1. Much have held its price for at least the past five years.
2. Must be easily and generally available, either in local shops or via online retailer.
3. Must be WITHIN $3 either way of Ten Bucks, recognizing that prices do vary by location.
4. Must be attributable to winery shown on label. Sorry, but wines made for on-paper only wineries not included.
Virtually ever since I started in the retail wine biz, back there in 1996, I have kept an ongoing list of wines that offer genuinely spectacular value for the prices charged. Over the years and almost purely by word of mouth, this list has become the most requested thing I maintain. Just from a very quick and cursory count of my email files, many dating back to the turn of the millennium, over a thousand people have asked for this list. But a curious thing happened, in the feedback I’ve received: over 80% of all who got it never bought much of anything farther than the top five in that list. I often asked why and got this from about a dozen readers:
“Well, I figured whatever came to mind first, for you, would be the best.“
So, I randomly reordered the list. Same thing happened.
So, after these 13 years of The Pour Fool, I just compiled my own private scores, vintage by vintage, across all red and all white wines and got the composite Top Eight…which is here. I’ve included several more of Special Mention, if anyone is feeling adventurous enough to venture past the first five. (Please do. I’m losing faith in mankind!)
That list is no longer available by request. But I plan to post this each year and, yeah, it may not change at all, year to year, or something new might surface. But, all that aside, for almost 25 years, now, these are the Top Five Reds Under Ten Dollars that I have tasted.
Current #1: Bodegas Atalaya, “Laya”
I last tasted this, well, last night. We decided to watch the technicolor Washington sunset from a hilltop terrace adjoining the site of the 2015 US Open Golf Tournament, Chamber Bay Golf Club. I spied the Laya in our wine fridge, grinned ear to ear, and snagged it. As always, the aromas erupted from the bottle as I opened it and expanded as I poured some into a discrete vacuum bottle for easy (and police-safe) pouring. We toasted our first glimpse of that stunning sunset and both made happy noises as a cascade of favors hit our tongues: blackberries, plums, black currants, Bing cherries, cocoa, cafe au lait, pepper, tobacco, and woodsy herbal notes. It’s crazily complex for under ten bucks (you’ll routinely find it for about $8.99) and, of course, a lot of tedious, lifestyle-obsessed wine weenies rule it out, mired in that tired, silly, antiquated thinking that says that something that cheap cannot be that good. More for us, I say. Laya is possibly the best sub-$10 bottle of wine I have ever tasted.
McManis Family Cabernet Sauvignon, Lodi
This is a composite list, remember, averaging out up to twenty vintages, for some of the wines, and this McManis Cabernet has been on the list as long as all but one other red. Now, instead of the appellation, “California” which used to be on the label, recognizing the California regulations about wines of mixed-region origins, McManis has moved to a Lodi appellation labeling…and a dramatically better Cab. To say that this stuff Rocks would be tragically misrepresenting it. I recently, unbeknownst to a group of five wine-trade friends, slid this into a tasting of Cabernets ranging in price from $65 to $135. Eight wines, all in bags, tasted completely blind. I had a friend mix up the bottles so that I could participate. Tasters were asked to rate the wines by order of preference and to guess the price at retail. After I tabulated the tasting sheets, five of the six people tasting rated the McManis among their top three wines. (The sixth rated it fourth). On three of those sheets, they had it Number One. The price estimates for it ranged from $75 to $110.
It’s currently running from about $11.99 to $16.99.
This is a full-bodied, lush, expansive, beautifully-made Cab. Period. None of that, “for the price” or “as cheap wines go” nonsense. True at any price.
