As I visit my favorite wine merchant this holiday season, there are but two kinds of wine that interest me: gifting wines, which by their nature tend to be expensive, and value wines, which are a matter of financial survival.
Between the parties, the dinners, convivial impromptu gatherings and the like, my tab for wine eventually takes a toll on my wallet. So for those holiday occasions that really do require a step up from the mundane everyday wine, I try to shop smart.
Over the course of the year, I taste literally thousands of wine samples looking for two important elements in each wine — quality and value. Many of the finest wines I evaluate are well beyond my means except for the occasional splurge.
The value wines are thus the core of my wine-buying strategy. Everyone has a different definition of value when it comes to wine. Mine is simply wine that tastes like it costs much more than it does. If these wines were professional prizefighters, you would say they punch above their weight.
This week I zero in on a number of domestic value wines I've evaluated and enjoyed over the past year. All are priced at $20 or less and received high marks in my reviews. I've tried to stick with recommendations that are in good supply and readily available, so some of the more obscure value finds have been left out.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Hahn 2010 "GSM," Central Coast ($12) — Voted Best Rhone, Hahn's grenache, syrah, Mourvedre blend had the judges' tongues wagging in disbelief after the price was revealed at the San Diego International Wine Competition earlier this year. It is a truly delicious red blend that exhibits layers of red and black fruits, tantalizing spice notes and juicy acidity. Rating: 91.
Clayhouse 2010 Syrah, Paso Robles ($15) — This wine that has everything you want in a classy syrah: intense aroma, in this case ripe blackberry, blueberry and red currant, and a gorgeous nose that's spicy and peppery. On the palate, it has richness and power without being heavy (13.5 percent alcohol by volume). And it finishes with smooth tannins and tremendous persistence of flavor. Rating: 90.
Rodney Strong 2010 Pinot Noir, Estate, Russian River Valley ($20) -- No kidding, this is a gold-medal-winning estate-grown Russian River Valley pinot for $20. It is beautifully structured and well balanced, exhibiting red and dark fruit and subtle hints of spice. Winemaker Rick Sayre has been working successfully with pinot from the Russian River Valley for more than two decades, which may be the best kept secret in California wine. Rating: 90.
Kenwood Vineyards 2009 Zinfandel, Sonoma County ($14) — A zinfandel lover recently recently cried on my shoulder, lamenting the absence of well-balanced zin in the marketplace. Zins have gotten bigger (as a percentage of alcohol by volume) in recent years, but not necessarily better. Here's a zin with a modest (by zinfandel standards) 14.5 percent abv and a gold medal from the Critics Challenge. Yep, it's very tasty, too. Rating: 90.
Bridlewood 2010 "Blend 175," Central Coast ($15) — Some might describe the eclectic combination of grapes in Blend 175 — syrah, merlot, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon — as funky. I would call it fun. But no matter the term, ultimately it adds up to an inexpensive red that is absolutely delicious, easy to drink now and complex enough to make you think it costs considerably more than it does. Rating: 90.
Fat Monk 2010 Pinot Noir, California ($15) — I won't pretend this pinot will remind you of Burgundy. It won't. It simply doesn't have the structure. But it is a delicious example of New World pinot, with soft, ripe fruit and true pinot character. Rating: 89.
Bridlewood 2010 Pinot Noir, Monterey County ($20) -- Regrettably, we've become conditioned to the $40-and-up pinot noir. In recent years, the $40 threshold has been the gateway to good pinot with nuanced characteristics. So it's a pleasant surprise to come across Bridlewood's 2010 Monterey County Pinot, which is anything but thin and bland. Rating: 89.
Eberle 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon "Vineyard Selection," Paso Robles ($19) — There is no bigger believer in the quality of Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon than Gary Eberle. His estate cabs are among the finest made in California, and this "Vineyard Selection" cab, produced from purchased grapes, isn't too shabby, either. It consistently takes gold at major wine competitions and is a steal at the price. Rating: 89.
J. Lohr 2010 Syrah "South Ridge," Paso Robles ($15) — Jerry Lohr is the king of California's Central Coast in many ways. He makes voluminous amounts of wine, so he controls a great deal of the grape production through his wallet, and he produces above-average wines that rank high on everyone's value list. This is a gorgeous syrah that is well balanced, with plenty of complex fruit aroma. Rating: 88.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley ($16) — This is a sensational sauvignon from Dry Creek Vineyards, which should surprise no one, for DCV was among the first wineries in California to give the grape variety any sort of prominence. The 2011 exhibits a gorgeous nose of gooseberry and cut grass, while on the palate it shows red citrus notes of tangerine and orange blossom, lime, with a note of dried herbs and exuberant minerality. It's fresh and clean and delicious to the last drop. Rating: 94.
Benziger 2009 Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Carneros ($20) — Easily one of the best value wines from the gold-medal winners at the San Diego International Wine Competition, this is a superb single-vineyard chardonnay from one of California's most famous grape-growing families. The Benziger clan is a quality-driven bunch, and they make wines that are well balanced and food friendly, like this delicious chardonnay that exhibits loads of bright citrus and pear fruit. Rating: 92.
Zocker 2010 Gruner Veltliner, Paragon Vineyard, Edna Valley ($20) — I've said it before and will say it again, this is the finest Gruner made in America. At this year's San Diego International Wine Competition, it went platinum and became best of class gruner veltliner. This is a firmly structured, mineral-driven white wine that exhibits fruit notes of green and red citrus. It is the perfect wine with freshly shucked oysters. Rating: 92.
Navarro Vineyards 2010 Gewurztraminer 'Cuvee Traditional,' Anderson Valley ($15) — The coastal valley in the heart of Mendocino County is famous for its aromatic white wines, and Navarro's lovely dry gewurz is one of the finest of the genre in the United States. It exhibits a lovely rose petal and honeysuckle nose, with spicy notes on the palate, and a long, balanced finish that avoids the bitter aftertaste that afflicts many dry gewurztraminers. Rating: 91.
J Vineyards & Winery 2011 Pinot Gris, California ($15) — The popularity of J pinot gris is now such that the winery must source grapes from throughout California, including spots well beyond its Russian River Valley base. Although production has grown, quality has remained remarkably high, and the J pinot gris is consistently among the finest made in California. This 2011 offers succulent aromas of stone fruit, pear and melon, with a lovely floral back note. Clean and crisp, it's great as an aperitif or with light appetizers or steamed shellfish. Rating: 90.
Rodney Strong 2010 Sauvignon Blanc 'Charlotte's Home,' Northern Sonoma ($14) — Though this wine was once made from an estate vineyard in the Anderson Valley, the quality has remained very high despite expanded grape-sourcing. It has long been a favorite, an exquisitely balanced sauvignon with a fair amount of complexity. It's made more in the generous, fleshy style of white Bordeaux than the zingy, pungent style of New Zealand. Rating: 90.