By Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Sometimes we worry about the wine industry. When we started writing a column in the mid-1980s, there were a lot of family owned wineries – small, dedicated operations that over time were absorbed by conglomerates such as Gallo, Treasury Wine Estates and Constellation. Exceptional producers who crafted such great wines – Inglenook, Franciscan, Charles Krug – are either gone or shadows of their former selves.
The “so what” of this metamorphosis is sometimes a homogenization of wine styles. Chardonnays, merlots, and cabernet sauvignons taste the same – well-made but hardly crafted without regard to profit. More profound among the trends is the rapid growth of producers who own no vineyards or wine-making facilities. They buy their grapes, make a trendy wine at crushing facilities and slap on a clever label. David Phinney, for instance, made millions creating brands like Orin Swift and The Prisoner, then selling them to Gallo and Constellation who doubled production and raked in millions more.
But what isn’t there to admire about an entrepreneur who creates a popular wine and makes a boatload of money?
Constellation Brands has had hits like Meiomi pinot noir, a wine created by Joe Wagner (son of Caymus’ Chuck Wagner) and sold after about 10 years to Constellation for $315 million. And, don’t get us started on red blends. Gallo has its Apothic Red, a top-selling wine that has gone so far off the grid that there is a hideous spin-off that includes coffee in the blend.
As much as these wines deviate from tradition, they are nonetheless enjoyed by the masses who have quickly adopted their residual sugar. So, if these sweet concoctions have a good following, who are we to say they shouldn’t be made?
We aren’t saying that, but we are saying that consumers need to know that these wines aren’t as dry as they think. And, that means they have more calories.
A while ago, we joined Craig Becker in a tasting of his wines from Priest Ranch. He has managed to make wines that stay free of this wacky trend of making lots of money from sweet red wines with gimmicky names.
Becker said he thought wine producers were just “casting a wide net to attract customers. I hope they grow out of it. We like to be at ground level.”
Priest Ranch makes a delicious but balanced cabernet sauvignon. But it’s the reserve wines – a Bordeaux blend called Coach Gun, a Somerston merlot, and a reserve cabernet sauvignon called XCVI – that define Priest Ranch. They are heady with chewy tannins and power – nothing sissy about these wines. In fact, they are difficult to enjoy now because they are tightly closed and demanding time in the cellar. Priest Ranch’s regular cabernet sauvignon sells for $38 – prices that are less attractive than the $8 charged by Apothic Red and Menage e Trois.
Dan Cohn, winemaker and owner of Bellacosa says he tasted Meiomi pinot noir, blended with riesling and perhaps syrah, and says, “That’s not pinot noir.”
“I will not deter from balance,” he says. His cabernet has had as little as .45 grams of sugar per liter; Meiomi has about 6 grams per liter. Apothic Red has 15 grams per liter.
Don’t get us wrong. We’re not condemning sweet wines, but we like them in the form of sauternes, port, or dessert wines served after a meal. Sweet wines paired with food often perform terribly because they lack the acidity needed to offset seasoned food.
If you like Apothic, Ménage è Trois – the current top-selling red wines – then drink on. The price is right and these wines go down as easy as Mountain Dew. We’re happy that you are enjoying wine as much as us and have found wines that fit your budget. For us, though, we prefer the traditional wines that laid the foundation for the industry and hopefully for its future.
Duckhorn’s Decoy series represent some of the best values in California wine today. The quality-price ratio is simply hard to beat no what the grape variety.
Its entry-level wines – chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel – sell for $20 to $25 a bottle and carry a California appellation. Generally, they are easy-going wines that won’t break the bank but offer a lot of flavor. We particularly like the chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
But for a few bucks more, consider Decoy’s Limited series of wines.
Winemaker Dana Epperson has crafted a dense, complex 2021 Decoy Limited Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) from Alexander Valley fruit that shows off broad aromas of plum and spice while the palate is redolent of blackberries, black cherries and a touch of mocha.
The 2021 Decoy Limited Merlot ($30) is also sourced from Alexander Valley and is equally delicious and complex. Firm structure with raspberry aromas followed by cherry, plum and rosemary flavors. Silky and long in the finish.
If pinot noir is your favorite grape variety and you don’t want to spend a lot for it, the 2021 Decoy Limited Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($35) is worth every penny. Most of the grapes come from the Petaluma Gap region. Bright cherry and raspberry aromas with a nice earthy backdrop and alluring red berry flavors.
The Decoy Limited Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($30) has opulence but bright acidity to make it an excellent wine to pair with most fish dishes. Mouth-filling tropical fruit, ripe quince and citrus notes with a bit of spice.
MacRostie Nightwing Vineyard Chardonnay ($48). Citrus aromas with fresh and bright mango and lime flavors with tantalizing spice.
McPrice Myers Beautiful Earth Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($60). This floral quaff from Paso Robles has a good mouthfeel with youthful blackberry and plum notes. Its sturdy structure makes it a favorable match to grilled beef.
Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2020 ($15). This is a great buy. Floral aromas and oodles of ripe black cherry and raspberry flavors. Made from Montepulciano grapes, it is a great pasta mind to get in an Italian mood.