Greetings and Salutations! With apologies for a bit of a writing break, your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth is back and loaded for bear this month! I confess that the college search quest for my youngest over the past several months took a bit more time and energy than I was planning on! Whew! However, I am pleased to report that final decision is made, deposit is delivered to the lucky institution of higher learning and she’ll be off to great new adventures in August. All in all, the process was enough to drive a strong man to drink…but who am I fooling? I have been known to have a sip of the grape from time to time while she was still in elementary school. Except in my case, the actual term for my behavior is research, thank you!
My giving nature aside, the alarming cost of great Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is on my mind this month. And like the absurd price increase in college costs since I myself was a college freshman back in the Dark Ages (which now, according to my daughter and her friends, makes me “vintage”), the prices of Napa Valley’s trademark Napa Valley Cabs have shot up astronomically since the wine bug first nipped on yours truly. I have a sharp recollection of purchasing my first high-end Cab (a Peju Reserve 1994) in January of 1998 during a La Nina monsoon that blanketed Napa Valley. I held my breath and purchase this prized bottle…for the princely sum of $40. That equivalent bottle in April of 2017, just 19 years later, is now $125, over 300% of that first prized bottle that made my head spin, thinking that purchase was a one-time only deal! Well, so much for best laid plans, etc…. Peju is certainly not the only quality producer that has raised the price of its best juice, and actually the current vintage Napa Valley Cab 2013 from this lovely, family-owned winery still retails for a reasonable $50.
If you have been fortunate enough to visit Napa Valley in the past five years or so after an earlier visit, it doesn’t take long to observe that the simple wine world you once knew has changed. I still remember no-appointment-necessary, free or nominal tasting fees most of the way up and down Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Today, not so much! Napa Valley alone boasts in excess of 400 wineries in 2017, and in fact there are over 600 if neighboring Sonoma Valley is added to the total. In a nutshell, the wine biz is hot, and demand for this dear, fertile real estate has skyrocketed. With that demand, as you economics-savvy wine sleuths would expect, the price of land has similarly skyrocketed, taking with it the price of grapes harvested from this prized dirt.
On a recent excursion to Napa Valley, I had the opportunity to visit with several winery owners and winemakers about this issue. Along with the continuing problem of cork failure (more about this issue coming up in my next Chapter), the price of high-quality Napa Cabernet Sauvignon grapes is a growing concern. Just how expensive? How about $8,000 per ton for Valley fruit (e.g., St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville) and even up to $12,000 per ton for mountain fruit (e.g., Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain). From those lofty prices, the math is fairly simple–$8,000 per ton grapes translate to $80 bottles of Cab, and $12,000 per ton grapes translate to $120 bottles of Cab. Yikes! I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty difficult to justify an $80 bottle for Wednesday’s pizza night in my humble abode, regardless of how much I enjoy it.
Fear not, wine sleuths! This blog is all about great wines and value wines, so we will not forsake the continuing practice of recommending at least two Value Wines per Chapter, along with at least one Worth A Splurge Wine. The increased price of great juice from Napa does make us become a bit more creative, however, and thus your Humble Wine Bargain Sleuth is ever on the lookout for the terrific Value Wines that retail for approximately $20 (and sometimes much less!), although rarely from Napa Valley proper. That is the bad news. The good news is that much of that void is being filled by terrific wines from the state of Washington, Oregon and alternative California AVA’s and areas such as Livermore, Paso Robles, Lodi and Santa Barbara. Further, we will not forget the better known wine meccas such as Bordeaux and Napa–the classic juice from these areas will simple be recommended as the Worth a Splurge Wines.
Without further ado, it’s time for this Chapter’s recommendations. Cheers!
Value Wine No. 1: Columbia Crest 2013 Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon.
Without a doubt, the State of Washington is producing some terrific wines, and you savvy wine sleuths should definitely pay heed. Exhibit A is the Columbia Crest 2013 Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, which is an delicious medium-bodied Cab that is widely distributed. I picked up hints of cocoa, blueberries and blackberries, with a noticeable but delicious oak overtone. Not overly tannic, this is an everyday Cab that can be served as on its own, or it would be a delicious pairing with a grilled filet or even a pork tenderloin. The Columbia Crest offering rewards with true Cabernet pleasure at the bargain bin suggested retail price of $12 per bottle! Wine Enthusiast magazine named this wine its Number 7 on the Top 100 Best Buys and bestowed a solid 90 rating on it! This Washington product would make an excellent Big Red house wine at this remarkable price. Think of this wine as the anti-Napa Cab!
