The Grapevine

For better bargains, try lesser-known grapes

Special to The TribuneApril 14, 2014 

Syrah, such as the 2011 J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah, can offer a lot of flavor for a modest price.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

When I’m looking for an interesting wine at a bargain price — and at tax time, who isn’t? — I often have better luck with imports. Places like Spain, lesser-known parts of Italy, southern France and South America can be treasure troves for bargain hunters. But some of those wines can also be a challenge to find on store shelves.

Modestly priced American wines are much more ubiquitous. Most of them are sound and well-made. Finding one that’s interesting might be a bigger challenge.

Blame consolidation. According to Wine Business Monthly, the three largest U.S. wine companies — E&J Gallo, the Wine Group and Constellation Brands — accounted for more than half of all U.S. wine sales in 2013.

Jeff Siegel, the Dallasbased writer of the Wine Curmudgeon blog and author of a recent book, “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine” (Vintage Noir Media, $12.95), recently observed in his blog: “Big Wine focuses on price and technical quality, and whether the wine is interesting is an afterthought. Hence all those $10 California merlots that taste the same. The fear for those of us who love cheap wine is that, as the big get bigger, it will be more difficult to find interesting cheap wine.”

So I called Siegel to ask about his strategies for finding cheap, interesting American wines.

"If a company makes really good expensive wine,” he advises, “chances are their inexpensive wine is going to be good too.” As examples, he cites Pine Ridge, a Napa Valley winery where a good chenin blanc-viognier blend ($15) co-exists alongside $150 bottles, as well as Dry Creek Vineyards in Sonoma County.

Siegel also suggests looking at less common grape varieties. “If you’re not looking for chardonnay, if you’re not looking for cabernet sauvignon, if you’re not looking for merlot, you have a better chance of finding something interesting,” he says.

So consider sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, riesling, chenin blanc, zinfandel and syrah. Sauvignon blanc, in particular, is often a good buy. For example, Morgan Winery in Monterey County, which makes pricey chardonnays and pinot noirs, produces outstanding sauvignon blanc that’s very affordable.

Years ago, I wrote about reasonably priced brands that you could rely on. But “line extensions” — new wines (a different grape variety or blend) under the same brand in roughly the same price category — have made buying on brand more iffy. Siegel says he still thinks Bogle is reliable, and he likes most of the McManis Family wines.

I would add to the list Tangent in Edna Valley, which specializes in cool-climate whites, and Ancient Peaks in Paso Robles. All have a good selection of reliable bottles for $20 or less.

PICK OF THE WEEK

Chamisal Vineyards 2013 Stainless Pinot Noir ($24)

No oak is used in the production of this pinot noir — thus the “stainless” moniker. So the wine is all about pure fruit: lively bing cherry, raspberry and a hint of cranberry, with a core of racy acidity.

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