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Inexpensive, authentic California wines of place? Yes, we can


There’s been an interesting discussion going on at the Tablas Creek blog on why California wineries find it so hard to make good, artisanal wine priced between $10 and $20. The reason Jason Haas blogged on this topic was (as he explained) because of a blog that the S.F. Chronicle’s Jon Bonné posted on March 27 that wondered why there aren’t more and better wines available for restaurants (as, for example, there are from Cotes-du-Rhone producers). Jason also was activated by this article that appeared in the N.Y. Times last month on why California can’t seem to produce Europe’s versions of inexpensive, savory local wines.

Let’s back up. The notion of finding a perfect vin de pays or vino di tavola at a little bistro or trattoria in the Languedoc or Tuscany is very romantic, but let’s keep in mind that it was created and disseminated by American tourists traveling to Europe, not by locals who’ve drunk these wines for generations and find them, not exactly romantic, but hearty and quaffable. When you’re traveling in an exotic foreign country, perhaps sitting at a table with someone you love eating local dishes in a place of great beauty and culture, everything is heightened — including the local wines. But let’s not forget there’s another narrative here: Often, when these American tourists try the same wine back home, it fails to live up to memory or expectation.

It’s not hard for me to imagine a European tourist traveling here in California who dined at a restaurant in Ukiah or Forestville or Paso Robles and found some amusing local bottle he, too, found romantic.

Jason’s blog explained how the economics of land prices in his neck of the woods (western Paso Robles) dictate against being able to sell a bottle of wine that retails for below $20. (And thank you to Jason for being so honest and clear about the numbers.) But can we dispense with the incorrect notion that California doesn’t have really good wines, reflecting true terroir, for under $20? Here are just a handful that I’ve quite enjoyed recently. Each is an authentic wine that shows its origins in a fine and interesting way. (Keep in mind the prices listed are suggested retail, according to the winery. That means you should be able to find these wines priced even lower on the open market.)

Alma Rosa 2007 Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County, $18)
Atmosphere 2008 Demark St. Vineyard Fume Blanc (Sonoma Valley, $18)
Novy 2007 Syrah (Napa Valley, $19)
Sausal  2007 Estate Zinfandel (Alexander Valley, $19)
Navarro  2008 Gewurztraminer (Anderson Valley, $19)
Tangent 2008 Paragon Vineyard Riesling (Edna Valley, $20)
Sean Minor 2008 4 Bears Pinot Noir (Carneros, $17)
Pedroncelli  2007 Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Dry Creek Valley, $16)
Katherine Goldschmidt 2007 Crazy Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon  (Alexander Valley, $20)
Concannon 2007 Conservancy Petite Sirah (Livermore Valley, $15)
Foxen 2008 Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Santa Maria Valley, $20)

I could go on and on. I mean, these are all fine, local, authentic and artisanal wines. I scored all of them highly, and would be happy to drink them on a regular basis. So we really need to stop this California bashing and boo-hooing that we don’t produce quality, local, authentic wines of terroir at everyday prices. It just ain’t so.

  1. Nice analysis of the romanticism around certain European wines. Regarding California, there is a bigger issue at play: the notion of terroir doesn’t fully apply outside Europe. Terroir emerges from the interplay of nature and culture. New world regions simply do not have the scaffolding of hundreds of
    years of winemaking culture on which genuine terroir is built. We can and should expect a different — though not worse — product.

  2. Totally agree on the Navarro & Sean Minor picks, though it looks like you enjoyed the Sean Minor PN more than I did.

  3. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:


    Well said. CA makes great wines that fit within most wine drinkers budgets. Also, CA wine country is in need of our support. So, don’t bash CA wines.

  4. Jason, the commenter, who is not Jason Haas by way of clairification, writes that it takes hundreds of years to develop terroir. I understand what he is getting at, but, I would respectfully suggest that he is more correct about prestige, history, tradition than he is about terroir.

    It seems to me that terroir exists the minute that grapes are converted into wine. The intersection of place, variety and man create terroir. It may take some time for man to understand how best to recognize the extent of terroir and how to capture it in its most attractive form, but that time span is not hundreds of years.

    West Rutherford Bench terroir was essentially described within decades of Cabernet Sauvignon being planted there. Westside Road Pinot Noir took less time, and Freestone terroir for Chardonnay and Santa Lucia Highlands terroir for Pinot Noir took about a decade.

    Terroir is not reputation it is character, and the grapes and place make it possible. Steve’s examples of wines that express the combination of grape and place and cost less than $20 is illustrative of the possibilities. It does not begin to exhaust the reality of the situation.

    California has always produced plenty of examples of fairly priced wines in what today is the $12 to $20 price range. We have a much harder time at lower prices, but even so, the occasional bottling from folks like McManis, Bogle and others does rate well and come with price tags under $10.

