While living in rural Northern California can be challenging, it most definitely has its benefits. I live on the very northern border of “wine country”. Now, if you were to ask a pretentious Napafite whether or not Ukiah is Wine Country, they would say no. However Redwood Valley (a small valley just north of Ukiah) is the northern-most reaches of the wine growing region of Northern California. Therefore many consider Ukiah still in Wine Country. This means we can be at a winery in about five minutes. We are 10 minutes from dozens of wineries, and within one hour we can be at hundreds of different makers of the vino.
That doesn’t mean I enjoy drinking Wine Country prices. Here’s the thing about wine; with the exception of sparkling (it is not called “champagne” if it isn’t from France), you can get an excellent bottle of wine for under $20. Sure, there are many excellent wines that are very expensive. But is the level of “excellent” really worth the extra $30, $50, $100 for a bottle? No. We enjoyed a bottle of Artemis from Stag’s Leap with family recently and it was decadent. But we can’t bring ourselves to pay the $50 decadent price that goes with it. My wife and I pride ourselves on shopping cheap for our juice and we pretty much refuse to pay high prices unless we go on a special trip to a new region, such as our anniversary trip to Washington. Our primary sources are the basic supermarkets where you can get multiple bottles for 10% off; Safeway six and Lucky four bottles.
So I’m here to present to you the standard drinking fare at Coach Brown’s house. Something to quench the thirst of a vino lover who also enjoys maintaining some semblance of a bank account.
My wife and I enjoy white wines more in the summer, either sipping on the patio or enjoying with spicy food. We like our chardonnays fairly buttery and oaky, with something that lingers on the palate that might be a little heavier than standard. Bogle’s chardonnay has been very good lately, and if you can snag some 2008 or 2009 vintages I would do that right now. More recent vintages of Wente (Morning Fog) have been very tasty, as have recent vintages of (believe it or not) Columbia Crest Two Vines; the later of which is dirt cheap at the supermarket. We used to be fans of Meridian Santa Barbara chard, but recent vintages have become to sharp and acidic. Right now the standard fare is Camelot chardonnay, a slightly oaky wine with a nice smooth finish.
For more spicy foods we enjoy an occasional sauvignon blanc or a nice riesling. Beringer has a nice sav blanc lately, and if you can find a 2008 Chateau St. Michelle, snag it. The best riesling I’ve ever had is less than $10 and it’s from Pacific Rim. The basic is the best but it is fairly hard to find. I recommend that you go to Pacific Rim’s website and use the store locator because, yes, it is that good. No Pacific Rim? I’d go for the Columbia Crest Two Vines. A little sweet, but lite enough not to taste overly syrupy.
Yes, we are picky, picky, picky about our red wine. My wife and I are borderline cabernet snobs, almost to the point of annoying family members. Here’s the first tip; Napa Valley cabernets are not only horridly overpriced, they are often extremely overrated. Don’t let the whole name game draw you in with a cute little “Napa Valley” on the label. There are excellent wines for over half the price from Sonoma County and even better ones from Washington State.
The year on the label does matter. Some years are just better than others in terms of conditions, blending, and handling of the grapes. For instance, if you are looking at any wines from Mendocino County (including Anderson Valley) that are from 2008, be careful. That was the summer of the massive fires and wineries everywhere had to deal with grapes with “smoke taint”. Some wineries pulled it off and created fabulous depth in blending in the smoked grapes (Phillip”s Hill had an excellent cab), while others basically created new inferior labels for the bad wine. Just be careful.
Chateau St. Michelle had some excellent wines from 2008-2009 from their Indian Wells appellation. In fact, a lot of Chateau St. Michelle wine is a good place to start for novice cab fans. Keeping with Washington wines, if you happen upon a white label that simple says “Steak” or “House”, that’s from the Magnificent Wine Company. If you are looking for a very full red then spend the cheap bucks and nail down the House (cheaper) or Steak (little more). Want a little more mellow cab blend? Try the Hogue Genesis label. The cheap price hides the fact that the wine is actually very well made and smooth enough on the palette not to offend casual drinkers.
Good cabs also tend to get a little more expensive as you go along. If you are looking for a special bottle, don’t automatically hit up the top shelf at Safeway. Head to BevMo and pick up something for $20-$30 that will do nicely. I would recommend Buehler from Napa from almost any vintage year. It is consistently good. Rodney Strong has some good wines from Alexander Valley, and some of the little more pricey Simi wines (also Alexander Valley) can bring serious bang for the buck. If you are fortunate to have top Washington wines around you (like BevMo), hit up L’Ecole, Woodward Canyon, and Tamarack (especially Firehouse Red). You might hear a lot of good things about the Seven Hills label but I’ve had a couple of bottles and yet to have found one that is excellent.
Couple of other nice reds include Petite Syrah from Bogle, the H3 Merlot from Columbia Crest, and for earthy Pinot Noir go with Kenwood. My wife and I try and stay away from fruity Pinots.
Ok. So if you are actually being sparkling wine for some occasion it is usually worth plunking down some cash. Seriously, why buy half-ass sparkling wine? Whip out the wallet. Still, most of these are only about $20, and may actually be less if found at Safeway.
Want something simple yet elegant? Go with the Gloria Ferrer Blanc De Noirs or the Roederer Estate Brut. Both are excellent wines at a very reasonable price. Plus Gloria is bound in Spanish tradition and Roederer is bound in French tradition, so you can even look like you are that much more sophisticated. If you really want to fork out the bucks so that sugar mama considers nuptuals, upgrade to the Gloria Ferrer Carneros Cuvee, the Roederer Estate L’Ermitage, or the Scharffenberger Cremant. Both the L’Ermitage and Carneros Cuvee will get you going with serious wine drinkers. The Cremant will taste expensive and will be a price point a step down from the other two.
Remember that wine is a part of the experience of food. Don’t give in to the pretentiousness of sipping vino and just enjoy it.