The lower end of the U.S. wine market is a fairly stratified affair, with big players making wines for the masses in mass quantities sufficient to supply a huge national pipeline. But so often these wines have a cookie-cutter, concocted feel to them, or worse, they're guilty of being unspeakably drab. Let's state the obvious: Most cheap wine tastes cheap. Not for nothing has the category earned the brusquely dismissive moniker "plonk."
No one hates plonk more than winemakers, who, the same as everyone else in the world, want affordable wines to drink with their midweek meal, something simple, satisfying and authentic — wines to enjoy and not ponder.
An enterprising few have taken it upon themselves to provide just that: wines that possess an artisan's touch at a fraction of the price you'd pay for their loftier bottlings. Call it the everyday artisanal. Winemakers are taking advantage of the soft market for grapes, or are repurposing fruit left out of more expensive bottlings. Most are working on a shoestring budget, or renting space in other people's wineries, with just themselves or their families employed.
And a surprising number choose to make wines like these because they feel it's something people deserve, and the market simply hasn't provided it. "There's plenty of us making hoity-toity wines on the high end," says Jamie Brown, founder of the artisan winery Waters in Washington's Walla Walla Valley, but he started his second label, called Substance, for the rest of us. "We're all about power to the people."
"Overdeliver" was a word frequently heard out of the mouths of these winemakers for a domestic category that usually does far less. You'll pay a few dollars more for these wines, but then again, they're a long, long way from plonk. They're proof that in the right hands, the words "affordable" and "well-crafted" can exist not only in the same sentence but can describe the same bottle.
Bebame: Portland wine wholesaler Don Heistuman sells high-end wines for a living, "beautiful wines, Barbaresco and Burgundy, but not things you drink every day," he says. Most evenings he found himself wanting something fresh and bright to have with his dinner. He usually went with wines from France or Italy — Vermentino, Barbera, Beaujolais and especially the reds from the Loire, such as Chinon and Bourgueil. "I kept thinking, Why can't these things be made here?" Heistuman says.
So he reached out to his friend, winemaker Steve Edmunds, who put him in touch with a Sierra foothills grower named Ron Mansfield, and conceived a wine built on lean Cabernet Franc fruit, blended with a small amount of Gamay Noir — a traditional but somewhat rare Loire Valley combination. Edmunds makes the wine, a light Loire-style red that's charming, brisk and delicious, for about $17. It's called Bebame — Italian for "Drink me" — and that's about all you need to know.
Broadside: Winemakers Brian Terrizzi (Giornata Wines) and Chris Brockway (Broc Wines) established a small brand in 2005 called Broadside, consisting of just two wines, a Cabernet and a Chardonnay. Both are drawn from two very good Paso Robles sources: The dark, brambly Cabernet comes from Margarita Vineyard, and the Chardonnay comes from the highly regarded James Berry Vineyard, the principal fruit source for Justin Smith's Rhône-inspired reds for Saxum. The Chardonnay vines are more than 30 years old and are full of character.
Terrizzi and Brockway are the sole employees, which keeps costs down. They harvest their grapes at low sugar levels (resulting in low alcohols) ferment with native yeasts, without additions or enzymes, and age their wines in older barrels with minimal sulfur inputs and light handling. At about $17 a bottle, they are in effect the most affordable natural wines in California.
"We could charge $40 for it, but it would take forever to sell," Terrizzi says. "I thought it would be so much cooler to make a wine I can afford to drink on a daily basis, something that people can enjoy with a meal."
Substance: Substance is a joint project between Greg Harrington ( Gramercy Cellars) and Jamie Brown (Waters Winery), two Syrah specialists in Washington's Walla Walla Valley, who, for quite a few years, heard young consumers describe the huge disparity between their tasting room experience and what they were settling for at their local wine shops. "We'd get people coming into the tasting room," Brown says, "who had learned the difference between a great wine and some oak-chipped, tanky swill — but they didn't know where that bottle was in the wine shop, and didn't want to spend $20 and have a bad experience."
Brown and Harrington sought to make honest, well-crafted varietal wines priced at less than $20 from Washington state. Substance produces as many as a dozen different wines, most in tiny quantities, all sold with an arresting black-and-white label design meant to reflect the periodic table of elements ("Sy" for Syrah, "Cs" for Cabernet Sauvignon). Brown is biased, naturally, but he believes that Washington fruit delivers a kind of elemental, varietal purity that's not only reliable, it's educational. "We wanted to be sure that if you're going to spend $20, you can expect to taste a varietal the way it's supposed to taste," Brown says.
Hocus Pocus and Genuine Risk: In 2005, Los Angeles resident Peter Hunken, a former assistant winemaker for Stolpman and Piedrasassi vineyards in Santa Barbara County, and his wife, sommelier Amy Christine, founded a company they called Black Sheep Finds. Theirs is largely a two-person, underground operation. Their wine is made on the Central Coast, and most of it is sold in California. In fact, Hunken and Christine hand-sell most of it in the L.A. area. The low profile "frees us up to make the wines we want to make," Hunken says.
And those wines are surprisingly good. Black Sheep has several labels under its aegis, but the two that are best known are the Hocus Pocus Syrah, and the Genuine Risk Cabernet. Of these, seek out the sultry '08 Syrah; its subtle mocha-and-herbs aromatics and dark-fruited flavors hint at Syrahs from Crozes-Hermitage, and it's a steal at about $18.
Barrel 27: Two young Rhône variety specialists, Russell From of Hermann Story Wines and McPrice Myers combine talents to make a single omnibus brand, which they use to pool their unused Syrah, Viognier, Grenache and Moscato into tasty and affordable multi-source bottlings.
Barrel 27 — founded in 2002, when From and Myers were both of that tender age — blew out of the gate with bold, full-flavored wines drawn from a variety of Central Coast fruit sources, from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara. They gave the wines fetching proprietary names such as "Right Hand Man" for their Central Coast Syrah (the high-end Syrah is called "Head Honcho") and "High on the Hog," a white Rhône blend. "We tend to be a little more fruit forward," Myers says, "so we feel we're giving out a little more power than you usually see at the price point." Plenty of bang in the $15 range.
Swindle Rig: Swindle Rig once was the name of the Sonoma County town, now known as Forestville, where Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, of the small artisanal winery Arnot-Roberts, are based. They make just two wines for this offshoot brand, a Sauvignon Blanc from 100% Napa Valley fruit, and a rosé of Grenache. Both are fermented with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks and handled minimally. Meyers and Roberts wanted to make a wine that was "crispy" (read: not overripe) and inexpensive. "We wanted to make an easy drinking and low-ish alcohol wine," Meyers says. They sell Swindle Rig for $20 or less. That's for a liter bottle, which gives you an idea of how the wine is meant to be enjoyed — in generous pours, on late-summer afternoons, with friends.
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