Di Majo Norante Sangiovese, Molise
This has been my main Italian Sangiovese crush since the mid-90s and has declined not a molecule. It’s 100% Sangiovese grown in the Ramitello and Martarosa vineyards and hand-harvested in October, aged in stainless steel and large oak barrels for six months. In short, un-tarted up with about 95% of all the little tweaks and enhancements that most wines for international export are sadly prone to, in the ongoing effort to appease the American palate. The Di Majo property was founded in 1968 and the current head of the family, Alessio Di Majo, hired Italy’s foremost consulting oenologist, Riccardo Cottarella, to revive the vineyard properties and revamp the winemaking philosophy. As Cottarella told me, during a 2003 visit to Seattle, his first act was to create this wine from the spectacular Sangiovese vines already there. It became the cash engine that drove the winery’s entire roster and remains the best-selling Italian Sangio in the US. And it has been this little miracle for a LONG damned time. When I first tried it, I had just arrived in Seattle the previous year, in 1991, and bought this at Esquin Wine Merchants…for $3.47 a bottle. In that thirty years, there have been MAYBE two vintages in which it lost a step but it has been and remains an drop-dead delicious bottle of Sangio that FAR outpaces its price point. It runs anywhere from$8.99 a bottle to about $13.
Bogle Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel
In the US, our laws regarding what we can call wines are mostly guidelines and only have any real enforcability by the several grower’s associations that set standards for what wineries can claim for their labels. Calling something “Old Vine” has a bit more definition to it than most and the general meaning is “from vines around fifty years old”. It’s a fact that older vines produce better wines…sometimes. But as a rule, it works. But what “Old Vine” mostly means is “we can justify hiking up the sticker price by 20 to 40 percent”. California Zinfandel is the wine to which the term is most applied…which figures because Zinfandel vines were planted by some of the original Italian settlers, back in the 1800s and the offspring of those vines – indeed even some of the original plants – still exist today.
Bogle, the winery which made its bones in American wine with a strange, dark, sorta tannic grape called “Petit Sirah” (no real relation to Syrah), a bottle which arguably created the scant market for Petit Sirah. Bogle owned some Zinfandel vines and made some wines from them and just called it Zinfandel for a while before adding “Old Vine”. What they forgot to do was the 20 to 40% thing. Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel is sourced from legit old vines and has now had its price increase to an obscene…15-ish bucks. Contrast this with the Woodward Canyon Old Vines Cabernet at $108 a bottle and Numanthia “Termanthia” at $200 a pop and you start to see how genuinely loose that designation is. But in purely bang-for-buck terms, there may be no other Old Vine anything that measures up to this perennial Bogle gem. It is adamantly NOT one of those syrupy, cloying “Power Zins” that use elevated alcohol to convey muscle. This is medium+ in body, drenched with glorious black fruit flavors, red raspberries and currants, black pepper, cinnamon, plums, cherries, and a touch of flattering oak. It’s every bit as consistent as the Di Majo Norante and has held at well under ten bucks on the shelf for decades. You can, in fact, find it for $7.99 and $8.99 in a LOT of supermarkets and your Costcos and Total Wines. This is just flat-damned brilliant stuff and a howling bargain.
Saviah Cellars “The Jack” Red Blend
Of all the wines on this list, The Jack – made by the small-to-mid-sized Savian Cellars of Walla Walla, Washington, is the one you will have some trouble finding. Saviah is not a national brand but, out of the largish mega-plethora of wineries making what they feel is their best-foot-forward blended value red – at least out of the 500 or so that I have sampled in the past ten, fifteen years – Rich Funk’s inspired “The Jack” combines a certain coolness factor – “Gimme a glass of The Jack, please!” – with a rock-solid, rounded, even complex flavor profile, EASY drinkability, and bushels of black fruit and cherries, in a way and more consistently than any other red blend for under $20 (and a hell of a lot above that) I taste annually. The tradition of these over-delivering value blends used to be almost the sole territory of California wineries and, in some past years, this list would have included the legendary Laurel Glen “Reds” or Hop Kiln’s classic “Marty Griffin’s Big Red”…but, today, Washington’s wineries are the breeding ground. Waterbrook “Melange”, Hedges’ “CMS”, Sleight of Hands’ “Renegade Red”, Pendulum Red, Bergevin Lane “Calico”, Tamarack Cellars “Firehouse Red”, Dunham “Three-Legged Red”, and a slew of others have now planted the WA state flag atop the heap of value blended reds but none has yet exceeded The Jack. Ste. Michelle’s ubiquitous “14 Hands” may be the most visible, mostly due to the parent company’s absentee ownership, but this inspired blend of 70% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc. and 10% Petit Verdot delivers a LOT more expression and subtlety than the 14 Hands Smooth OR Bold reds contain.
