A price tag suggests a LOT about a wine but proves very little. When you approach a bottle of red that carries a hefty price tag, certain expectations arise. “Hey,” most of us think, “Sixty-buck Cab/Merlot. This must be the Good Stuff!” I once attended a release tasting at a Woodinville winery at which an $18 bottle of blended red absolutely mopped the floor with a $55 blend sitting three bottles away from it. Then, at that same tasting, I watched as several people came in, tasted all the wines and left with cases of the pricey stuff. This took place in the fall of 2005. I happened, for one the rare times ever, to be in the company of another wine-trade pro. He and I both went wide-eyed at the same moment as we sipped the $18 bottle. He also shrugged at the $55 wine, so this wasn’t just me and my eccentric palate. I had been chatting with one of the four guys and/or couples who picked up cases and casually asked him why he bought the more costly blend. He chuckled and said, “Oh, that cheap stuff, that’s just for fun. This is serious wine.”
Folks, if you never believe another word you read here, buh-lee dis; There is ABSOLUTELY, categorically NO relationship between the price of a wine and its quality. NONE. Zero. Zip. Nada. Ultra-expensive wines are about the same quality as they’ve been for decades, while the quality evolution of “bargain” wines – roughly $8 – $30 – has been explosive. You DO NOT need to spend anywhere north of $50 to get a great bottle of wine for that will shock ‘n’ awe your family, for holiday dinners, or your friend, as a gift.
That said, here are some sub-$20 GEMS that will make you feel like Bill Gates, for the holidays, while spending like, well, me. And I am the tightest sum bitch who ever welded a wallet shut.
A-Mano Primitivo Puglia
This amazing little bottle of Primitivo – an Italian-via-Croatia red grape that’s genetically identical to Zinfandel – may just be one of the the all-time value champions in imported red wine. For 21 straight years, since its first release in 1999, A-Mano has been named as a Best By in at least one – and usually all – of the world’s major wine publications. This is unmistakably Zin-like, with energetic spices and gobs of black fruits but less overtly peppery than American Zin; deeper, darker, and more silky. Zin’s red berries are balanced by blackberry liqueur, blueberry, huckleberry, and a quick (8 to 10 weeks) dose of French and American oak. It’s made by an American guy named Mark Shannon, former winemaker at California’s legendary value winery, Bogle Vineyards. He was wandering around Puglia in 1997, taking a break from a consulting job in Sicily, found an abandoned vineyard, ate some of the Primitivo grapes, and Got Religion. So the guiding aesthetic behind A-Mano is Italian Grape with an American Accent and that is just fine. I just absolutely LOVE this wine. It is NOT scarce. And you’ll almost always find it for…$8 to $12. Just crazy-fine. 93 Points
McManis Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi California
For ten years, now, whenever somebody has asked me to recommend a good, approachable, inexpensive Cabernet, I’ve said “McManis. No contest.” Made by a veteran grape-growing family based in the very un-sexy Ripon, California, this wine is every bit as user-friendly and versatile as your iPad. The McManis family started the winery in 1990. The first vintage of Cabernet cost $8 at retail. By the time I first found it, in 2000, it was $10. Today…it’s still $10. Wine snots will say that this Cab is too fruity and not structured like a great American Cabernet…both of which are true and both of which are irrelevant. At ten bucks, you’re not expecting Screaming Eagle. What is, is…delicious, juicy, generous, even a tad complex, showing glorious red plums, red and black berries, currants, anise, pepper, and fine, food-friendly acidity. I’ve probably told 200 people about this stuff and exactly TWO didn’t like it. For a dynamic, consistent bottle of American Cabernet, this is The Juice. 91 Points
Bodegas Atalaya “Laya” D.O.P. Almansa
This is a newer wine from a veteran Spanish winery in the Mourvedre-soaked appellation of Almansa. A gorgeous, expansive blend of 70% Garnacha Tintorera and 30% Monastrell (Spanish for Mourvedre), Laya is a young wine and is intended to be. It gets a long, cool maceration in steel and then a judicious four months in new French oak. The oak, here does what oak should do: kiss the wine with a bit of vanilla and woodsy, silken tannins, not smack it upside the head. The flavors are stately and emphatic: Raspberries, Bing cherries, anise, red currants, sage, espresso, and whole rack of baking and Asian spices. In the mouth, it feels like a top-tier Napa Merlot – medium-bodied but impossibly silky. Make no mistake about this: Laya is a freakin’ great bottle of red wine…and it’s right around TEN BUCKS. 94 Points
Marcel Lapierre Raisins Gaulois Vin de France
