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Cheap Wines



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Michael Amsler

Pennies for Heaven: Yes, Virginia, there are post-holiday wines that you can afford and still pay your bills.

Wines for winter that won't break the bank

By Bob Johnson

IF YOU FIND YOURSELF in the poorhouse or the doghouse ... or both ... after your holiday spending spree, purchasing a few bottles of quality wine may be the last thing on your mind. To most people, "quality" equates with "pricy," and pricy may be out of the question for a few months as you pay down those department store charge cards. And there's no question we live in inflationary times when it comes to wine.

Numerous factors conspire to push up wine prices. Mother Nature's weather patterns, the high cost of oak barrels and other winery paraphernalia, and the wine industry's distributor network all play roles.

But the leading inflationary contributor is the law of supply and demand. In recent years, a stubborn root louse known as phylloxera has choked the life out of thousands of acres of grapevines in California, necessitating the uprooting of the affected vines. Replacement vines with more resistant rootstocks have been planted, but grapevines typically take three years to produce wine-quality grapes and up to seven years for their grapes to achieve full flavor potential.

The spread of phylloxera coincided with increasing consumer interest in good-quality wines, and this combination of factors resulted in shortages of many popular California bottlings. When supply is low and demand is high, prices go up. Many wines that three years ago cost $6 now cost $10. Others that brought $10 now go for $16. And California's finest cabernets, which three years ago could be had for between $25 and $50, now command anywhere from $55 to $100--or more.

Fortunately, several vintners understand that high prices shut out a significant segment of the population from enjoying fine wines. They know that today's high-end consumers aren't going to live forever, and without a solid base of everyday, or at least occasional, wine drinkers from which to draw, sales of premium-priced wines could one day plummet.

Among the more dependable value-priced wine producers--all from California unless otherwise noted--are Beautour, Columbia Crest (Washington), Delicato, Estancia, Fetzer, Glen Ellen, The Monterey Vineyard, Round Hill, Santa Rita (Chile), Sutter Home, M.G. Vallejo, and Robert Mondavi Woodbridge.

Topping the list of value-priced wineries from a quality perspective are California's Napa Ridge and Australia's Rosemount Estate. Napa Ridge produces wonderful pinot noir, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon, while Rosemount exports outstanding shiraz (known as syrah in the States) and a fine shiraz-cabernet blend. If you've ever scoured a supermarket wine shelf, you're probably familiar with many of these names, and each wine mentioned typically retails for less than $10.

Consumer price consciousness has not been lost on Sonoma County vintners, either. Here are eight value-priced wines from our own backyard, rated on a scale of one to four corks (with one cork being acceptable and four corks being exceptional) that are definitely worth seeking out:

Preston 1995 Dry Creek Valley Cuvée de Fume
Sauvignon blanc is the primary grape of this blend, with the varietal grassy quality smoothed out by the addition of semillon. Apple, pear, and mild herbal flavors round out the taste spectrum. 3.5 corks.

Hanna 1996 Sauvignon Blanc
An aromatic peach nose leads to fig, peach, and mild grass flavors. 3 corks.

Belvedere 1996 Sonoma County Chardonnay
The accent is on the fruit, resulting in rich apple and pear flavors with just the right amount of oak spice. 3 corks.

Grand Cru Chardonnay
Looking for an easy-drinking, everyday white wine? Here's the answer. Crisp, clean, refreshing, and--best of all--dirt cheap. 2 corks.

Moondance Cellars 1996 Bella Lunatage California Red Table Wine
If Grand Cru Chardonnay is the ideal "house white," here's a great "house red." Looking for a wine that will go just as well with hamburgers as it does with lasagna? This is it. Available at the Family Wineries of Sonoma Valley Tasting Room on Hwy. 12. 2 corks.

Cline 1995 Côtes d'Oakley
A blend of Rhône varietals from a Sonoma County winery specializing in the genre. Surprisingly full-bodied with in-your-face berry flavors. The grapes come from out-of-county, but they're blended and aged to perfection here. Great with pasta. 3.5 corks.

Cline 1996 California Zinfandel
Another distinctive bottling from Cline, again utilizing grapes from a number of sources. A jammy raspberry flavor is complemented by just the right dollop of pepper, resulting in what could be California's best zin value, sip for sip and dollar for dollar. 3.5 corks.

Seghesio 1996 Zinfandel
All Sonoma County grapes go into this wine, which has rich blackberry and blueberry flavors and an exotic spice quality. 3.5 corks.

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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