Although summer isn't officially over for a few more weeks, it ends emotionally on Labor Day weekend, when we usually cover the grill one last time in a summer state of mind.
To celebrate the passing of summer, many take to the backyard for a final summer feast. They invite friends and family. Pretty soon, it's a crowd. Before you know it, everyone is thirsty.
It's time for some good wine with good friends, but budgets are tight because of recent back-to-school purchases. Here's my solution for those who don't like to lower their expectations just because their wallets are a consideration: ten great value wines all priced at $20 or less.
Let the feast begin!
Banfi 2014 Centine Rosso, Toscana IGT, Italy ($12) — The consistency of the Banfi centine is remarkable given the inconsistency of Tuscan vintages in general. This delicious "baby" Super Tuscan is approachable upon release and a perfect complement to smoked and barbecued meats from the Labor Day grill. In blind tastings, it fares surprisingly well against more expensive Tuscan reds, so why pay more?
Benziger 2014 Merlot, Sonoma County ($19) — Though the Benziger family no longer owns this outstanding winery, the commitment to high quality at a reasonable price remains strong. This merlot is ready to drink now, but that doesn't mean it's not a serious red. Well-proportioned and exquisitely balanced, it's an easy match with grilled chicken, brats or ribs.
Black Stallion 2015 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($18.99) — You read that right: a Napa Valley chardonnay for under $20 that's so good it took a gold medal at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition in May. If you're tired of rich, oily California chardonnay that hits you over the head with new oak, try the Black Stallion on for size. It is beautifully balanced and a great match for grilled swordfish or salmon.
Bolla 2013 Valpolicella Ripasso DOC Classico Superiore, Italy ($15) — Bolla is the comeback kid of Italian wine, and it shows in its Valpolicella ripasso, which is fermented in used amarone barrels. It's rich and long on the palate, with excellent depth, smooth tannins and a long, long finish. It's perfect with barbecued ribs. Bolla is now making some of the finest wines in the Veneto region in northern Italy, and at very friendly prices!
Buena Vista 2015 Chardonnay, Carneros ($20) — Jean-Charles Boisset, whose family operates one of the largest wine firms in France's Burgundy region, continues to make his mark here in California. The Buena Vista winery has been completely restored since he purchased it several years ago, and the wines have had a makeover as well. This top-notch chardonnay exhibits notes of lemon oil and pear, is well-balanced and offers enough richness to handle the smoky flavors off the Labor Day grill.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2016 Dry Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg ($15) — This winery, famous for its array of sauvignon blancs, also happens to make a pretty mean — as in very delicious — dry chenin blanc. Chenin blanc is at home in France's Loire Valley but hasn't enjoyed much TLC in the United States. Dry Creek Vineyard gives it plenty of love, and it shows in the bottle. This wine is vibrant and fruity and bone-dry.
Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection 2015 Pinot Noir, Monterey County ($18) — A delicious pinot noir for less than $20? Is there anything the great movie director can't do? Francis Ford Coppola's namesake winery has been rocking these past few vintages, and that success extends across its entire vast lineup of wines, even those made at entry-level prices.
J Vineyards 2016 Pinot Gris, California ($18) — There is hardly a better summer sipping wine around. This vintage shows vibrant fruit aromas and a long, attractive finish. Better known for its sparkling wines and pinot noir, J Vineyards has also had an impressive record with pinot gris over the past decade and more. Winemaker Nicole Hitchcock deserves major kudos for continuing the J tradition.
Martin Codax 2015 Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain ($15) — Martin Codax is among the finest co-ops in Spain, demanding a high level of grape quality from the many growers in its collective. This has been true for as long as I can remember, and it's the main reason Martin Codax consistently produces one of the finest Albarinos in the Rias Baixas.
Navarro 2016 Pinot Grigio, Anderson Valley ($16) — Navarro is a family-run winery that takes quality very seriously. Its specialty is aromatic white wines, and you will notice this is one of the most aromatic and flavorful domestic pinot grigios around. It's a sensational summer quaffer, but it can definitely hold its own with the strong flavors from the Labor Day grill.