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What Does It Take to Make an $8 Wine?

Glut of California Syrah is a boon to consumers
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 9, 2011 10:30am ET

A while back, I was talking to a winemaker about the challenges of making a truly great high-end wine. First, he said, you need to find an extraordinary vineyard and farm it meticulously. Then pamper the wine from vine to bottle, using the latest technology and the best French oak barrels. When you get it right, you can sell it for $75 or $100 a bottle.

“But that’s easy, really,” he told me with a laugh. “Anyone can do that. Have you ever tried to keep 6 million gallons of wine fermenting?”

Today that winemaker is producing $75 Pinot Noirs in Sonoma County. But he apprenticed in the factory wineries of Modesto, Calif., and understands that producing good, inexpensive wine is harder than people realize.

I thought of him the other day when I had a glass of Smoking Loon Syrah California 2008. I thought it was juicy and lively and surprisingly complex for the price, with notes of cherry, cranberry and spice. My colleague James Laube gave it 87 points (or “very good”) in a blind tasting. (See the full review in our Feb. 7 California Tasting Highlights.) How, I wondered, can an $8 bottle of Syrah be this tasty?

Turns out it’s the silver lining of the cloudy economy. “Since no one is drinking Syrah anymore, we’ve got plenty of it,” joked Don Sebastiani, Jr., president and CEO of Don Sebastiani & Sons, which produces Smoking Loon.

Syrah was on the rise in the 1990s, considered the next big thing. But it was over-planted and planted in regions where the quality was marginal. Great Syrah found a market, of course, and plenty of it sells for $75 a bottle. But America’s big love affair never took off, supply outpaced demand and then the economy staggered to a halt.

That’s a recipe for a Syrah glut. As a result, wineries have been discounting what wine they could, and the bulk market—where the industry barters and buys wine by the hundreds and thousands of gallons—has been flooded. And some of it is good stuff. Companies like Don Sebastiani & Sons buy those producers’ excess wine (at a steep discount) and then put it under their own label. That’s what the French call a négociant.

So that $8 Smoking Loon could contain Syrah that might have sold for $30 or $40 in a better market. Sebastiani says part of the blend was purchased on the bulk market, with the balance coming from the company’s annual wine and grape contracts. “The blend is almost entirely Syrah, with a touch of Petite Sirah and Merlot,” he said. “About 40 percent came from Paso Robles, 30 percent from River Junction, near Ceres, and 30 percent is miscellaneous California.”

At the winery, they relied on techniques that cause purists to roll their eyes but are standard operating procedure for today’s producers of inexpensive wines. Blended into the 2008 was 0.1 percent of a product named Mega Purple, a wine concentrate that adds a darker color. The blend was aged in stainless-steel tanks using French and American oak staves to add a touch of toast and spice. Winemakers also used microoxygenation, which infuses small amounts of oxygen into the wine as it ages.

“The staves and the micro-ox do an incredible job of simulating oak-barrel aging,” Sebastiani said. Since a barrel holds 25 cases and the average barrel costs between $500 and $1,000, most wines under $10 don’t see the inside of one.

If you pick up the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, you can read Laube’s tasting report on Syrah and other varietals that originated in France’s Rhône Valley. Plenty of the top wines and producers come from Paso Robles (including Justin Smith’s Saxum winery, maker of 2010’s Wine of the Year). You won’t find any of the most highly rated wines in Smoking Loon, but there might be something from a few miles away.

Do you know of other good value Syrahs? While Smoking Loon 2008 is a good buy, store shelves are plentiful with inexpensive Syrah, whether from California, Australia or Europe. You might also look for: Castle Rock Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 (88, $12), Big House Syrah Santa Barbara The Slammer 2007 (87, $12), Chateau Ste. Michelle Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 (87, $13) or Pascual Toso Syrah Mendoza 2009 (87, $12).

At this price point, experimentation is half the fun, right?

Mark Horowitz
Brooklyn, USA —  February 9, 2011 3:36pm ET
Judging from the dozens of offers that arrive in my email box each day, the worldwide glut of wine is not limited to Syrah. Wine retailers, along with a new breed of internet-based wine sellers who scour the earth for surplus wine, purchase it at a deep discount and then offer bottles to consumers "until sold out," "last call," or until my horse-drawn coach turns into a pumpkin, at 30%, 40%, 50% or more off original price, are filling consumers' email boxes daily.

