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The $10 sweet spot

Times Staff Writer

EVERY wine lover wants it. Every host has to have it. “A great $10 bottle is the holy grail of wine,” says Randy Clement, an owner of Silverlake Wine.

That’s because for most people who buy and drink wine, $10 somehow feels like the right amount to spend on a bottle most of the time. Sure, there are the serious wine aficionados who think nothing of spending $40 or $50, or even $100, on a bottle for Saturday night. But for most of us, $10 is what Kyle Meyer, wine buyer for Wine Exchange in Orange, calls “the magic number” -- the price that feels comfortable for purchasing everyday wines, weeknight wines.

From the retailer’s point of view, $10 is the price at which people spend freely, buying cases instead of bottles. When there’s a crowd, party planners stock the bar with $10 wines. And for wine geeks, who are always on the hunt for rare and precious wines, the trophy wine they prize most is the delicious bottle they bag for $10.

Curiously, less is not more. Things can be too inexpensive, says Clement. “People worry that if they spend less, they won’t get quality.” But at $10, people feel insulated from bad wine. That’s why even occasional wine drinkers spend freely on $10 wines.

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So what does the magic number buy you? That depends, of course, on where in the world the bottle comes from. Though $10 buys you a pretty interesting bottle of red from one of the up-and-coming regions of Spain, or a wonderful white from southern Italy, what you’ll get from California -- or Australia or Chile -- will probably be merely drinkable.

Yet the $10 sweet spot is exploding. The fastest growing segment of the grocery store wine market is wine priced between $9 and $10, rising 13% from $181 million for the first six months of 2005 to $205 million for the same period this year, says Jon Fredrikson, a wine industry analyst with Gomberg, Fredrikson.

“Ten-dollar wine is more exciting than ever,” says Meyer. “You get more than ever because of the increase in quality globally. Regions like Spain that for years have wallowed in mediocrity now are improving. There is not only more wine at $10, there are more great wines at $10.”

Scouting for a $10 wine in the area, I visited 10 wine shops, including stores in Orange County, the San Fernando Valley and L.A. I asked buyers at each store to recommend wines priced $9 to $10.99 from regions around the world and tasted 86 of more than 100 recommended wines. As Silverlake Wine’s Clement says: To find a great $10 bottle, “you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs.”

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Here’s a rundown of what $10 buys, warts and all:

France

France offers a wealth of terrific $10 bottles, but they don’t come from Bordeaux or Burgundy.

One great source is the southern Rhone Valley. Known for small vineyards and idiosyncratic wines, the Cotes du Rhone appellation -- which includes not just southern Rhone’s most famous district, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but also many less familiar to Americans, such as Gigondas, Costieres de Nimes, Lirac and Tavel -- is experiencing a revival as a new generation modernizes family holdings. With old vineyards and warm weather, it’s easier for vintners throughout the region to make good-value wines. As a result, it’s easy to find terrific Grenache-based reds from the Cotes du Rhone for $10. Or delicious roses, such as Chateau Saint Roch from Lirac.

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Ten bucks also buys worthwhile wines from a couple of regions just southeast of the Cotes du Rhone: Cotes du Luberon and Cotes du Ventoux. Cotes du Luberon is a new appellation, created in 1988, that is making rich red wines, such as a 2005 Verget du Sud, as well as bright roses. Or from the Cotes du Ventoux, you can pick up an attractive red from Domaine Les Terrasses d’Eole.

Languedoc/Roussillon is another region where $10 buys you something very drinkable, especially the lime-scented whites from Picpoul de Pinet or the spicy red blends from Corbieres.

Savoie’s aromatic whites were once rarely seen outside of their Alpine homeland near the Swiss border, but the American thirst for refreshing whites has created a market for wines such as the 2005 Anne de la Biquerne Chignin.

Similarly, the white and light red wines of Bugey, just west of Savoie, were only consumed locally until recently; now you can find good $10 wines from there.

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In southwest France, the rough and inky Malbec-based reds from Cahors have smoothed out in the last decade; $10 buys you a 2003 Clos la Coutale.

The Loire Valley’s famous Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumes tend to go for more than $10, but there are a handful of decent $10 Vouvrays (made from Chenin Blanc) including Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette, and a few racy Muscadets, such as Domaine des 3 Versants.

From Alsace, Hugel is the only major producer making a wine that sells in the U.S. for $10. Its Gentil “Hugel” is an aromatic blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat and Sylvaner with a refreshing minerality and a long finish.

There are $10 reds and whites from Bordeaux, but they tend to lack character. “People who buy $10 wine don’t want to have to wait to drink it,” explains Wine Exchange’s Meyer, referring to the fact that most petits chateaux wines improve with cellaring. “They are almost too serious for their own good.”

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As for Burgundy, there are a handful of light, Chardonnay-based Macon-Villages, such as the 2004 Louis Jadot or the 2002 Maison Joseph Drouhin. Otherwise, $10 Burgundies are just about impossible to find.

Spain

“At $10, Spain destroys everyone,” says Meyer. “Spain has acres and acres of brilliant raw material to work with and much of it hasn’t been tapped.” In general, the $10 wines that come from Spain’s celebrated regions, Ribera del Duero and Rioja, are well-made but lack character.

