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A Vinous Look Back and Ahead
By Linda Murphy
Jan 4, 2011
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Unlike those folks in holiday TV commercials, I did not get a new car for Christmas.  I was a bit of a bad girl in 2010, so Santa brought me a Dustbuster (to clean up my act in missing deadlines), athletic socks (to encourage me to burn more calories in 2011) and a word-of-the-day calender (to stimulate more creativity in my writing).
 
Santa, I promise to be very good in 2011.  I will turn in columns on time -- perhaps even early.  I jogged four miles today, in a new pair of socks, and will do so again tomorrow, and I hope, every day thereafter.  And I’ve learned a new word from the calendar: “crapulence.”  It means “sickness from excessive drinking or eating,” and crapulous will not describe me at any time in 2011. 
 
St.  Nick, trust me on my promises, and order a 2012 Lexus LS now, for delivery to my driveway on Dec. 25.  Don’t bother with the big red bow; I wouldn’t know how to recycle it.
 
While I’m already thinking of the end of 2011, I’m also looking back on the year of wine in 2010.  It was a year in which the economy had a tremendous impact on the industry, and wine drinkers.  With consumers losing their jobs, enduring salary cuts and furloughs, struggling to pay their mortgages and facing soaring health care costs, few were in the mood to pay big bucks for wine.  Yet they still embraced the relatively new concept in the U.S. of drinking wine before, during and after meals; instead of shunning wine purchases, many Americans sought out bargains and good quality/price wines, trading the $50 bottle they might have purchased two years ago for five bottles of easy-drinking $10 wines.
 
Consumers got some great deals on previously hard-to-get wines, if multiple stories of $150 wines being sold to retailers at half their usual prices are to be believed.  Ethical retailers passed the discounts on to their customers; shame on those who didn’t.
 
As wine buyers traded down, restaurants saw their sales of pricey/cult wines plummet.  Many restaurateurs altered their menus and wine lists to accommodate more frugal diners (and to stay in business).  Sommeliers offered high-end wines by the glass, which gave average-income wine lovers the opportunity to taste wines previously out of their reach.  High-end producers who previously wouldn’t permit their wines to be sold by the glass welcomed any kind of sales in 2010.  Even the wealthy tended to drink from their cellars in 2010, rather than investing in new-release boutique wines.
 
Some producers were mostly immune to the economic woes (Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Sine Qua Non, etc.); their mailng lists so deep that even if long-time members dropped off, there were waves of eager buyers on waiting lists.  I signed up for Harlan’s mailing list more than three years ago, and my name still hasn’t climbed high enough to be offered the opportunity to purchase any wine.  
 
Unfortunately, some vintners threw in the towel in 2010, either going belly-up or selling their businesses at bargain prices.  Mergers and acquisitions were so prevalent in 2010 that it’s difficult to keep track of who owns what.
 
It was a very difficult year for grape growers, too.  Some farmers whose grapes are planted in less desirable regions let their 2010 crop rot on the vine, because it was too expensive for them to harvest fruit for which there were no buyers.  Others lost their crop to a summer heat spell bracketed by cool temperatures before and after; the grapes literally burned on the vines. 
 
New wine labels flooded the market in 2010, as negociants purchased high-quality bulk wines in a down market and packaged them for quick, profitable sales.  A raft of $25-and-under Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons arrived in 2010, most of them from the outstanding 2007 vintage; in a more positive economic climate, the grapes, juice and bulk wines from 2007 would simply not have been available, the demand for them so great for higher-priced labels.
 
While the U.S. wine industry suffered as a whole from the recession, consumers had a field day finding amazingly good prices across all quality levels.  I count myself as one of them. 
 
As a wine writer, I am blessed with opportunities to taste many fabulous and expensive wines -- bottles I cannot afford on my own.  When it comes to spending my precious dollars on wines for personal consumption, I’m a sucker for those costing $15 or less.  The economic downturn hit me as much as anyone else, yet it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for finding delicious wines.
 
I took my $15-per-bottle limit and shopped for bargains that delivered quality and distinctiveness; following are some of the wines I bought in 2010.  Note that the prices I list are not the producers’ suggested retail prices, but rather the amount I paid.  There can be broad discrepancies between the winery price in the tasting room, and the price on retail shelves; the discounting that was so prevalent in 2010 and, for now, continues in 2011, shows up in the wine shop or grocery store, though not always at the winery.
 
I love sparkling wine yet cannot afford Champagne.  So I invested in the methode champenoise bubblies from Gruet Winery in Albuquerque, N.M.  Yep, New Mexico.  Gruet’s brut, blanc de noirs and brut rosés have Champagne-like character, at prices ranging from $10-$15 per bottle where I shop in Northern California.  These are tremendous values. 
 
I’ve recently purchased Domaine Chandon’s California Brut Rosé and Mumm Napa’s Napa Valley Brut Prestige sparklers at chain grocers for $13 or less per bottle, and they deliver far more complexity than one could expect for the price.  Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma does an admirable job, as well.  It’s parent winery in Spain, Freixenet, makes a fine, elegant Elyssia Pinot Noir Rosé Brut that sells for around $15.
 
I’m a Riesling-gulper, and there were plenty that over-delivered on quality vs. price.  The standout is the Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling 2009 Columbia Valley from Washington; it is serious stuff, racy and peachy, with a ridiculously low $9 price tag (sometimes discounted).  Loosen Bros.’ Dr. L 2009 Mosel Riesling ($9.69) is sweet and tart in equal measure, refreshing and just 8.5% alcohol. 
 
Chenin Blanc is one of the most widely planted wine grapes in California, yet this once-star variety has been largely reduced to a component in neutral, boxed white wines.  Yet Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County produces a remarkable Chenin, from grapes grown in Clarksburg.  I recently purchased the 2008 for $8.99.  It’s a steal at that price, and it impressed a group of visiting Loire Valley vintners in San Francisco six months ago.
 
I may be in the minority, but I adore Sauvignon Blanc.  Unfortunately, most of my favorites cost more than $15, yet Dry Creek Vineyard’s Fumé Blanc delivers mouthwatering, pungent deliciousness, vintage after vintage.  I purchased the 2009 for $7.99 last week – a victory for me as a shopper, yet the winery deserves to make more on this wine, which has a remarkable track record for aging for 20-plus years.    
 
I also purchased a lot of Portugal’s Vinho Verde in 2010.  This lean, slightly sprizty, simple yet freshing white wine can be purchased for $5-$6; Gazela and Alianca and widely available, and my go-to’s during summer months.
 
I’m far more particular in buying red wines at the $15-and-under.  It’s not that there aren’t a lot of tasty reds sold at this price; it’s that I find most of them uninteresting and commercial, particularly in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah categories.
 
Yet my budget-based palate embraces Chianti Classico with tomato-ey Italian dishes (Castello d’Albola’s 2007 sells for approximately $16).  Pinot Noirs from A to Z Wineworks in Oregon ($14) and Mark West California ($9) are excellent values, though not terribly complex; and d’Arenberg’s 2008 Stump Jump from Australia, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, is a wine I’ve purchased over the years, and will continue to do so as long as its admirable quality is maintained.
 
The past year was certainly difficult for many, yet wine drinkers have never had it so good when it comes to having access to quality wines at affordable prices.  I may be a wine critic, but I’m also a budget-minded consumer; when it comes to spending my hard-earned bucks on wines, I’m happy to say there is an ocean of great values out there.  Buy now, my friends.