Value Wine No. 2: Forstreiter Gruner Veltliner Grooner 2015.
With spring springing and summer lurking just a few weeks nigh in the Great Southwest, a crisp refreshing white that doesn’t break the budget is worth a look. That description fits the lovely Forstreiter Gruner Veltliner Grooner 2015 to a tee. Hailing from the scenic European country of Austria, the cleverly-named Forstreiter Grooner 2015 (for those who studied Spanish or French in lieu of German in high school, the wine is properly pronounced “Grooner Felt-Leener”) is a perfect sipping wine for spring’s outdoor activities and classic around-the-pool summer quaffing wine. Its flavor profile falls somewhere between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, with refreshing flavors of apricot and peach, but with a complex hint of pepper. Bright, with refreshing acidity. Rated an impressive 89 by Wine Spectator, this Austrian import will only set your wallet back $12, so if you have yet to experience the goodness of a terrific Gruner Veltliner then the Forstreiter Grooner 2015 is just the antidote!
Value Wine No. 3: Ironstone Petite Sirah 2014.
This classic Cali Petite Sirah hails from Lodi, one of the up and coming California wine regions brought to the forefront in part by the high price of Napa fruit. Dark and inky in appearance, the Ironstone Petite Sirah 2014 is intense and concentrated blue fruit with a hint of tannins in this full-bodied Big Red. A nose of raspberries and boysenberry, followed by a slight touch of smoke and oak make this incredible value wine ($12 retail) a perfect pairing for smoked pork ribs, a juice cheeseburger or even a T-bone steak. The well-respected Wine Enthusiast magazine named the Ironstone Petite Sirah 2014 as #18 on its Top 100 Best Buy list and awarded it a healthy 90 rating! Ignore the growing list of great wines from Lodi at your peril, wine sleuths. In wide distribution.
Worth a Splurge Wine: Lamborn Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Howell Mountain).
There are a fair number of Napa Valley Cab enthusiasts that swear by the intense, concentrated fruit grown within the Howell Mountain AVA, just east of St. Helena on the Valley floor. I recently had the opportunity to meet proprietor Mike Lamborn in Dallas at a Howell Mountain Wine tasting showcase, and then I finagled a follow up sit down with Mike and his lovely wife and partner Terry. After a fascinating discussion of Mike’s background and the evolution of his winery from a farming operation (Mike was the third operation to grow grapes on Howell Mountain) to world-class winery with the strong assist of Terry (“Grow Cab instead of Zinfandel, Mike!”), legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett and Mike and Terry’s sons, we finally got around to tasting several terrific Lamborn estate wines. Although the 2013 vintage of the Lamborn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was impressive (awarded a terrific 92 by Wine Enthusiast, among others), the true beauty of the full-bodied, intense, tannic Howell Mountain juice came through in the Lamborn Family Vineyards 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet. Although the Lamborn conversation and tasting was the first of the day (You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning, and you may quote me!), I don’t know that I tasted a better, more elegant, more nuanced Cab the entire trip to Napa, if not this year to date, than the Lamborn 2008 Howell Mountain Cab. Deep aromas of blackberry and even a hint of black cherry and cassis began the experience, with an oaked but polished mid-palate, with a smooth, earthy and complex finish that felt like it lasted for 2 minutes. Evidently Wine Enthusiast agreed with my palate, bestowing a near-perfect 94 rating on the Lamborn 2008 and naming it a Cellar Selection. Originally priced at $100, you may find this beauty at a fine restaurant or quality wine purveyor. Or you can reach out to Mike Lamborn at www.lamborn.com and tell him the Wine Bargain Sleuth sent you to ask about his great cellar selection Cabs! Pair mine with a bone-in filet, please, and leave me alone for an hour or two!
Wine Thought of the Day: Yet More Humorous Wine Quotes:
“Beer is made by men, wine by God.”
― Martin Luther
“Give me wine to wash me clean of the weather-stains of cares”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Anyone who tries to make you believe that he knows all about wines is obviously a fake.”
― Leon Adams
Until next time, be healthy and well!
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