Several years ago, as I wandered the aisles of a well-stocked wine shop in my part of the world, I came across a stack of wine that made my mouth water.
It was a rather famous red wine from Italy's Piedmont region, the 1998 Gaja Sperss. Angelo Gaja being one of the most famous and respected of all Italian winemakers, the Sperss wasn't cheap. The sticker price of $240 was fair, but I balked.
I did notice, however, that each bottle of Sperss had a blue post-it dot affixed to the neck. I inquired about the meaning of the blue dot and learned it was a marker the retailer used to identify a wine that wasn't selling. The price no doubt had something to do with that.
Sensing my interest, the clerk asked me what I would be willing to pay. Given that classified Bordeaux of the same quality might sell for $800 to $1,500 a bottle, in theory I had no qualms about the $240 price tag. But my wallet did.
After a quick calculation, I determined I could afford $100 a bottle if I bought all of the Sperss on the shelf. I mustered my courage and, with a straight face, told the clerk I would take all of the slow-moving Gaja off his hands if he could part with it for $100 per.
He broke into a big smile (no doubt from relief) and said, "Sold!" Now that's value.
The lesson here is that the words value and cheap are not interchangeable. Value simply means the wine was worth more than the asking price. Value simply means the wine delivered quality beyond its price tag.
So make no mistake, when I tag a wine for "value," I am looking well beyond the price. I've bought my share of expensive wines and have no regrets. Yet many of my most satisfying purchases have involved wines that some would consider cheap by today's standards.
I can say unequivocally that outstanding wine, sometimes truly great wine, can be found in the price range you would least expect. The following are a few of my current favorites priced at below $20 retail. I emphasize current because vintages change and winemakers and wineries come and go, so this time next year my favorites could include some of these — or none.
For now, however, the quality is very high and the price is just right.
Bonny Doon — The winemaker looms large at Bonny Doon. This is the domain of Randall Grahm, whose eclectic persona is what everyone remembers most about the wines. But one must never forget about the wines, for they can compete with the world's greatest, regardless of price.
Beyond Bonny Doon's iconic and somewhat expensive ($40) Le Cigare Volant, a red Rhone-style blend that first brought acclaim to Bonny Doon, there are two wines — Clos de Gilroy (Grenache) and Syrah Le Pousseur — that are among the finest of their type produced in the United States, and both retail for well under $20 a bottle.
Grahm is that rare California winemaker who prizes structure and balance over opulent fruit. He makes wines that you could drink tonight, but you don't have to. All of the Bonny Doon reds will improve with a bit of additional time in the cellar. That's not the case for most inexpensive California reds. Grahm also makes the Spanish white wine, albarino, at Bonny Doon, and though it is one of his more expensive offerings at $20, the only other domestic albarino that can compare is the Tangent Albarino at $18.
Bonterra — Started by the Fetzer clan more than two decades ago, long before organic wines had any sort of cachet, Bonterra had been relatively quiet in recent years, but appears to be in the midst of a renaissance under new ownership. The wines are made from organically grown grapes sourced primarily from California's Mendocino County, with a small amount of fruit coming from neighboring Lake County.
Bonterra wines generally retail in the $15 range, though the quality is such that no one would blink if the prices were twice that. Bonterra won nine medals at the 2012 Critics Challenge, including gold medals with cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier that ranged in price from $13.99 to $15.99. It's two most expensive wines at $35.99, The Butler and The McNab Red, also took gold. All of the Bonterra wines are beautifully balanced, well structured and flavorful.
Centine — This is the value brand from Banfi, a wine company renowned for its Brunello di Montalcino, which retails for $60 and up. Centine Rosso 2010 ($12) scored an impressive triumph at this year's Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, where it was voted Best Red Wine. This blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot from Tuscany is a wine that can hold its own against wines of greater pedigree and heftier price.
Centine also produces a white wine (Centine Bianco, a blend of sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and chardonnay) and a rose that won medals at the Critics Challenge. All three are wines that consistently deliver beyond all expectations, given the price.
Vale do Bomfim — Dry table wines from Portugal aren't exactly a hot commodity in the U.S. wine market, yet this wine is widely available because it is attached to Dow, one of the most important port houses. It's a blend of the traditional red grapes used to make the fortified dessert wine port, and Dow has now reeled off several consecutive vintages of Vale do Bomfim that have been superb, exhibiting exceptional structure and character despite a very modest price.
In fact, the price ($12) is almost too good to be true. I routinely find it for under $10, at which point I load up the trunk of the car because I've learned from experience that wines this good at that price won't last very long.