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The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Napa Cabernet

If you want the real deal, find the wineries that run lean, drive assertive deals with their growers and don't get caught up in the hype

Posted: Feb 12, 2013 12:05pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

In this ongoing series, I halt at the gates of the world's finest appellations, where most wines start at $40, and find a way to slip past for $20 or less.

"I spent 10 years down in the Central Coast," Harry Hansen, head winemaker at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley, said. "I made Paso Robles Cab, I made Central Coast Cab, and it's always tough to sell your wine against Napa Valley Cabernet. There are just some things that are so good that even if you pay a little bit more for them, they're worth it."

Perhaps there's no substitute for the real thing in this case. (I previously recommended bargain alternatives to Châteauneuf and Champagne from their kin terroirs: Lirac, across the Rhône, and Burgundy's "Golden Gate.") But as I told Sauternes lovers on a $20 budget, sometimes the real thing is just the thing for your wallet.

John Buehler of Buehler Vineyards makes three Napa Cabernets: one at $45, one at $35 and one at $25 ("often discounted to $19.99"). Sterling has a $75, a $65 and a $25 bottling (which can also be found on sale). My colleague James Laube rated the most recent vintage of both intro cuvées, the 2009s, 88 points, very good on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. A search of recently rated Napa Cabs shows they're not alone, but in somewhat rare company. It's possible, then, to buy a bona fide Napa Valley Cabernet at $20. But you have to find the wineries with the combination of know-how and networks, starting with the grape sources, to get the job done.

"We're not paying $4,500 or $5,000 [a ton] for Napa Valley Cabernet; we're paying something less," said Buehler. The estate is on Howell Mountain, but Buehler's other grape source is a grower down in the valley—"a former garbage man, a practicing Buddhist monk and a certified public accountant"—who is also his best friend. Relationships go a long way in this business. Buehler's also had three decades to build distributor relationships, so "we don't have to devote any marketing expense or travel and entertainment. We just ship it."

Sterling sources from 20 vineyards, all the way from Oak Knoll to Calistoga at the north end of the valley, for its $25 bottle, "Sterling has relationships that are 15, 20 years old with some growers," said Hansen. "Continuity is really important."

AVA labeling regulations only require that 85 percent of fruit be grown in the AVA. At Sterling, fruit from Alexander Valley in Sonoma, which typically commands lower prices, sometimes makes it into the $25 bottle.

Next, it helps to have scale. Both winemakers concurred that it would be a challenge to stride into Napa with nothing but a wallet and a pair of shears and start making $20 Napa Cabernet. Sterling made 62,000 cases of its entry-level Cabernet alone in the current 2009 vintage. "I would find it difficult to believe that at 5 or 10 tons you could drive a good grape price," said Hansen. "You'd get eaten up by all kinds of costs and they wouldn't just be grapes." Among those are the facility rental, trucking, bottling and more.

And, of course, Hansen and Buehler make each of their three tiers of Cabs differently. "You can't do it all in French oak and have a $25 bottle of wine," said Buehler. "We run really lean in terms of manpower; we do it all in-house from soup to nuts."

Sterling will often blend press wine—the product of an extra squeeze of the grapes—into the $25 Cab, but not always. The wine is generally less coddled in the winery than the higher-end Cabernet, which is all "hand-sorted, cluster-sorted, gently destemmed, berry-sorted, a mix of techniques including punch downs, barrel fermentations, traditional pump overs, extended maceration. It's kind of a more artisanal process," said Hansen. "You'd appreciate at $25 that's not how you go about making a wine when you're talking about tens of thousands of cases." Still, since he's dealing with different subappellations around Napa, plenty of attention is given to the fermentation regimes even of the lots destined for the basic Cab.

Sterling, Buehler and a few others are proof that with proper cost control and able networking, you can make honest-to-goodness Napa Cab at a friendly price and profit. As Buehler put it, "We didn't get caught up in that frenzy of looking over the fence and saying, well if your wine's worth $50 then my wine's worth $60."

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  February 14, 2013 11:39am ET
My go-to under $20 bottle is Mondavi's Napa Valley Cabernet. Consistent quality year after year and can be found for as little as $17.99 around here when on sale.
Michael Lee
Dallas, Texas —  February 16, 2013 12:15pm ET
B-Side Cabernet - Less than $20 bucks.
Bridgewater, NJ —  February 18, 2013 1:09pm ET
I have really enjoyed the Sterling, Mondavi, and Avalon Napa Cabs which I found from 14 to 19 dollars a bottle. Also, some of the lessor known Names such as Cameron Hughes sell great Napa reds in the 20 dollar range. Have never tried the Buehler Napa..any thoughts to share on this one?
Rich Mora
East Setauket NY, USA —  February 19, 2013 8:23am ET
Alexander Valley is not a bad appellation either so my pick for the south of $20 class is... Katherine Goldschmidt Cabernet Sauvignon Crazy Creek Alexander Valley. Speaking of relationships, I'm told the Crazy Creek vineyard's juice used to go to Simi Reserve Cab but they lost it when they were bought by Constellation Brands. Simi reserve which sells at north of $60. Thew Goldschmidt is worth seeking out
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  February 19, 2013 12:23pm ET
It's much easier to find "value-for-money" in Sonoma Cabs. Dry Creek and Beringer make fabulous wines in the $15-$18 range.
Ben Odonnell
New York —  February 19, 2013 1:16pm ET
Thanks, all, for chiming in with suggestions, and keep 'em coming. As Rich pointed out, the fruit in these bottles is the often some of the same stuff that goes into much pricier ones.

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Robert Seaney
Sylvania, OH —  February 19, 2013 6:54pm ET
There are a couple Paso Robles cabs I really enjoy that are $16.00 or less: Castoro Cellars and Vina Robles "Huerhuero." Either of these always satisfies. Estancia is a good bet, too.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  February 20, 2013 3:03pm ET
Bogle makes very good wines. Also you can find very good values on the "flash"sales on the internet.
Edward Hatch
rye ny usa —  March 11, 2013 5:46pm ET
Buying California cabs is a fun "dilemma" great choices with many well priced. great for the consumer.

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