Here is a link to the “shop” page of the Saviah website, from which you can buy The Jack or, with a bit of creative clicking, any of the jaw-dropping Saviah wines and have ’em shipped right to your hatch. DO comparison shop with other online retailers and bear in mind that larger retailers like Total Wine and BevMo often stock it for around $12.
Yeah, you may go on safari to find this but The Jack has been and remains arguably the Gold Standard for American value blended red wines.
Bodegas Castaño “Hecula” Monastrell
It borders on perversity that so many American – and even a lot of Europeans! – STILL don’t know the name Bodegas Castaño, the winery started in 1950 by Ramon Castaño Santa, in the town of Yecla, Spain (not near anywhere you know), way down in the Southeast corner, just inland from the Mediterranean. A few more folks may know Monastrell (Moan-ah-STRAY) (MAHN-uh-strell will do just fine for Americans), more commonly known as Mourvedre, (MOOR-ved-ruh) in France, but that is still not a huge number and I have always been mystified at how a grape as jazzy and peppery and spicy and rich in berries and cherries and big, jammy flavors has successfully flown under our collective American radar for well over 100 years. But it has. I saw it listed in a wine lecture series, in a symposium called “Obscure Grapes” and stunned afresh. ONE sip is quite often all it takes to make a stone Mourvedre freak out of most devoted wine lovers. People who know wine well swoon at the stuff. When my pal, noted wine critic Paul Gregutt, entered into a cooperative arrangement to produce wines under his Waitsburg Cellars label, his first choice for an inaugural red was not any of Washington’s classic Cab/Merlot/Syrah fruit. He issued a Mourvedre that remains one of the best yet produced here in the Soggy Corner of America. I would do exactly the same, and I’m the pickiest SOB who ever walked upright.
But I don’t need to, as long as Castaño keeps turning out Hecula . With the help of every winemaker and grower I know and maybe even the Navy, I couldn’t even equal what you find in this bottle of Hecula, which I have seen within the last fifteen minutes, online for as low as $9.99 a bottle. This is from The WineAdvocate and I can’t really add a lot: “copious aromas of blueberries, black raspberries, camphor, licorice, white flowers and a chalky limestone/dusty character. Full-bodied, rich and well-balanced, it is an incredible value.” I found a good bit of teaberry and some especially fat Bing cherries lurking, too, and you may get something else, even, but that’s a big art of the allure of this wine: it’s as chameleon-like a value red as I’ve ever found. Hecula is just a small part of the STUNNING agricultural landslide that is Spanish wine-growing but it has established itself as one of the wine world’s great, enduring bargains for well over two decades.
D’Arenberg “The Stump Jump” Grenache Shiraz Mouredre
Let me say one thing first: I know a LOT of (tedious, oblivious, of questionable parentage) people wh dismiss Australian wines as “fruit bombs”. Setting aside for a moment the FACT that wine is made from FRUIT and that fruit is the raison d’etre of 98% of the world’s wines, “fruit bomb” seeks to diminish Aussie wines by suggesting that they have nothing but fruit going on in every bottle. Which is an insipid, under-educated viewpoint. The same argument can just as easily be made about California but both Cali and Oz offer far too many examples of complexity and earth notes to make that accusation stick.
One of the earliest and most emphatic clap-backs against the Fruit Bomb Thang is by one of what has now come to be a coalition of Old Guard winemaking families across Australia, Australia’s First Families of Wine. Instituted in 2009, the First Families inclides such legendary names as Jim Barry, Tahbilk, Henschke, Tyrell’s, Campbell’s…and D’Arenberg of McClaren Vale. Founded in 1912 by a tee-totaller racehorse owner named Joseph Osborne sold off his stable of horses to buy vineyard land in what was even then vineyard land, with some vines dating back to the 1850s! They created Stump Jump Red as a value offering over twenty years ago and it has been a consistent critical darling and consumers’ fave ever since. McClaren is a virtual wonderland of varied soil types and each of these is present in each Stump Jump wine, of which there are now seven different whites and reds, including the Shiraz which many people mistake for this blend. This 2018, reviewed in Wine Enthusiast by Christina Pickard, earned this description:
“Ripe, fleshy blueberries and raspberries drive this red blend without too much oak getting in the way. There’s an underbelly of flowers, cinnamon and peppery spice. The tannins are typically muscular, while the fruit is juicy, silky and fresh.”