    Writers who profess otherwise are not looking hard enough in my opinion.

  5. Charlie, you’re right about McManis and Bogle. There are many, many others that give good value and lots of pleasure for the money.

  6. Thanks, Steve, for the link over, and the suggestions of good wines in the $15-$20 range. I have liked those on your list that I’ve tried, and I’ll search out the others.

    I think I should make clear that I wasn’t exactly suggesting that there weren’t wines being made in California that were high quality and retailed under $20. I was more focusing on the challenges of using new vineyard land to produce these wines. There are, if to a lesser extent than in most of Europe, plenty of grapes in the ground that on land that was bought when it was cheap(er) and planted long enough ago that the planting costs are largely amortized. And there are certainly enough distressed vineyard owners that there are cheap grapes available. I expect to see more wines like this in the short term. But I am not convinced that the long-term outlook for finding lots more wines of character in this price range in California is as bright, since new vineyard land is largely out of play.

    At least, I hope that I’ve addressed the concerns that I hear fairly often that all pricing in California (even pricing in the $20-$30 range) is vanity-based rather than cost-based. An in-depth look at some hard numbers seemed warranted.

    I hope that we do see a continued growth of interest in making characterful wines in the $15-$20 range. That’s my sweet spot for regular drinking.

    Thanks again,

  7. Steve,

    While Jason Hass’s point of how the price of land and grape make high quality wine difficult, I think the discussion is missing another point: quality wine rarely has a static price point in California. A producer that creates a quality wine that represents its terroir well and consistently will quickly be noted, the wine “discovered.” It is a rare and far flung producer who doesn’t raise their price point for subsequent years. Not long ago a bottle of Chateau St. Jean Cabernet went for less than twenty dollars. Some celebrated publicity later and now the winery charges almost the same price for a single reserve tasting. The age of wine rankings that California has promoted so well may be beneficial to the producer, but not necessarily a consumer looking for consistent low prices.

  8. Scott, two points. One, there are some very nice bottlings that have remained consistent in price and quality over the years. Second, part of the fun is finding new producers that haven’t been discovered yet.

  9. Jason, I know you weren’t making that suggestion. It was the other writers that you mentioned.

  10. California still has plenty of unexplored nirvanas for grape-growing, where land prices are still reasonable. Northern Mendocino (Laytonville and more…), for instance, appears to me as California’s greatest potential (almost perfect climatological data) for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
    Although Patz & Hall’s “Alder Springs Vineyard” bottlings (Pinot N. and Chard.) are quite expensive, they tend to support my belief for the surrounding area.

  11. I never drink anything other than California wines. The romance! The aroma! the fact that I know that in some small way I am helping California vintners. These are all perfect reasons to enjoy a perfect glass of California wine. (And I do.)

  12. The eternal debate over terroir will not be settled here. But I subscribe to the notion that terroir is more culture than nature, and in that regard New World wines cannot possess the same level of terroir as European. This does not take anything away from their quality, nor does it dismiss the fact that one can discern the distinctions among wines from various California regions (sometimes). But any notion of terroir applied to California, I argue, is rather different than one applied to Europe.

  13. Steve,

    Several of these wineries (Navarro, Sausal, Pedroncelli) have many bottles that are inexpensive and reflective of their terrior. The distinction of time can also be seen from these wineries. All three have been growing and making wine in their respective regions for well over 30 years, and for some much longer. This plays directly into the notion that terrior is created by the merging of culture with nature, a process that take more than just a few vintages.

  14. Jason writes: ” one can discern the distinctions among wines from various California regions (sometimes). ”

    Jason, I am always amazed at these kinds of claims. There is proof a plenty that you overstate the case. Here are a few examples.

    Pinot Noir from Westside Road in Sonoma is easily distinguished from Pinot Noir from Freestone, both in the Russian River Valley AVA. And Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands is very different from almost anything grown in Sonoma. The Sta. Rita Hills yet again offers a different take on the fruit not to mention differing structures.

    There is a certain commonality of character to good Pinot Noir, of course. It is called varietal character. But the way that a location expresses that varietal character is what terroir is about. It does not take centuries of tradition for these local characteristics to emerge and to be identifiable to experienced tasters. More proof below.

    Cabernet Sauvignon from the West Rutherford Bench is easily distinguished from Cabernet Sauvignon grown along the Silverado Trail, both in the Rutherford AVA.

    Howell Mountain Zinfandel is easily distinguished from Mount Veeder Zinfandel which is easily distinguished from Napa Valley floor Zinfandel, all in the Napa Valley and that does not even begin to get to Chiles Valley Zinfandel let alone all the way to Lodi Zinfandel with its distinctive character which is easily distinguished from Amador County Zinfandel grown just a couple of dozen miles away.

