Magazine article Sunset

Good Wines ... for a Steal

Magazine article Sunset

Good Wines ... for a Steal

Article excerpt

Okay, you asked for it. Many of you have written in with a plea: Tell us about inexpensive wines, ordinary Wednesday-night-and-no-one's-coming-for-dinner wines that almost anyone could afford.

I'm thankful for your request. Let me express why by way of a food analogy. It has always seemed to me that the creator (whoever she was) of French onion soup deserves a huge amount of credit compared, say, with a cook who makes a great-tasting foie gras dish. Foie gras (expensive) can't help but taste great. But making stale bread, old cheese, water, and onions taste good? Now that's a triumph.

And so it is with wine. Making good-tasting inexpensive wine isn't easy. Great wine is largely a matter of perfect grapes grown in top-notch vineyards by talented viticulturists who then turn the grapes over to skilled winemakers with state-of-the-art equipment. The cost of each of these things - from grapes to equipment - is frighteningly high (French-oak barrels alone cost upwards of $600 apiece!). Which is why dozens upon dozens of cheap wines are, frankly, rank and insipid.

Nonetheless, some wineries do manage to make tasty inexpensive wines. And though finding one is a little like discovering a stunning outfit on the closeout rack - you have to sift through a lot of junk before you uncover a gem - the gems are worth the hunt. Here are a few strategies to simplify your search.

1. Beware fashionable varietals. Merlot, Sangiovese, and Syrah are in such demand that wineries and restaurants can charge uptown prices, even for ultraordinary wines. Instead, look for grapes and wine styles that are (temporarily) out of fashion. Right now, there are excellent roses on the market (try the terrific Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral Grenache Rose, at $10), plus a slew of Rieslings, Chenin Blancs, Petite Syrahs, and Zinfandels. If you do want to drink a fashionable varietal, try strategy 6.

2. Do a case study. Most of us instinctively head for a discount store when we want a wine bargain, but a good wine shop can do more to help you avoid the dross. Its knowledgeable merchants can put together a mixed case of 12 inexpensive wines to try (often with a case discount). Discover what you like best, then look for those labels in both discount and top wine shops (the latter often have terrific sales).

3. Search out second brands. Many top wineries produce a less expensive wine under another brand name - often made with considerable skill just like the winery's premier wine. Two great second brands: Hawk Crest, from Napa Valley's famous Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Michel Lynch, owned by Jean-Michel Cazes, the winemaker of Bordeaux's renowned Chateau Lynch Bages. …

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