Yep. All that and a bag o’chips. Stump Jump Red is one of the planet’s most reliable and TASTY reds and you’ll find it for anywhere from $9 to $15.
Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot Columbia Valley
Here’s a dirty little secret: the one winery name from Washington that you are almost guaranteed to know – whether you’re reading this in Vermont, Macedonia, Hong Kong, or aboard a ship at sea – is Chateau Ste. Michelle, that colossus of bewildering ownership that sits astride a long valley in suburban Seattle. By its proper name, “Ste. Michelle Wine Estates”, the company now includes 28 different brands and about a dozen other partnerships with producers like Nicholas Feiullatte Champagne, Antinori, Tormaresca, Prunotto, and Antica Napa Valley. So, you would think that anyone from Washington, asked to name the state’s top wineries would immediately say “Chateau Ste. Michelle”.
You would be wrong. In over 25 years in the WA/PNW wine biz, I have seen NO list of best Washington wineries that included Ste. Michelle…but one of their subsidiary brands makes those lists routinely, almost casually, like fallin’ offa damned log: Columbia Crest. Columbia Crest’s showcase winery chateau is located on a low hill just off of WA Route 221 in the Columbia Valley’s impossibly beautiful Horse Heaven Hills. You will find Best Value and Top Bargain Wines lists generously littered with names of these Grand Estates wines, every vintage, without fail. The Chardonnay is a near-legend. The Cabernet is arguably Washington’s greatest all-time under-$20 Cab. But the one that prods people right squarely in their wine-weenie assumptions and pretensions is their iconic editions of that most abused of all American wines, Merlot.
I used to really love Merlot, back in the early 90s, just before a shit-ton of American winenakers got hold of it and started doing experiments that make Dr. Frankenstein’s reanimated gaggle of body parts look like a grade-school chemistry assignment. Cabernet was becoming the nation’s favorite knee-jerk red and winemakers, searching about for something like Cabernet that they could sell as readily, latched onto Merlot, another Bordeaux grape that really is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like Cab, except for being red. Merlot is lighter and shows flavors that Cabernet cannot, and vice-versa. Bay leaf, cocoa powder, back olives, rhubarb, cola, blueberries, sweet herbs, and graphite, all flavors not common in Cabernet, are routine in a good Merlot. While the two do have flavors in common – blackberries, cherries, currants, etc. – it was their differences that made the two natural blending partners in their original French producers’ rosters. US producers started drenching Merlot in overbearing French oak, extracting it far beyond what it will withstand, and leaving it hanging too long, to boost sugars. Result: an ongoing mess of a wine that started to decline by the late 90s and got really lost thereafter.
In the middle of the 00s, wineries everywhere began taking Merlot back to its roots and examples of that traditional, Old World-leaning, un-tarted-up Merlot began to seep into the collective consciousness. I started to find those Merlots that reminded me of why I loved the wines, in the first place. And the most reliable, consistent example of that style is this Columbia Crest Grand Estates. It’s just past medium-bodied, which is exactly what the grape wants, fresh, vivid, transparently shows the soils and vegetation of Horse Heaven, and lays out those classic Merlot flavors like a strip of Pantone colors. To use this phrase in its best possible meaning – It IS what it IS. It is not intended to remind you of your fave Cabernet but of why Cabernet should NOT be your only, habitual red wine habit. And Ste, Michelle, to their infinite credit, has held the line on the price for well over a decade and a half, now, when its critical acclaim COULD have earned them a lot more bottom line adding.
Make no mistake about this: even if you are the sort of person who channels Miles from “Sideways” – “I am NOT drinking any FUCKING Merlot!” – this is a bottle of fucking Merlot that falls under the heading of “your loss” if you arbitrarily ignore it. Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot is a serious, grown-up, core bottle of American red wine and it will run ya about $12. Your move, baby.