meant in any way to be definitive. Someone else could put together another list using entirely different producers and that list could be every bit as good.

So use the list, but don't be afraid to do your own research (i.e., taste trials) for the exploration is at least half the fun.

For this column, my definition of "value" is a wine that is above average in quality and generally sells for $15 or less throughout the United States. The producers/wineries are listed in my order of preference.

1. Concannon

This Livermore-based winery may well be the most underrated in the United States. Of its 10 wines that won awards at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition last spring, only one cost more than $14. Six of those medals were gold and one was platinum. It was an impressive showing. Concannon is fond of red and white Rhone-style blends, but there's a delicious Pinot Noir for $14, too. These wines are great to drink now, but they have the structure to improve with age as well, which is unusual at this price point.

2. Hahn Estates

Hahn is the laboratory of one of America's hottest winemakers, Adam LaZarre. His wines have won the highest accolades at major wine competitions throughout the United States since he took over the Monterey County operation. LaZarre is a brilliant taster who knows how to source grapes and blend finished wines. His $14 Merlot, tasted blind, can hold its own against wines three times as expensive. Prices shot up at Hahn after a recent run of wine competition success, but only the $20 red Meritage cracks the $15 barrier.

3. McWillians Hanwood Estate

One of the largest remaining family owned wineries in Australia, McWilliams purchases a good deal of its grapes from long-standing suppliers. The product is consistently excellent, particularly the Riesling, but it's the reds - Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz - that are the steals when you can find them (occasionally) in the $10 range.

4. Monterra/Delicato

These are two different brands owned by the same company, and that company owns the San Bernabe Vineyard in Monterey County, which is the source of some of California's most yummy Syrah. They also do Chardonnay very well. Both brands offer great value, but the Delicato is generally a few dollars less per bottle than the Monterra.

5. Jacob's Creek

I nearly always find myself rubbing my chin and scratching my head after tasting the Jacob's Creek wines. They are superstars in this price range and competitive with wines that cost considerably more. I have no idea how they pull it off, especially now that the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Australian dollar is no longer as favorable as it once was. The reserve dry Riesling is world class (there are better in Australia, but not at this price) and the dry reds and whites are impeccably made and exceedingly satisfying.

6. Gallo Family Vineyards

They're slowly transitioning the Gallo of Sonoma wines over to the Gallo Family brand, but packaging aside the wines are the same, and that's a good thing. Gallo Family wines never fail to over-deliver, and you can bet that the quality has something to do with the use of a fair amount of good Sonoma County grapes to maintain the consistently high quality. I especially like the Chardonnay because it's classy and not overdone, as so many Chards in this price range tend to be (perhaps imitating more expensive wines?). Much like the Jacob's Creek wines, though, the best values are in the reds - Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. They can stand with anybody in this price range.

7. Cycles Gladiator

This is the bargain brand from Hahn Estates and is made by the winemaker, Adam LaZarre. Priced below $10 a bottle, they are nevertheless eye-catching easy-to-drink everyday wines that draw a lot of oohs and ahs because of the sweet oak on the finish and the supple tannins of the reds. These are not wines you would want to cellar, but they are winners in the short term.

8. Five Rivers

Among the Fetzer family of wines (which includes Fetzer and Bonterra) the Five Rivers is least expensive and hence the wines don't necessarily have the character oomph of the other two brands, but these are well-made wines (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.) that deliver great satisfaction for the price ($8).

9. Avila

I'm not sure how well distributed the Avila wines are throughout the U.S., but they're worth a look if you can find them. A good amount of the fruit sourcing is Santa Barbara County and that's a splendid area for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. The Avila wines are always fruit forward and well balanced.

10. Covey Run

Unlike many choices in this price range, the Covey Run wines (Merlot, Riesling and Syrah are all very nice) are not the fruit bombs you'll find in California. The climate and soils of eastern Washington yield leaner, crisper wines that offer more minerality and subtle fruit aromas. These are great food wines and the price (about $7) is right.