There are more interesting $10 wines from lesser-known regions. Jumilla and Yecla in southern Spain are known for Monastrell (Mourvedre). Finca Luzon makes a good one from Jumilla for $10, as does Barahonda in Yecla.

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In central Spain’s Navarra region, known for its Garnachas and Tempranillos, Artazuri is a reliable producer at the magic price point. In nearby La Mancha, Mano a Mano is one of the modern producers turning around the region’s Tempranillo. Bodegas Borsao in Campo de Borja and Las Rocas de San Alejandro Vinas Viejas in Calatayud in northeast Spain are making the region’s signature old-vine Garnacha.

Italy

In the wake of Italy’s discovery of French varietals in the 1980s, a new generation now is focused on rediscovering indigenous Italian varieties, and there are lots of great $10 bottles.

Ten bucks fetches some interesting Roeros, the aromatic Arneis whites from Piedmont (Valdinera and Matteo-Correggia Roeros are good producers). Or look for Dolcetto, a light, fruity Piedmont red that’s great with food. Or Barbera -- Castelvero and Agostino Pavia & Figli make good ones for $10.

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From Friuli, there are attractive whites, such as Bianco la Viarte Inco; ditto Orvieto (from Sergio Mottura).

Abruzzo, northeast of Rome in central Italy, produces dark red Montepulcianos with soft, sweet tannins that are ready to drink early. Caldora and Masciarelli produce Montepulciano d’Abruzzos for around $10. Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona in Tuscany’s Montalcino region has started making $9 Poggio d’Arna Toscano Rosso, a fruity blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

But it’s in southern Italy that $10 really goes far. From Puglia, the heel of the boot, Zinfandel-like Primitivos are abundant; A-Mano makes one for around 10 bucks. In Molise, the region between Puglia and Abruzzo, Di Majo Norante makes notable $10 Sangiovese. From Sicily, focus on Nero d’Avola, a hedonistic dark red that can taste like Syrah. Cusumano makes one with licorice and black cherry flavors.

And Chianti? Because the name is well-known, Chianti Classicos command higher prices than the wines sometimes are worth, says Lance Montalto, wine buyer for Wine House in West Los Angeles. Instead, try a $10 Sangiovese from Castello di Farnetella in Chianti Colli Senesi.

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Germany

Although German wines have long had the reputation for being great values (largely because Americans didn’t understand the labels and the German wine industry had trouble marketing them) there are few $10 German wines on store shelves. Buyers say that at this price the Germans make simple, sweet wines that remind them of the old Liebfraumilch from the 1970s.

But several respected producers are changing that. From Ernst Loosen, the off-dry Dr. Loosen’s Dr. L. Riesling from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer has lovely white peach flavors. From Rudi Wiest, a Mosel River Riesling has firm acids and sweet apple flavors.

Austria

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Wines from Austria are known for high prices, but curiously the country gives real bang for 10 bucks.

Several producers, including Bio-Weingut h.u.m. Hofer, offer Austria’s simple, crisp Gruner Veltliner whites in liter bottles with pop cap closures. These wines are the rage with the “anything but Chardonnay” crowd. Silverlake Wine carries two $10 Austrian whites: Tschermonegg Cuvee Styria (a well-balanced, off-dry blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muller Thurgau and Gelber Muskateller with nice acidity) and Gritsch Axpoint Gruner Veltliner Federspiel.

Portugal

Portugal is finally getting its act together with dry wines. Though they typically cost more than $10, a few Portuguese producers, including Terroso de Douro, hit the mark. Terroso’s reds burst with fresh fruit, but a touch of tar adds complexity. On the white side, $10 buys you a bottle of Vinho Verde, a light, simple quaffing wine.

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Greece, Hungary and other Eastern European and Mediterranean regions such as Israel produce wines, but they cost more than $10 in L.A.

United States

Wine behemoths such as E. & J. Gallo Winery, Constellation Brands and Foster’s Wine Estates dominate the $10 category, selling millions of cases a year. Designed to please supermarket shoppers, the wines are easy to drink and consistent, but dull, made with oak chips. “People like cherry-cola flavors,” says Matt Parish, a Constellation Brands director of group winemaking. “So we look for that.”

Smaller California vintners rarely try to compete with the giants at the $10 price point. The few small-production $10 California wines that are available are typically blends made from fruit from across large regions that didn’t make it into the better wines.

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But there are $10 surprises. The Italian varietals, such as Barbera, that Jim Clendenen makes under his Bricco Buon Natale label have plenty of character. There’s also Cycles Gladiator Syrah, a Central Coast wine that tastes of cloves and black fruit. J. Lohr’s Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon is an attractive wine with some depth.

Ten bucks also buys you some decent -- if not terribly complex -- California Sauvignon Blancs, such as Kenwood’s, with citrus flavors and balanced acids.

From Washington state, $10 buys you a supermarket wine from one of the huge conglomerates, such as Columbia Crest. From Oregon, New York and Canada, I couldn’t find one $10 wine.

