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Cheap and More than Cheerful
By Linda Murphy
Oct 8, 2013
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I recently presented several good-value California wines to 24 visiting foreign wine influencers -- media, retailers and wholesalers -- from Europe, Canada and Asia.  The theme was “California Does Value,” and there were more than a few skeptics in the crowd -- particularly those from the United Kingdom.

You see, very little high-quality wine is sent from California to the UK, because there is very little profit in doing so, and sometimes losses.  The UK is extremely price-sensitive and has outrageously high taxes, leading the majority of California wineries to export to more lucrative markets, among them Sweden, Switzerland and Asia.

UK grocery stores have plenty of Barefoot and Blossom Hill on their shelves, and some fine-wine shops carry a bottle or two of Littorai or Peter Michael -- at exorbitant prices.  But good-value, interesting wines are few and far between, and it’s understandable that the UK-based attendees at the tasting were wary of what they would find in their glasses.

I’m pleased to say that many of the wines poured resonated not only with the UK contingent, but also Germans, Swedes, Canadians and Asians.  The price range was $8 to $19, the wines were chosen to represent the diverse growing regions in California, and the mix included large, medium and small wineries.  And importantly, the wines were tasted blind, with participants knowing only the varietal or that a wine was a blend.  There was no opportunity for them to prejudge the wines and the producers. 

No scores were assigned to the wines, and no formal poll was taken on the impressions of the tasters.  Yet discussion during and after the presentation indicated to me some clear winners with the international experts.

The non-vintage Scharffenberger Cellars Brut Excellence Mendocino County bubbly from this Anderson Valley producer won raves for its precision, complex brioche notes and sunny fruitiness.  With a suggested retail price of $19, it can be found, with a search, for as little as $14 in the U.S.  It’s a lot of wine for the price.  And it also wipes out the memory of the days when this winery, founded by John Scharffenberger and later sold, went by the name Pacific Echo.  One of the worst wine brand names ever was restored to Scharffenberger by its current owner, Roederer Estate/Champagne Louis Roederer.   
The 2012 J Vineyards & Winery California Pinot Gris ($15) -- the No. 1 selling over-$12 Pinot Gris in the nation -- drew compliments for its varietal character and generosity.  Ferrari-Carano’s 2012 Sonoma County Fumé Blanc ($15, often discounted) won kudos for being an “authentic” Fumé Blanc, with gentle oak notes adding complexity to its citrus flavors.

California Viognier can be a tough sell to Europeans used to tasting wines produced in the grape’s northern Rhône Valley home, yet the Tangent 2102 Viognier from the Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley ($17) delivered the textbook honeysuckle and pear notes of the varietal, and without the high alcohol that often comes with California versions.  It’s a tough trick to get Viognier ripe enough to show its aromatic side, yet not allow it to soar in alcohol in the process.  Tangent winemaker Christian Roguenant is a master of this.

On the red-wine side, Ravenswood Winery’s 2011 Old Vine Napa Valley Zinfandel was the clear “winner” for its $15 price tag (how many Napa wines are priced this low?) and solid structure, classic bramble berry character and mannered alcohol.  The tasters had the full Zinfandel experience the evening before, tasting the best California has to offer in old-vine wines, so their appreciation of the Ravenswood Napa the next morning was well-informed.

At $8 per bottle regular price, the potent, jammy 2011 DFV Gnarly Head Lodi Zinfandel impressed the foreigners for its value.  One trade member from Sweden commented, “This is not my type of wine, but it is for many in Sweden.”

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, based in San Jose and with extensive holdings in Paso Robles and Monterey County, is one of the rare California producers to have a large export presence in Europe.  Its 2011 Los Osos Paso Robles Merlot ($15) surprised some tasters for its “Merlot-ness” and elegance.  I’d told the group that the 2010 and 2011 growing seasons in California were unusually cool and put a speed governor on ripeness.  A Canadian wine buyer who carries J. Lohr wines commented to me that the 2011 Merlot was one of its finest.
Among the other red wines that drew positive responses was the 2012 Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy Grenache Central Coast ($18).  Bonny Doon owner Randall Grahm was way ahead of the Grenache curve in California years ago, and this standard-bearer still resonates with consumers and international experts alike.  

A few wines drew little response, so I don’t know whether they had a neutral impact on the tasters, or if these folks were polite enough to bite their tongues in front of me.  Still, the results should be most encouraging to California wineries looking to expand their export efforts, and reassurance to consumers that California indeed does value.