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Somms Know Value, too
By Robert Whitley
Sep 26, 2017
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It’s not exactly news that professional sommeliers are generally well informed on the latest and greatest from the world of wine. What isn’t as well known is that most top-notch somms appreciate wines from across a broad spectrum of price. They understand price is based on a variety of factors, some having little to do with how good the wine tastes.

This point was driven home at the 9th annual Sommelier Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition September 23-24 in San Diego. In this event, wines are evaluated in a blind tasting by certified sommeliers. They know neither the producer of the wine nor its price, only what they like.

To be sure, the somms in San Diego liked plenty of the high-priced swill, with a number of wines priced north of $100 earning platinum medals, the highest award given by the somms. Yet there was ample love for “value” wines as well.

This week I’ve singled out ten of my personal favorites the somms gave platinum awards at $20 or less.

These are all commercial wines produced for the masses and that’s part of the beauty. Because they’re in good supply, you can find them. Each is delicious. And not to be taken lightly, they are affordable.

Columbia Winery 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley ($16)
– The late David Lake, founder of the winery, built the winey’s reputation in Syrah, but he always believed Washington’s Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon could shine just as brightly.

Edna Valley Vineyards 2015 Merlot, Central Coast ($15) – October is Merlot month in California so Merlot enthusiasts planning a party will need a tasty Merlot they can serve at a value price. The Edna Valley might be the ticket. Sourced from cool coastal vineyards in the California Central Coast, it shows notes of black cherry and wood spice and the price is oh-so-right.

Fetzer Vineyards 2014 Riesling, Goosefoot Road, Monterey County ($10) – Fetzer has been making stunning wines in this price range for as long as I can remember, so this beauty comes as no surprise, especially considering Monterey County’s solid reputation for Riesling. This is a fresh, spicy white that lets the bright stone-fruit character shine.

Francis Coppola 2015 Pinot Noir, Diamond Collection, Monterey County ($18) – Although Coppola wines across the board have been all the rage in recent vintages, an $18 platinum-award Pinot Noir is a rarity. Monterey County was slow to come around to Pinot Noir but this earthy beauty from Coppola is yet more evidence that the cool coastal climate suits Pinot well.

Noble Vines 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ‘337,’ Lodi ($15) – Lodi has been coming on strong over the past decade, but the prices continue to lag behind the quality from this northern California appellation. Rock solid Cabernet Sauvignon at $15 can still be found, and the somms zeroed in on this one.

Penguin Bay 2016 Gewurztraminer, Finger Lakes ($15) – Dry gewürztraminer is so precious because there’s so little of it. Winemakers tend to leave a bit of residual sugar in Gewurz because it masks the flaws. And there is risk in going totally dry because dry Gewurz can bebitter. This New York winery adds a touch of Traminette and the result is a crisp, stony white that has all the beautiful richness and flavor of Gewurztraminer with none of the issues that sometimes cloud the Gewurztraminer picture.

Robert Hall 2014 Syrah, Paso Robles ($20) – It’s a puzzle that Robert Hall isn’t better known, for it’s among the most consistent performers in Paso and seems to come up with an impressive Syrah every vintage. The style is crowd-pleasing, with plush, opulent fruit and supple tannins and always a pleasing touch of wood spice.

Rodney Strong 2015 Chardonnay, Sonoma County ($17)
– The late Rod Strong was among the first California vintners to embrace Chardonnay nearly 50 years ago and longtime winemaker Rick Sayre has continued the legacy Strong began. This winery produces a number of Chardonnays, but it’s basic and inexpensive Sonoma County Chard remains a great value purchase after all these years.

Sartori di Verona 2013 Valpolicella DOC Classico Superiore, Italy ($15)
– Valpolicella’s reputation suffered mightily after World War II as the emphasis in the vineyard moved from quality to quantity. Sartori was one of the producers that helped swing the pendulum in the other direction. Its Valpolicella is consistently superb and the 2013 is a gem, especially at the price.

Seaglass 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County ($12) – There are numerous perfectly fine expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, then there’s the occasional Sauvignon that embodies all of them. The 2016 Seaglass is remarkably complex for a $12 wine, exhibiting such pleasing Sauvignon characteristics as melon, grapefruit, lemon, lime and fresh acidity. Don’t buy a case of this wine; buy two!

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.