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Top value wines for today’s everyday fare


Wine Enthusiast released our Top 100 Best Buys in wine of 2012 last week. They’re all below $20, and represent the best value for the money you can find in today’s market.

It’s particularly important in these tough economic times for a wine magazine to identify good values. When I’m in the position to designate a wine in this special way, it makes me happy. Unfortunately, California wine prices seem like they’re creeping up, so this year, only eleven wines I reviewed made the Top 100 cut:

90 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Avant Chardonnay
89 Pomolo 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Annabella 2010 Chardonnay
88 Gnarly Head 2010 Pinot Grigio
88 Snap Dragon 2010 Riesling
89 Napa Family Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
90 Firestone 2010 Riesling
90 Cameron Hughes 2009 Lot 271 Pinot Noir
90 Leese-Fitch 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
90 Black Box 2009 Merlot
90 Liberty School 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of additional California wines that represent an excellent quality-price ratio. Here are some others. All are wines I reviewed since last February and gave Best Buy status to:

89 Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc; $13
88 Avalon 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon; $12
88 Chalone 2010 Chardonnay; $13
87 Mirassou 2011 Chardonnay; $12
87 J. Wilkes 2011 Pinot Blanc; $12
87 Oak Grove 2011 Reserve Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Double Decker  2010 Pinot Grigio; $10
87 Smoking Loon 2008 Pinot Grigio; $8
87 Clos La Chance 2011 Estate Sauvignon Blanc; $11
87 Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; $8

I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, please don’t dismiss a wine just because it scores below 90 points! Don’t forget, 87 points is a very good wine–not just good, but very good. These may not be wines to drink with your finest cuts of meat, expensive seafood entrées, pricy cheeses and elaborate sauces, but then again, who among us eats that kind of fare every day? I don’t. For instance, I love a simple dinner of pesto pasta with garlicky shrimp–give me one of those Pinot Grigios anytime! I’ll wok up a bunch of veggies and poultry or fish in garlic and ginger, dress it in sesame oil, tamari, fish sauce and rice vinegar with a sprinkle of brown sugar, toss it with toasted black sesame seeds and happily wash it down with that K-J Avant Chardonnay or the J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc. That Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon is rich enough to drink with a grilled flank steak and roasted potatoes. I love a buttery, creamy bowl of polenta with green peas and shredded chicken or chunks of crab, topped with razor-thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then liberally sprinked with black pepper, with which almost any of the above white wines will be fine. Even a simple salad of bitter greens, ripe tomatoes, red onions and roasted red peppers, maybe with some ripe avocado, tossed in a little EVOO and red Balsamic, will be happy with the Leese-Fitch Sauvignon Blanc. Roasted chicken is versatile enough to drink with any and all of these wines.

“Simplify, simplify!” Thoreau said, for which our modern day equivalent is K.I.S.S. It’s a good lesson to apply to our cluttered, overwrought lives, which also tend to be overweight these days! The best everyday food, for me, is the simplest, made with fresh ingredients, low in fat, high in nutrition, prepared quickly but lovingly, and savored for sheer deliciousness. These are the kinds of meals to enjoy with inexpensive wine, which, fortunately, today’s marketplace abounds in.

  1. Thanks for the recommendations on bargain wines. With so many excellent imports under $20 I think that California wineries might be better off holding the line on price increases.


  2. For as long as I can remember, and that period covers more decades than two, it has seemed on the surface that California wine has been undercut for price by someone some place.

    It has also always seemed to me that the “California wine needs to be less expensive” concern did not reflect reality. Just as Steve and I and others who taste widely can easily point out, there is now, as there has always been, a pretty good array of priceworthy CA wine out there for the taking.

    Sure, Chilean Chardonnay may be cheaper across the board, but that does not deny the existence of good values in the market as Steve has proven above.

  3. I am somewhat surprised not a single Zinfandel made the list. I think the Ravenswood appelation wines represent good value.

  4. doug wilder says:

    Steve, I can not disagree with your list as it looks solid offering dependable, clean wines. I do wonder though if you considered any of the Iberian varieties grown on the Central Coast? I just finished tasting through nearly sixty Albarino, Veldelho, Garnacha and Tempranillo sourced from Lodi to Edna Valley. I am generally impressed by the quality (88 – 94 point range), small production (< 500 cs) from designated vineyards, value price ($18 – $26) and generally moderate alcohols (13 – 14.3%). In my opinion these types of wines offer competitive alternatives for casual drinking beyond Chardonnay, SB and Merlot especially when considering the production levels are easily larger by a factor of ten, if not higher.

  5. I agree with Tom about Zinfandel (Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zin is another regular good value), but, outside of Zinfandel, it’s disappointing how poorly California does in delivering high quality, value red wines, as the overwhelming predominance of white wines above reflects. Hard to steer someone to California in this category with all that Spain, Argentina, and Chile have to offer.

  6. Doug, as I said in the post, all these wines are under $20. That’s the cutoff for a Best Buy. I too love some of these Verdelhos, etc. but most of the good ones are a little too expensive for their scores.

  7. Mike, I agree. I suspect the cost of production in Spain, Argentina and Chile is considerably less than in California. That’s why the price-quality ratio isn’t what it used to be.

  8. Tom Lee, for some reason I haven’t tasted Ravenswood’s basic appellation wines in a while. I have reviewed their single vineyard Zins and generally given them good scores, although you couldn’t describe them as value wines.

  9. Happy to note that 16 wines from Pacific NW made the list!

  10. doug wilder says:

    I didn’t realize $20 was the maximum for that category. Thanks for the clarification. Does the list recognize wines that ‘outperform’ regardless of price?

  11. Steve- Nice choices. I’m not sure if you review them, but many of Jed Steele’s wines would fit in nicely on the list as well.

    I love areas such as the Southern Rhone and Tuscany for value under $20. Presumably land and production costs in those places would be higher than in the Southern Hemisphere, but they still churn out many honest wines with good value and nice character.

  12. Doug Wilder, see today’s post for the answer to your question!

  13. Paul – Yes, I noticed that.

  14. doug wilder says:

    Steve, Thanks 🙂

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