Australia

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Australia made a name for itself in the 1980s with its inexpensive, easy-to-drink wines with big fruit flavors. America discovered the better Australian wines in the 1990s. But when $7 Yellow Tail entered the picture three years ago, Americans flocked back to the inexpensive wines. There are now a dozen Yellow Tail imitators flooding the low end of the market, dragging down the rest of Australia. The high-end producers are digging in their heels at $15. There’s not much for $10 from Down Under, even in supermarkets.

Again, there are exceptions. Ten bucks buys a pleasing earthy Shiraz from Four Sisters or Thorn-Clarke. Then there’s the in-your-face fruity Grenache called Bitch.

New Zealand

For the minerality and complexity that has made New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc famous, you have to pay more than $15. But Matua Valley Winery in Marlborough has $10 Sauvignon Blanc that’s widely available in supermarkets. It’s a quaffing wine with pink grapefruit flavors.

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Chile

Chile produces plenty of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah for $7 to $8, but very little in the $10 range. Then, at $15, there’s a wide variety of offerings. The low-end wines end up in grocery stores.

Argentina

Malbec is king of the $10 Argentine wines, but it’s a small kingdom. Worried that they might end up mired in the bargain bin like their Chilean neighbors, Argentine vintners are focused on Americans willing to pay $15 or more per bottle.

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The exceptions: Andeluna, which has priced its big, juicy entry-level Malbec at $10. An earthy wine with black fruit flavors and a touch of tar, it’s made in Tupangato, a high-altitude region near Mendoza. Or there’s Alta Vista’s $10 Malbec, a light, bright wine with finesse. The other $10 Argentine wine on the shelf is Bonarda, an Italian varietal that has flourished in Argentina since the 1800s. The makers of Altos Las Hormigas have launched a new label, Colonia Las Liebres, just to showcase it.

South Africa

South African vintners have come a long way from the apartheid days when international embargoes made them an insular wine culture. But they haven’t yet gotten the hang of $10 wines. For that price what you can get are Sauvignon Blancs, roses and Syrahs, but they’re acidic, bitter and harsh. Or there’s Bored Doe, a dreadful $10 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Wolftrap, a similar blend, is worse. The country’s signature varietal is Pinotage, but I found none in L.A. for $10.

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Selected hits

HERE are 10 recommended bottles from regions around the world, selected from more than 86 tasted. All are available at the wine stores listed below for between $8.99 and $10.99.

2005 Bio-Weingut h.u.m. Hofer Gruner Veltliner. Crisp, minerally and delicious, this dry Gruner from Austria comes in a distinctive, fat, green one-liter bottle with a pop-top. Available at Wine House in West Los Angeles, (310) 479-3731.

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2005 Verget du Sud Cotes du Luberon rose. A charming pale pink rose, wonderfully drinkable, with great fruit. Available at Wine House and Flask Fine Wines in Studio City, (818) 761-5373.

2005 Domaine de la Mordoree Cotes-du-Rhone. A rich and spicy red, layered with leather and mushroom notes. Available at Wine Exchange in Orange, (714) 974-1454, and Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463.

2003 Les Terrasses d’Eole Cotes du Ventoux. An attractive medium-weight red with pretty red fruit flavors and some depth. Available at Woodland Hills Wine Co., (818) 222-1111, Du Vin Wine & Spirits in West Hollywood, (310) 855-1161, and Wine House.

2003 Bricco Buon Natale Barbera, Jim Clendenen, Santa Barbara County. A spicy, well-balanced red from California with surprising complexity. Available at Duke of Bourbon, Canoga Park, (818) 341-1234, and Bacchus Wine Made Simple in Manhattan Beach, (310) 372-2021.

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2004 Cycles Gladiator Central Coast Syrah. A rich red Californian with heady clove flavors that are lightly layered with black fruit flavors in a long, pleasing finish. Available at Wally’s Wine & Spirits in Westwood, (310) 475-0606, Wine and Liquor Depot in Van Nuys, (818) 996-1414, and Beverages & More in West Hollywood, (323) 882-6971.

2004 Bianco la Viarte, Inco, Friuli, Italy. Earthy aromas introduce a refreshing white with a smooth, polished mineral finish. Available at Wine House and Silverlake Wine in Los Angeles, (323) 662-9024.

2004 Castello di Farnetella, Chianti Colli Senesi, Italy. Rich, smooth red fruit flavors laced with black fruit in this dry red wine that’s perfect for pasta with fresh tomatoes. Available at Wine Exchange and Hi-Time.

2005 Vega Sindoa El Chaparral Garnache. From Spain’s Navarra region, an earthy wine with ripe dark fruit and black pepper flavors. Available at Mel & Rose Wine and Spirits in West Hollywood, (323) 655-5557, Flask Fine Wines, Wine Exchange and Bacchus.

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2003 Terroso de Douro, Bago de Touriga, Portugal. Three grape varieties -- Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Barroca -- go into this full-bodied red wine with terrific black fruit flavors and a touch of tar on the long finish. Available at Greenblatt’s Deli & Fine Wines, (323) 656-0606, La Bodega Wine & Spirits in Riverside, (951) 683-3307, and Silverlake Wine.

-- Corie Brown


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