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When Starting a Collection, Begin with Everyday Wines
By Robert Whitley
Jun 19, 2007
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I'm frequently asked for advice on starting a wine collection. This is not rocket science, I explain. Every collection should begin with a small mass of affordable everyday wines that the ambitious wine collector can stock and consume without feeling the guilt of pouring a wine well before its time.

My first collection was focused on Bordeaux. My first large purchase was nine cases of Chateau Gloria, a delicious cru bourgeois that was dirt-cheap at the time, which would have been the early 1970s.

What this got me (besides a back ache from lugging the cases up the stairs of my apartment) was a solid foundation of classy red wine that was drinkable the day I purchased it, though it would certainly improve with age if I could resist the temptation to open a bottle or two every time friends came over.

More than that, however, it allowed me to refrain from popping the cork on my small but growing stash of the top classified growths, which I purchased in more modest quantities and truly did have the inclination to cellar until the perfect moment.

So with that in mind, I can suggest a number of domestic producers whose wines are classy and affordable and would make excellent starter kits for the aspiring wine collector. In alphabetical order:

Beringer Founders' Estate (a second label for the prestigious Beringer Vineyards) retails in the $10-$11 range and has been very successful recently with its Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.

Bonny Doon has a few wines that would stretch the beginner's budget, but most of its products retail for well below $20 per bottle. Wines to note are the Vin Gris de Cigare, a lovely rose for $12, the Le Pousseur Syrah and a promising Albarino.

Bonterra is an offshoot of Fetzer Vineyards specializing in organic wines. The quality is high and remarkably consistent, and the prices are sweet: from about $13 a bottle for the Chardonnay to $18 for the Viognier. The basic Bonterra reds - Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah - are steals at $15.

Concannon, one of the oldest wineries in California, is a tremendous ambassador for the Livermore Valley east of San Francisco. Most of its wines fall into the $14 price category and they are a great bang for the buck, particularly the Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Crystal Valley Cellars is a second label for the Napa Valley's Cosentino Winery and sources most of its grapes from the Lodi region. The wines (The Temp, The Cab, The Franc and The Zin) retail for less than $20 and quality is very high.

Estancia's Monterey-based wines have recovered from a weak stretch (in my opinion) and are once again one of the great bargains in California wine. Prices range from $12 to $15 and the Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay are exceptional values.

Fetzer/Five Rivers are lumped together because they're produced by the same wine company and the retail prices are similar. The wines retail for less than $10 a bottle and provide pleasurable sipping in any setting. The wines to look for are the Shiraz, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gallo Family Vineyards was once known as Gallo of Sonoma, but little else has changed. The wines typically retail for $15 or less and quality is high. I especially appreciate the fact that Gallo has refrained from the high alcohol, overripe fruit bandwagon and continues to include well-balanced, easy drinking wines in this portfolio. Especially good are the Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir (a tremendous value), Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.

Hahn Estates is one of the wonders of the wine world, consistently producing top winners at major wine competitions with $14 wines. Worth seeking are the Merlot and Syrah, but pretty much everything Hahn sends out the winery door is delicious and value-added.

Korbel is the budget bubbly producer from California's Russian River Valley and its Brut Rose at $11 per bottle is perhaps the greatest steal in sparkling wine today.

Robert Hall Winery is one of the emerging stars of the Paso Robles region, but the prices remain well behind the winery's growing reputation for consistency and quality. Its Rhone blend, Rhone de Robles, is one of the finest wines of its kind for less than $20, and the Cabernet, Viognier and Rose are stellar - and all very affordable.

York Mountain is another rising star in the Paso Robles region. There was a time when you couldn't have paid me to taste a York Mountain wine, but there's been a sea change and the new releases are stunningly good. The York Mountain Albarino recently won the award for best white wine at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, and the Chardonnay and Viognier are comparable in quality.

Contact Robert at rwhitley@winereviewonline.com.