Gamay! You’d be shocked at how many prominent wine writers and critics – and winemakers! – harbor a secret, guilty-pleasure fixation for this grape that most Americans only encounter once a year, in Beaujolais Nouveau. The fact is, Gamay is NOT what everyone assumes: It ages quite nicely, it can be as dark and solidly medium-to-full bodied as a Rhone wine and expresses itself in radically different ways when not produced by the carbonic maceration technique used to ferment Nouveau. Marcel Lapierre, who passed away at 60, back in 2010, was one of what importer Kermit Lynch dubbed “The Gang of Four” producers of Beaujolais in what is arguably the region’s most “serious” appellation, Morgon. He was a pioneer in raising the world profile of the oft-dismissed Beaujolais and laid the pavers for the entire international “natural wine” movement. His philosophy was simple, as he once told a French writer: “The ideal, it’s to vinify without additives, respecting the terroir – the place where the grapes come from- and the vintage.” Simple, maybe, but somehow very few manage to actually do it. And his wines show this attitude in spades. This 100% Gamay edition is a young wine that’s sourced from Morgon and a couple of other growing areas and blended with Lapierre’s usual off-hand brilliance, by his son, Mathieu, now the winemaker. Its flavors are pure Gamay: raspberries, strawberries, blackerries, white pepper, sugar plums, sweet herbs, and the prominent granite and limestone of its appellation. Think all Beaujolais is just light Fun Wine? Explore a little…and start right here. About $17 – $22. 93 Points
Allegrini Palazzo Della Torre
90 from Wine Enthusiast. 90 from Wine Spectator. 92 from James Suckling. This is the most “expensive” wine on this list and worth every extra penny. Palazzo della Torre is a single-vineyard blend of native Veronese grapes Corvina and Rondinella – with Molinara, the building blocks of most Valpolicella – along with a dollop of Sangiovese and dripping awards like a roomful of four-star generals. It is voluptuous; a sinfully complete, broad, complex wine that shovels up black cherries, brandied raisins and plums, cinnamon, anise, vanilla, violets, cedar, and grace notes luring everywhere, all the way through the lazy finish. For those who had one of two Italian wines and wrote then off as “sour” or “stingy”, this is the slam-dunk rebuttal to all that mess. This is a spiritual and aesthetic cousin to big California reds but the quirky flavor characteristics of Corvina set if firmly apart and scream “ITALY!!”. Allegrini is one of the most international-leaning of the major Italian producers and has a LONG history of making wines that any wine fan on the planet can afford and enjoy. If you’re looking for something a bit different and something which hammers hoe your Hipness Factor, Palazzo della Torre is a Must-Have for your cellar and your table. Around $17 – $19. 95 Points
Parducci Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino
As I tasted this wine, I suddenly and shockingly flashed on what I would think of it if the label said “Walla Walla” or “Red Mountain” or “Columbia Valley”…and was stunned almost mute by the truth if it: I would be raving about this wine. Raving. It does, in fact, closely resemble some of the better bottles of upper-mid tier Walla Walla and Red Mountain Cabs, with possibly even a broader palate than a Napa or Sonoma Cab but maybe 80% as much richness and depth. I tasted four notable Cabs in particular, in the past year, from both those prestige Washington appellations, and they were eerily similar to this wine…but the four Washingtonians were priced at $45, $62, $49, and $52.
I just found this Cab on wine-searcher.com for $11.99.
This Parducci Cabernet, at this price, is nothing less than an Achievement, a real, tangible, and delicious testament to what it can mean to have longevity in your profession, real dedication to growing great grapes, understanding what your soil and weather and water are all about, and gathering a soul-deep knowledge of what the grape is and can be.
This is a lovely, nuanced, expressive bottle of Cabernet that will show up on this wine weenie’s table again and again. 94 Points
Bogle Vineyards Pinot Noir California
Russian River Valley, Monterey Hills, Clarksburg Delta…everybody who knows wine at all knows Russian River and probably even drinks a Pinot or two from there. Fewer know the majestic, wildly under-appreciated Monterey Hills – arguably one of my top three American appellations for Syrah – and NOBODY (maybe even some people who live there) know dick about Clarksburg, which could hardly be more under-the-radar unless it was A) In the witness protection program, and B) relocated to Zimbabwe. But that is where Bogle is headquartered. About 65 miles south is the aforementioned McManis. And Gallo…that’s right, the Great Satan of American wine, E&J Gallo is there in the nation’s breadbasket and, say what you want about Gallo, they sell TONS o’ wine and would arguably not be in the Central Valley unless Stuff Grew There. So, the Bogle Pinot’s Clarksburg component, sourced from their own estate, more than holds up its end of the sourcing and produces this insanely user-friendly Pinot, with few of the puckery elements and barnyard aromas of your Oregon and Burgundy wines, respectively. This, and generally most California lower-elevation Pinots are softer, fruitier, less tart and tight than the more-celebrated (and vastly more expensive) Oregon stuff but carry more than enough food-friendly acidity to make them just as good a pairing with your holiday meals. It shows woodsmoke, fennel, strawberries, Bing cherries, sweet spices, and an alluring, juicy marriage of vanilla cream and pipe tobacco. This stuff SHOULD, probably, cost ya somewhere in the area of $25 – $30.
