Fab Five Holiday 'Values'

By Robert Whitley

December 3, 2013 7 min read

Navigating the holidays on a budget is no small challenge, especially if the shopping cart is loaded to the brim with good wine. The definition of good wine, for the purposes of this discussion, is wine that is impressive enough to be served as a special occasion beverage or used as a holiday gift.

It shouldn't be cheap, but it need not be expensive. Quality wines that represent exceptional value, when compared to costly wines of similar quality, are in abundance for anyone willing to look. They typically come from a producer committed to high standards at fair prices. The following five are among my favorites this holiday season.

I can enthusiastically endorse virtually every wine produced by these five, and have personally stocked my own cellar with wines from each of these outstanding wineries.

Bonny Doon Vineyards is the domain of Randall Grahm, America's most erudite and eclectic winemaker. Grahm's wines are sometimes pure genius, and his benchmark wine, the iconic Rhone-style blend Le Cigare Volant ($75), is a true California collectible. His syrah "Le Pousseur" ($26), grenache "Clos de Gilroy" ($20) and a new red blend, "A Proper Claret" ($16), are brilliant wines that will stand the test of time, although none will break the bank. Do not be deterred by the screwcap bottles. These are impressive wines, and the prices are attractive.

Castello Banfi is a Tuscan gem situated in the hills east of Montalcino. While it is best known for its outstanding Brunello di Montalcino ($60), the heavy hitter in the value department is the 2010 Belnero ($28), which was voted Best of Show red wine at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition earlier in the year. Primarily sangiovese with a small percentage of international grape varieties fleshing out the blend, this is a world-class "super Tuscan" red at an uber-friendly price. But the value doesn't stop there. Banfi's entry-level Centine line (a red, a white and a rose) retails for about $10 and its Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva both come in under $20 a bottle. All of them are delicious.

Eberle Winery is a benchmark winery in the Paso Robles area. Owner Gary Eberle has been producing outstanding cabernet sauvignon since the 1970s, and his plantings of syrah were the first in the region. Throughout the Eberle lineup, which includes outstanding zinfandel, barbera, sangiovese, viognier and chardonnay, the wines are impeccably made and generally well-priced. The Estate Cabernet is typically one of the finest cabernets in California selling for less than $30 a bottle, and it ages remarkably well. I've recently enjoyed Eberle cabs from the 1980s that were in excellent condition.

Piper-Heidsieck is the most improved Champagne house in France over the past decade. Once a true impact player in the industry, Piper-Heidsieck's reputation suffered as its reserve stocks were depleted during an extended period of poor decision-making. In recent good years a larger share of the best vintages has been held in reserve and, as a result, the bellweather non-vintage brut has been vastly upgraded. At less than $40 a bottle (most places), it is the best value in Champagne today.

Smith-Madrone Vineyards is owned and operated by Stuart and Charlie Smith, who founded the winery 42 years ago on Spring Mountain, overlooking the Napa Valley village of St. Helena. They make three wines: cabernet sauvignon ($45), chardonnay ($30) and riesling ($27). The brothers have uncompromising integrity in the vineyards and the cellar, and they believe even great wine should be affordable. Hence, the Smith-Madrone wines are priced well below the market for estate-grown Napa Valley wines with so much history behind them.

Best Value

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Bonny Doon Vineyard 2012 "A Proper Claret," California ($16) — Don't be fooled by the label, this is a Bonny Doon production from the get-go, the latest whacky creation from winemaker/owner Randall Grahm. A Proper Claret is a brilliant if unconventional red blend, utilizing the Bordeaux grape varieties cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, the Rhone grape syrah, the much misunderstood tannat of southwest France, and the petite sirah grape of questionable origin. The result is a delicious, darkly fruited red that delivers profound and complex flavors at a remarkable alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level of 13 percent, well below the norm. Rating: 90.

Tasting Notes

J Vineyards & Winery Brut Rose, Estate, Russian River Valley ($38) — The J Vineyards non-vintage Brut Rose sparkling wine is easily among the finest wines in the genre made in America. It is gorgeous on the nose, exhibiting delicate strawberry fruit aromas, while on the palate the wine is fresh and crisp, showing notes of raspberry and cola. If you're looking for flavor, elegance and finesse in bubbly under $50 a bottle, you would be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying selection. Rating: 93.

Frank Family Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Carneros ($35) — Frank Family made its name with cabernet sauvignon, which is understandable given the winery's location in the heart of the Napa Valley. Yet it has quietly built a solid reputation and a string of successes with its Chardonnay, sourced from vineyards in the Carneros region at the southern tip of the Napa Valley, where breezes off the San Pablo Bay cool and tame the summer heat. The Frank Family Chardonnay reflects this, showing lemon/citrus aromas, exquisite balance and yummy spice notes from barrel fermentation and aging. It's that magical combination of fresh, clean and crisp while being rich and full-bodied at the same time, and it's simply delicious. Rating: 93.

J Vineyards & Winery Cuvee 20 Brut, Sonoma County ($28) — J Cuvee 20 is a refreshing example of the strides California bubbly has made over the past 20 years. A classic blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, this sparkling is firmly structured and crisp, yet generous and rich, with a crunchy apple overtone. Rating: 90.

Carmel Road 2011 Pinot Noir, Panorama Vineyard, Arroyo Seco ($35) — This meaty Pinot from Monterey's Arroyo Seco zone shows an earthy nose with hints of black cherry and plum. On the palate the fruit aromas are deep and complex, and the tension between ripeness and structure is well-balanced. At $35 it represents exceptional value in top-notch Pinot Noir. Rating: 90.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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