Consumers' gain is, I'm afraid, producers' loss. We all know what a pursuit of passion winemaking represents. The percentage of small, independent winemakers who will become rich, either through finding the formula to success or, with increasing frequency of late, selling to large conglomerates, is tiny. While some winemakers foray into the profession may be misguided, most take tremendous personal and financial risks. Now, I'm afraid, there are simply too many of them and, despite their passion and good intentions, the $8 Syrah means smaller profits for some and, ultimately, a departure from the business for many others.

It's a bit sad.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  February 9, 2011 7:15pm ET
If megaproducers like Sebastiani call it "Shiraz" they'd sell even more.

Marketing advice free of charge.

Jim Kern, Wine Buyer
Holiday Wine Cellar
Escondido, CA
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  February 9, 2011 7:54pm ET
This kind of article is why I like WS (no smoke blowing). You can find a good bottle of $40+ wine without any effort everywhere and I generally don't pay any attention to those, except on my birthday. Currently, I can focus on WS 87-91 wines from $8 to $15 and I am finding deals that I have never seen before. It is a buyers market for inexpensive, good wine. Enjoy it while you can.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 9, 2011 8:25pm ET
Homer, thanks, we try to offer a cross section of prices, which is good for consumers but as Mark said, challenging for producers. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.
Greg Roberts
CA —  February 10, 2011 6:59am ET
It's a shame that most of the wines that fill our grocery store shelfs in this price range have to be engineered to meet the desired or the perceived consumer 'taste profile'. Does it really need mega purple if they are able to but syrah for some of the better growers?
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  February 10, 2011 8:20am ET
Greg, I understand your point but do you really think that professional tasters such as WS, WA really taste and grade wine based on what they think consumers like? I may be wrong. I base much of my initial wine purchases on these ratings and if I like it I will buy more. If I based my purchases on the expensive wines my friends buy I would be paying out the yingyang. Once they could not tell a difference between my CC Cab Reserve and their Chateau Haut Brion.
Martin Redmond
Union City, CA —  February 10, 2011 3:25pm ET
The mega purple revelation is an interesting on to me because I believe the color of a wine is important in evaluating a wine. Now, I'm wondering if it matters so much, especially if the colors are artificially enhanced. That would be a disclosure I'd like to see. Anyway for the consumer to know? How prevalent is the practice?

Another very good value Syrah is the Rosenblum Vintner's Cuvee Syrah. Lists for $12, but since it seems to be a buyers market, I purchased for $6 at the Rosenblum some months ago. Might still be available at Raleys...
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 10, 2011 3:50pm ET

The prevalence of use in the industry is highly debated. Some believe it is widely used even in wines that cost $50 or $100, others say such claims are overblown.

Don Sebastiani Jr. was very upfront about it, and I have to respect him for that, but not all producers are so forthcoming, especially as the price point increases.

Thanks for reading and commenting.
Benno Dorer
San Francisco, CA —  February 10, 2011 5:20pm ET
Here is a delicious, highly recommended single-vineyard Syrah from the Russian River Valley that is available at $18/bottle from the winery (admittedly at the upper end of the above range, but still worth grabbing in multiples while you can): Anthill Farms' Windsor Oaks.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 10, 2011 7:02pm ET
Hey all, I posted this in another thread about the use of Mega Purple -- perhaps you will find it interesting:

"According to the manufacturer, who has a vested interest in saying how important MegaPurple is, 20% of the 50,000 gallons produced is sold to the wine business (which tells you, first, that if you want to worry about MegaPurple, then worry about it in the foods you eat and non-wine drinks you drink. And I don't believe you've ever seen it listed on a label there.). ---

So 10,000 gallons are sold to the wine business. At an addition rate of .2% that means 5 million gallons of wine have MegaPurple in them. The United States produces approximately 575 million gallons of wine a year. MegaPurple being added to red wine only that mean 2%of the wines have MegaPurple added to them. Undoubtedly there are other concentrates out there --- including the longtime use of sussreserve in German wines. But to advertise MegaPurple as ubiquitous is simply not true. I'm sure Constellation would like it to be true -- but it isn't."

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 10, 2011 7:29pm ET
Interesting Adam, thanks for commenting.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  February 10, 2011 9:03pm ET
One of my favorite Syrahs, that happens to be a great value is the Columbia Crest Grand Estates ($9). Both 2006 and 2004 were terrific. I also buy a lot of Aussie Shiraz, and lately there has been a bumper crop of great values: D'Arenberg Stump Jump ($9), Razor's Edge ($10), Jim Barry Lodge Hill and Lehmann's Barossa Shiraz, though the last two are $12-$15.

