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Lost? Here's Where to Start

Posted: February 3, 2000

Lost? Here's Where to Start

So you're new to wine, overwhelmed by the choices, frightened by the prices, and you want to know where to get started. This column is dedicated to you. Even if you're an old-time collector who knows the ropes, this drill should pique your interest. How do I know that? Because the emphasis is on getting the most out of your wine dollar. Hard-core wine drinkers aren't immune to great values. It's foolish to pay top dollar for wine all the time.

The best place to start is with a list of reliable producers. The rules are simple. My shortlist is built around American wineries, because these are the ones I'm most familiar with. To qualify, the winery needs to make lots of good wine and spread it around the country. Price is a factor, of course, with most of the wines selling for $10 to $20--with allowances, because value is relative. Some of these wineries have prestige cuvées or vineyard-designated wines that are more expensive and give you something to look forward to. The wines have to have consistently earned very good to outstanding reviews. And the wineries need to make many good values--as in four, five or six different wines--not just one or two.

How do they do it? The winery owners are savvy businesspeople. They see a correlation between high quality and volume. The winemakers are extremely talented and don't have huge egos. They know how to assemble blends, they use new oak judiciously, and frankly, they're turned off by snobbish "image" pricing. They're determined to challenge your sense of value by creating fine wines that are reasonably and honestly priced. The wineries either own vineyards or have contracts with the best growers, so they're built from the vineyard up.

My uncle used to ask me to recommend just one winery that he could rely on when buying wine. He'd write the name down and keep it in his wallet. Any of these would have made his list. I've avoided specific wine recommendations and vintages because of space. You'll have to do the rest of the homework--so grab your corkscrew.

Benziger. This Sonoma winery created the "fighting varietal" category years ago with the Glen Ellen brand (now owned by Heublein), which was dedicated to value. Benziger has never lost sight of that importance for its customers. Look for the Sonoma County appellation wines.

Chateau St. Jean. Years of combing Sonoma's best vineyards routinely turns up excellent Chardonnay, Fumé and Merlot. The Cinq Cépages, a Bordeaux-inspired red, frightens the competition.

Chateau Souverain. With 40,000 cases of Alexander Valley Cabernet in the $18 range, Chardonnay for $12 and Sauvignon for less than $10--and now Zinfandel for about the same--it's scary how great these wines are.

Columbia Crest. Across-the-board excellence from Washington's Columbia Valley. Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay top the list, with Riesling, Sémillon and Gamay rounding out a superb portfolio.

Dry Creek. Plays with trendy favorites, but also pays homage to underdogs such as Chenin Blanc.

Estancia. Reds (except for Pinot Noir) hail from Alexander Valley, whites from Monterey, exploiting the best of both worlds.

Gallo of Sonoma. A few wine snoots can't face reality, but that's OK. The Gallos know their vineyards and wines. These are soulful wines from choice vineyards in preferred Sonoma County appellations, handcrafted on a Galloesque scale.

Markham. President Bryan del Bondio is a Napa Valley native, the winery owns choice vineyards throughout the valley, the cellar crew's been there forever, and you can tap into goodies such as old-vine Petite Sirah at $17.

Napa Ridge. The name's misleading -- this isn't Napa Valley wine -- but the mission is aimed at sophisticated wine drinkers. Uses the best grapes, regardless of where they're grown.

Sebastiani. Steady improvement each year, paying tribute to underdogs such as Barbera, Cabernet Franc and Mourvedre, with a foundation built on Sonoma Chardonnay, Merlot and Zinfandel.

There you have it. Don't expect to be blown away by every wine. Remember, this is a getting-started list. Now roll up your sleeves and get started.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a piece also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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