It's easy to become set in your ways with wine. Some wine drinkers find a brand or a varietal they like and stick with it. We all know people who order only Chardonnay or Merlot at a restaurant. A friend of mine expects to drink only Petite Sirah or a rustic Chianti Classico; that's all he likes.
A few years ago, my California-wine-loving cousin moved to Switzerland. The switch to drinking Bordeaux and Burgundy was easy enough because she could relate them to the California Cabernets, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays she drank back home. But good Bordeaux and Burgundy were too expensive for her to drink every day.
What she really missed were the fruit-forward, zesty Zinfandels she used to open during the week. When her email SOS arrived I knew what to recommend: Côtes du Rhône. Produced in the warm southern Rhône Valley of France, Côtes du Rhône reds share a similar burst of bright fruit and spice with Zin. The connection made her happy.
I started thinking: Sometimes all a wine drinker needs is an introduction, a connecting line between two dots, to venture off onto a whole new wine path. Here are some of my wine suggestions:
"The resident meshugana of Napa Valley" is what John Buehler calls himself. Yiddish for crazy person, meshugana pretty much sums Buehler up. While his neighbors are asking $100 or more for a bottle, Buehler sells most of his wines for $36 or less.
"Five years ago, people walked up to me and asked what was wrong with my wines because of what I charged," Buehler says. "Now I'm a hero."
I wish I could drink the good stuff every night, but that's just not the way it works. Even at Mouton-Rothschild, I figure, they hold off until the weekend. Well, that's what I try to tell myself anyway.
The problem is, I'm like a rich divorcée. I've grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and I crave great wine on Tuesday nights, not just weekends and holidays. But like almost everyone, I'll settle for a tasty wine at a decent price during the week.
Argentina and Spain make it easy, but the selection of good California reds selling for $8 to $15 is limited. I'll spare you a thesis on the economics behind that, but I have been curious about one thing: Which red variety is the biggest challenge when it comes to making good-quality value wines in California?
When I was a kid, my family set off on a cross-country road trip and, after three weeks in the car, my parents miraculously remained married. People didn't fly as much back then, and as a first grader I had just one thing on my mind-to get to Disneyland as quickly as possible.
Years later, I returned there with my kids, eager to resuscitate a memory, but something was terribly wrong with the Matterhorn. Southern California's implausibly snow-crusted pinnacle had shrunk in 30 years.
Expectations are like that, and wine is no exception. Our expectations shape every experience we have with wine, and sometimes a wine goes through a Matterhorn-like transformation. California Rieslings, for me, are a good example. They were a favorite of mine when I was a young drinker, and I still enjoy them, but after I tasted Rieslings from Alsace and Germany, the bar was raised a lot higher.
Napa Valley is not an outlet mall for wine lovers. The last place to find a bargain on Napa wines is in Napa Valley. I'm still prone to sticker shock and I work here.
But that's just the way it works. Vintners don't want to see their wines marked down in their hometown and they seldom cut prices in tasting rooms because their distributors get in a huff. And there's certainly no competition from discount warehouses anywhere nearby.
So I was intrigued when Todd Miller opened the Wine Garage in 2003. Renovating an old Calistoga gas station, Miller created a funky little retail store in which no wine sells for more than $25 a bottle.