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?
So I turned to the source, the winemakers and vintners who reliably produce good wines at a decent price: winemakers Dennis Martin of Fetzer, Mark Lyon of Sebastiani, Paul Clifton of Hahn and Cameron Hughes.
The consensus was fairly clear: Pinot Noir is the toughest, followed closely by Merlot. I'm not entirely surprised. As the lead taster for California Merlot, I'm lucky if I can recommend two or three a year in the $8 to $15 price range, and Bigfoot is easier to find than good Pinots selling for under $12. The real question then is why?
"The biggest challenge is keeping varietal character at that price point," Clifton said of Pinot Noir. A big part of the problem, Hughes explained, is that Pinot requires a cool climate and that's a "narrow bandwidth" in California. "And where it performs well, it is typically low-yielding and expensive to farm."
Good Pinot, Lyon said, is also more expensive in the winery, requiring small fermentors, quality French oak barrels and careful handling. It's far more cost-effective to blend in a little Syrah and use oak chips, but there's a catch. "Most other varieties, it is possible to blend other varieties into them and still keep the character," said Clifton. "Pinot Noir is another animal."
Fetzer solved the problem by turning to southern France for its $6 to $8 Pinot, so Martin believes that Merlot is a much greater challenge. Most of the California Merlot in that price range comes from vineyards in Lodi and other hot Central Valley regions, while grapes for $12 to $15 Merlots often come from more temperate Paso Robles.
"They [Central Valley grapes] just don't get physiologically ripe," Martin said. "You struggle to get good color and, no matter how ripe we get them from a sugar standpoint, they always taste green and underdeveloped."
That combo of baked cherries and green veggies is not something I look for in a Merlot, no matter how cheap it is. Even if a winery dresses it up with sweet oak and other makeup, it's hard to miss.
And yet there is hope. I can recommend a handful of current-release Merlots and Pinots from California in the $15-and-under price range.
Aquinas Pinot Noir Napa Valley 2009 (85 points, $15) is full-bodied with a touch of mint. Heron Pinot Noir California 2009 (85, $14) has crisp cherry and herb notes, and Castle Rock Pinot Noir Carneros 2008 (84, $14) is fresh and bright with candied cherry and cranberry flavors.
Do you know of other good value California Pinot Noirs and Merlots?
Richard Scholtz — Austin, TX — March 16, 2011 1:31pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — March 16, 2011 2:49pm ET
Jay J Cooke — Ripon CA — March 16, 2011 3:52pm ET
Denny Kleber — Charlotte NC — March 16, 2011 4:14pm ET
Joseph Kane — Austin — March 16, 2011 6:15pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — March 16, 2011 6:36pm ET
Ron Wagner — Sherwood, OR — March 16, 2011 6:40pm ET
Louis Robichaux — Highland Village, Texas — March 16, 2011 7:01pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — March 16, 2011 7:09pm ET
Joe-janelle Becerra — Burlingame, CA — March 16, 2011 8:13pm ET
Michael Bennett — Houston, TX — March 16, 2011 8:51pm ET
Andrew J Grotto — Washington, DC — March 16, 2011 10:25pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — March 16, 2011 10:49pm ET
Homer Cox — Warrenton, VA — March 17, 2011 7:28am ET
Paul M Hummel — Chicago, — March 17, 2011 7:39am ET
Michael Charles Wines — Warren, OH USA — March 17, 2011 12:02pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — March 17, 2011 6:24pm ET
Kc Tucker — Escondido, CA USA — March 17, 2011 8:06pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — March 17, 2011 8:29pm ET
Russell Quong — Sunnyvale, CA, USA — March 18, 2011 3:22am ET
Homer Cox — Warrenton, VA — March 18, 2011 8:28am ET
Ari Glazer — Florida — March 18, 2011 11:12am ET
Gavin Mchugh — Nor Cal — March 19, 2011 6:36pm ET
Gavin Mchugh — Nor Cal — March 19, 2011 6:41pm ET
Ronald A Fazio Jr — Richmond Va — March 20, 2011 9:16am ET
Philip A Chauche — Germantown, MD — March 20, 2011 2:48pm ET
Kimberly Eakin — Roanoke, VA — March 20, 2011 6:33pm ET
Dan Merry — Los Angeles, Florida, and D.C. — March 20, 2011 11:42pm ET
Mark Lyon — Sonoma, CA; USA — March 21, 2011 12:31am ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — March 21, 2011 12:41am ET
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