By Liza B. Zimmerman
It can often be a catch 22 as some of the best, and most affordable, wines are made by large-scale producers. They can also be overly commercial, mass produced and consumers often end up funding their promotional budgets. Sundial Chardonnay was a legend in the 1970s both because it was so consistently good and a marketing legend.
So how do you ferret out the best and most affordable small producers? Look for lesser-known wine regions, such as Amador or Lodi. There may well be great producers there such as Sobon, whose wines we used constantly when I was an educator at the now-defunct Copia wine museum and school in the town of Napa. The producer’s Hillside Estate Zinfandel is fantastically rich, somewhat dusty and costs less than $20. It is an amazing palate pleaser and works so well with a wide range of foods, particularly smoked and roasted meats.
There are many other intense reds to be found in both of those, sometimes other frequently, hot climate, areas. Many producers are starting to focus more on Italian varietals, such as Barbera, that seem to turn out beautifully, although they are incredibly distinct from their Italian brethren.
Seeking Value South of Napa?
Paso Robles is an amazing, and often underappreciated, wine region that lies midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its diversity is exemplified in its ability to produce Bordeaux blends, Rhône blends and even some Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons. The whites from the region are also pretty divine as well. A host of different climatic conditions contribute to this amazing region’s ability to bust out with so many wine styles: coastal, inland and mountains. These producers have it all. J. Lohr was one of the first, solid high-production houses and many others have followed in their footsteps. The Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon from them also represents a great value.
Don’t be afraid to investigate new or smaller wineries. The town of Carmel, about three hours south of San
Francisco, is full of great multi-producer tasting rooms. Many of them are right in the center of down-town. One of my favorites is Scheid. Reach out to the local Chamber of Commerce to help you map out your visit or share insight about local wine festivals. Many of these coastal towns, from Monterey to Pebble Beach, put on some amazing wine shows with great wine pairing dinners.
Don’t be afraid to try unusual varietals. Can’t pronounce Tinta Roiz, will you might want to try it from the Pierce Ranch producers, wines such as their Cosechero because many consumers can be shy about hard-to-pronounce grapes. They are likely to be just as beautiful as your better-known players, but may be on the market at more accessible price points as they develop a following. This includes the constantly better-known, and rightfully more appreciated, California wines based on Tuscany’s Sangiovese and Piedmont’s Barbera.
Avoid the big names. Anything with the appellation “Napa” attached to it, or that is primarily Cabernet Sauvginon based, is going to cost more. And it won’t necessarily taste better. Merlot was much maligned because of “that movie,” but it still makes great wines. Divest from the herd and follow your heart. There are so many great grapes out there. Even if you love the tannins of classic Napa Cabernets, Petite Sirahs and Zins can give you some of that taste profile, often with a lighter weight for your wallet.
Trust your palate and explore! Don’t ever doubt yourself and go to as many fantastic tastings as you can at your local retailers and restaurants. Talk to the owners, sommeliers and clerks. You never know when they will be able to introduce you to a new, great and affordable California wine.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.
Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.
She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.