    And these are just the first things that come to mind–all of which beg the question. On what besides a generic belief do you base your statements?

  15. Charlie, I’d love to see you consistently and easily distinguish the wines you mention in a large blind tasting. What do you think your batting average would be?

  16. Annette Hoff says:

    Let’s all remember that many European countries — I’m thinking of France in particular — heavily subsidize exported wine…that’s what makes it relatively inexpensive here.

  17. Steve–

    A couple of months ago, Tom Wark issued a challenge that I said I and my panel at Connoisseurs’ Guide would take up.

    He suggested that he could put ten Pinot Noirs from the various AVAs in front of a good taster and the taster could not distinguish between them.

    I disagreed. He did not go forward, but I was and am ready to.

    The problem is not that they cannot be distinguised but that not all wines are good enough to be distiguished.

    So, I put it to you. Let me give you a list of what I consider to be representative Pinot Noirs from a variety of AVAs. You pick the wines out of a long list of possibilities and our panel at CGCW will give you a reasonable number (six or seven of ten) correct answers.

    Or let me identify for you ten wines from the West Rutherford Bench that I feel have the characteristics of that area and ten wines from the east side of the Napa Valley that I think have east side character. You choose four from each and serve them to us blind. I am betting that we can get five or six spot on.

    And remember, these are all wines that first have varietal character and secondly will be in balance.

    Finally, Steve, I would offer the following comment that I feel is even more important. It is always easy to argue that the outliers and the failures and the overripe and the chemically challenged prove that you cannot tell wine from one area from another.

    That is true whether we are talking about separating Pessac-Leognan from Margaux or Nahe from Rhine. Distinctions get blurred when the wines are not good enough. You and I make our living finding those “good” wines and that is why I propose to limit such a tasting to the wines that have identifiable character. There are enough of them to make the case.

    Care to take the same challenge?

  18. Jason, I think the idea of terroir as cultural is interesting – but certainly out of the mainstream definition of terroir. Why would Europeans possess some particular cultural ownership of terroir that Americans wouldn’t (or for that matter that people from Middle Eastern or Asian cultures)? And why would all European countries, with large cultural differences between them, be able to have this insight? I have a hard time understanding these things.

    Steve, we had two wines this past year that were smoke damaged (which we treated and declassified). Honestly, I was fairly insensitive to the issue (picking it up on 2 of 6 lots). Luke, who works in our cellar, was able to identify blind, 5 out of 6 smoke tainted lots. In testing the lots, they all showed telltale chemical smoke taint elements. Simply because I was not able to distinguish them doesn’t mean that smoke taint didn’t exist. — I think the same goes for terroir. Sometimes, as Charlie points out, the wines aren’t good enough to show the terroir. Sometimes tasters aren’t attuned enough to certain wines.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  19. Charlie, I will reply to you in time.

  20. Norm Gary says:


    Thanks for this article. You should make sure the editors of Decanter see it. Last year they bemoned that they could find NO wines showing terroir in California at any price.

    I have a number of candidates but will confine myself to the Noceto [Amador County] sangiovese riservas and designated vineyard bottlings. They are a bit above your $20 point [@$25], but exhibit lots of terroir. Last year I had a horizontal tasting from their 3 designated vineyards and each was clearly different. Same year, same winemaker, same grape [I think!].

  21. In addition, as capitalistic Americans, there is certain responsibility to be laid at the feet of the vintners. As mentioned, in the case of Chateau St. Jean, and many others, these wineries, as businesses, capitalise on popularity and the chance to increase their bottom line. I am in no way saying that this is wrong. It just is. I also believe there is a perceived insistence for price-matching within AVA’s, whether the wine deserves to be priced like it’s cousin grown in the next vineyard over, so as not to degrade the AVA as a “brand”. Point in case: Flax vineyard, on Westside road, is for sale. If someone were to purchase the vineyard, plant additional Pinot Noir, and sell their Pinot Noir, with the vineyard designate of Flax Vineyard, for $15, while both Merry Edwards and Willam Selyem both sell their wines at +$50, I think the general concensus would be ‘What’s wrong with the wine?’ and it would be a tough sell.

  22. MDSaxon, that’s a great point you make about price-matching. However, it’s really unlikely that anyone will make a Flax Vineyard Pinot for $15.

  23. Great discussion, even if it did get a little earnest at times.

  24. Sometimes it’s important to be earnest.

  25. You got me there…

  26. I’m just wilde about it

  27. Great list, Steve. I’m a big fan of the Sausal Zinfandel in particular. Of wines I’ve tasted recently, I thought a lot of the Justin Sauvignon Blanc:

  28. Steve: Maybe I need to read your blog more often to find those quality wines that are consistently well priced. I’m always on the search, but alas it seems that whenever I find one, its price point rarely lasts long.

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