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When wine doesn’t have to apologize for being what it is



It’s funny, isn’t it, how we hierarchize wine. It’s almost reminiscent of the Indian caste system, in which the highest caste was the priests, then the warriors, followed by merchants and then, at the bottom, the untouchables.

Maybe the British social structure is more apt, with royalty at the top (themselves intensely hierarchized), then gentry of various orders, followed by an elite class of merchants and, finally, the poor. America is supposed to be a classless society, but it isn’t, as even a brief exposure to the Napa auction proved.

I suppose there’s something in human nature that likes to classify things, including where people are on the social scale. We do the same thing with wine. The First Growths and Grand Crus of France are wine’s Brahmins and Kings and Queens. Here in California, their equivalents are the you-know-whos of Napa Valley that go for high triple digits.

What I wonder is, we all know that pigeon-holing human beings into a caste system is wrong. All men are created equal and all that; all are the children of God, and each person should be appreciated for what he or she is–or so our liberal philosophy says. Regardless of whether  or not we actually believe that, it’s patently obvious that we’re comfortable putting wine into castes. If you’re familiar with San Francisco’s neighborhoods, we might say there are Pacific Heights mansion wines, North Beach artisanal wines, Mission District working class wines, and finally there are ghetto wines nobody would ever be caught dead drinking or serving, unless they were poor and couldn’t afford any better.

I’ve always been of the opinion that all wines should be treated equally, which is to say, with respect. That comes from the way I was raised, in a household where my parents idolized FDR. They were far from wealthy and had to watch their expenses, so I grew up understanding the concept of value.

Today, I love value in a wine. I give credit to the Broncos and Wine Groups of California, companies that make wine affordable for the masses. Sure, you can call those wines peasant wines, the equivalents of the untouchables, the dreaded lower classes whom British royalty were so snobbish toward. I know people who would refuse to drink these wines; they’d rather drink nothing than to sully their palates.

But that’s a wrong-headed attitude. If I were a billionaire I’m sure I’d drink my share of old Burgundy, but I’m not. One of these days I’ll be cruising the supermarket wine aisle again, like I used to, looking for affordable wines. Here are some of the best value brands I’ve reviewed this year–some old names, some new names, all worth a round.

Kendall-Jackson Avant



L de Lyeth


Smoking Loon

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi Private Selection


CK Mondavi

Kirkland Signature

Happy Camper

Geyser Peak

Ballard Lane

Line 39



Bota Box

Are these great, world-class wines? No. But they’re the wines I’d be drinking if they were all I could afford, and they’d give me plenty of pleasure. All of them should be the envy of the world, when it comes to producing dry, properly varietal wines at a price ordinary working people can afford.

  1. Thanks Steve for this article…nothing wrong with a good glass of wine at an affordable price

  2. I am so with you on this one. One difference… My parents had a ton of money; but, they spent the trust fund, before it had a chance to trickle down. So, my 20s were all about learning “value,” and learn I did. The wines you’ve mentioned aren’t about swagger; they’re about honest hard work and delivering the best wine possible for the price. Some are from so very nice people, a few of whom I’d trust with my life…

  3. Timothy Moriarty says:

    I am now an experienced wine economizer, and would add a few names to your fine list. Cupcake, Pascual Toso and Sancerrité.

  4. I’m not sure the caste system is an apt analogy for the hierarchy of wines. But I agree that there are great value wine makers out there that are worthy of serious respect. Not to say anything negative about any of the wines on your list, but I especially agree that Pedroncelli is a real standout. While so many makers of cheap wine find ways to deliver a perfectly quaffable product at a low price, a lot of these wines (especially reds) scarcely resemble wines of the same variety that are even 50% higher in price. Pedroncelli really makes some good, honest, varietally-correct wines that I think are as good as plenty of wines that cost 2-3 times as much.

  5. i have some friends that always have the bota box in their house. i refer to it as their “wine on tap”

  6. Great post! I’m all about value wines. I like the “good stuff” as well, but these days I watch the budget very carefully. Everyone likes discovering a great value even with wine. I recently had some Kirkland Chardonnay and was surprised at how good it was. Estancia and Edna Valley make good value wines too.

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