I just had Neyer's 2007 Syrah that James Laube really liked, but to me it was different but no better than the values listed above.
Drew Robinson
Colorado Springs,CO —  February 10, 2011 11:09pm ET
Thank you so much, Adam, for putting it in perspective. So much manipulation is being done, but nobody fesses up. Syrah in your Pinot? Nobody admits, as well as usage of staves or chips, acidification, multi-vintage blending and the like.
Mega Purple? Had never heard of it, and I'm sure very few will admit to it.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 11, 2011 8:01am ET

I don't know that I have any idea how much manipulation is being done (I suppose it would depend on how you define manipulation --- you mention oak chips but what about oak barrels?). I know that manipulations of the sort you mention are certainly not new --- been done in Europe for centuries.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  February 11, 2011 1:26pm ET
you start manipulating wine the second you plant a vineyard (grape vines, in their natural state, climb up trees not trellises and exist in a polyculture of numerous plant species). So, when is a manipulation OK and when is it not? Well, thats hard to say and I guess that depends on what style of wine that you like. Personally, I am not a big fan of oak addititves (the oak profile is to harsh) and megapurple (it tends to create "good red wine" rather than allow varietal characteristics to shine through) but I am sure there are a number of wines with these manipulations that I have enjoyed so there are always exceptions. I have had the Smoking Loon by the glass a few weeks ago and I found it unoffensive but lacking in what I feel are syrah attributes--not bad but I would not run out and buy it again despite the low price (i'd give it an "83" , not that anyone cares how I score it of course)
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  February 13, 2011 10:21am ET

You make good points. For some people, the taste is more important than the back-story; for others, it's the opposite. It's a fine line between "craftsmanship" and "manipulation." I think most serious wine drinkers are attentive to both the means and the results.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator
Joshua Hull
Lancaster, Pennsylvania —  February 13, 2011 10:54pm ET
Tim, you are absolutely right about Syrah likely being the greatest value varietal on the market. Even in PA, we saw the 2007 Castle Rock Washington Syrah hit smaller stores at a price of just $7.50! I noticed the 88 point rating, bought a bottle the minute my store got some, and after confirming (as always) it was that good, scooped up much more.

Also picked up the K Vintners 2007 Northridge (96 points) for under 40 dollars for my out-of-price range but can't pass it up collection! Washington wine, Syrah or otherwise, is not to be underestimated.

I love Wine Spectator because your expert blind tastings confirm that good wine is good wine, no matter who makes it, how much it costs, or what vinification techniques are employed.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 13, 2011 11:17pm ET

Thanks for reading and commenting. We take objectivity seriously.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  February 14, 2011 9:53am ET
I had the Casa Agricola Alexandre Relvas Alentejo Ciconia 2009 the other night - a delicious Portuguese syrah which was even more impressive considering to the $6.49 price point. WS editor Km Marcus gave it an 87 and a Best Buy designation, but I think it handily beats many other wines rated several points higher and costing several dollars more.
Dave Pramuk
Napa, CA, USA —  February 14, 2011 1:02pm ET
I guess there will always be this duality in the wine business like there is in the food industry.

Some people go to Olive Garden and Applebees where they know what to expect and can afford a dinner out - even if its formula food.

Others who support smaller wineries and feel a connection the the winemaker and vineyards are also more likely to eat at a chef-owned local bistro where they know they are supporting quality and feel a connection to the business.
You can either feel like a smart shopper buying faceless wines like Smoking Loon or you can enjoy a bottle of hand made Novy or Siduri -- and actually call Adam and tell him how much you enjoyed it. That's worth a lot to savvy wine drinkers.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  February 14, 2011 4:50pm ET
What is happening today with Syrah was yesterday's Merlot and, I am betting, tomorrow's Pinot Noir. Too much production for too small of a market (meaning $40 plus wines). Tim, great article, keep it up...and you don't need to thank everyone for responding, we should thank you for bringing this to our attention! Although full disclosure should be mandatory (I know, no room on the label)whether your offended by Mega-Purple or not, isn't what's in the bottle what really counts? After all, it is what we drink, isn't it?
Thomas J Manzo
Point Pleasant, NJ —  February 16, 2011 9:10am ET
Tim, great topic and article. I appreciate your work. Can't get enough of Zaca Mesa. A little pricier, but still under $20 a bottle at most retailers.

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