It’s listed online, now…for $9.49 to $12.99. 92 Points
**A GENERAL BUYING GUIDE TO PINOT NOIR**
In general…and there are exceptions to all of this, the difference between buying a Pinot from California, Oregon, and the grape’s native Burgundy is this:
Burgundy: complex, with a wide range of textures, from feather-light to verging on full-bodied. Burgundy carries frequent and rather obvious elements of barnyard-y stank, which some people find off-putting. I urge you to try to get past this, as MANY of those “stinky wines” have lush, mouth-watering fruit behind their spume. Burgundy is something of a crap-shoot and requires more guidance from a confirmed Burgundy geek than either of the other two major sources. They can be transcendent…and they can be your crazy ex-spouse in wine form.
Oregon: A good thumbnail sketch of Tree-Hugger Pinot is this: TART – my God are they TART! – less flavor breadth than Burgundy, tending strongly to raspberries, cherries, red currants, brambly terroir notes, and background spices. Lightest in body of the three regions (people climb up my fanny all the time for saying that but, when pushed, usually admit to homerism and have had little experience with any wines but O-State Pinot) and often tight and challenging. As my old wine mentor once said, speaking of our Oregon stock, “What you have to remember about Pinot is that there is always something wrong with it.” For decades, Oregon apologists rationalized out their austerity by calling them “Burgundian”, at which I once snapped, talking to a noted O winemaker, saying, “Y’know what wrong with that term, Bubba? You’re not in fucking France!” There have always been notable exceptions to that nutshell – like Ken Wright Cellars, Ken’s son Cody’s Purple Hands wines, Patricia Green Cellars, Stangeland, Knudsen, and lately the jaw-dropping Tendril Wines from former Domaine Serene winemaker, Tony Rynders, but the exceptions run out shortly past that list.
California: Softer, fruitier, more friendly and approachable, far more sippable, just by themselves, but showing wide variation by region. Somona and the Edna Valley around San Luis Obispo and Lake County are among the appellations whose climate gives the wines a bit of Oregonian restraint but the lower elevation vineyards produce Pinot that routinely gets their makers sniped at by Pinot Purists, who dismiss Cali Pinot as “unauthentic”, “too fruity”, “soad pop Pinot”, etc. One prominent CA Pinot maker, in Detroit for a Pinot panel discussion, was beseiged by the other panelists and audience members for his wines’ lack of authenticity. The CA guy, who is much nicer than me, finally snapped (too mildly for me) and said, “Hey, my wines ARE authentic – for my region. If they’re not sufficiently Burgundian for you, that’s because I don’t live in France or Oregon. This is how we make Pinot Noir. If you don’t like it, don’t drink it but stop expecting me to apologize for it.” Again, generally speaking, California Pinot will be a LOT more friendly, especially for those folks who are not “into Pinot”, and just as food-loving, with more assurance involved in just buying an unknown quantity off the shelf. Look for names like Buena Vista, Parducci, Bogle, Cameron Hughes, J Lohr, Olema, and The Pinot Project.
One More Notable Must-Have for the Holidays:
You have a family member or a friend who is a newbie to wine and is looking for something with training wheels: soft, fruity, low in tannins, friendly, approachable, like a happy puppy in a bottle. (I would NEVER do that!) That, nine times out of ten, is gonna be, as Miles said in Sideways, “…Fucking Merlot!!“. Trouble is, wineries in the 90s and the 00s almost killed this grape, reasoning that, since Cabernet is the most popular red wine, making Merlot, uh, more like Cabernet would help sell Merlot! BUT…Merlot is NOT Cabernet. It’s lighter bodied by a bit, not as tannic, has a very different range of flavors and is not amenable to being extracted the way Cabernet can be.
This has been true for a while, now, and it is still a good rule today: If you want Merlot, look in Washington. I don’t know whether this is a blessing or a curse but we do Merlot – and, I would contend, Syrah, also – better here than anywhere else. The grapes fit our climate and soil like a leotard fit Baryshnikov and the character of it is innately more conducive to that lighter, less blowsy profile than California or Australia or anywhere else, really.
You can spend a LOT of money for a Washington Merlot; upwards of $75, in some cases, but you don’t have to. Try a bottle or six of this…
Charles Smith Wines “Velvet Devil” Washington State: Decanter, the British wine magazine, gave this wine 88 points. Wine Enthusiast have given it 90s in several vintages. Wine Spectator issued 90s, too. Not that any of that matters but the stuff is right around TEN BUCKS, all the time, and tastes like Merlot, NOT Cabernet, which is, as Martha would say, “A good thing“. It’s drenched with black fruit, black currants, something suggesting eucalyptus, Mission figs, black plums, bay leaf, black olives, pipe tobacco, and a lurking note of cocoa. Even for a chronic Merlot detractor like me, it’s a friggin’ treat of a wine and Charles – that relentless promoter and hyperactive producer – makes a regulation pantload of it, every year, drawing on vineyard sources literally all over Eastern Washington. It is a stupendous value in American Merlot and I suspect, with zero proof, that he could simply slap new labels on it – something with prissy, chateau-ish pen ‘n’ ink drawings on ’em – charge $49.50, and get it with nary a complaint. This is how Merlot is supposed to taste and will give all your newbies – and wine veterans – something to sip and enjoy all through the holidays.