I have two pieces of advice for party planners this holiday season. First, don't pour bad wine. Your friends will notice. Second, don't spend a lot of money. Your friends will never know. These two guiding principles have served me well through the years.
The dirty little secret I will share is this: There are plenty of delicious wines to be had for $20 or less. If you were to only serve wines from Barefoot Cellars, for example, you could skate out the door for $6.99 a bottle and give new meaning to the term "crowd pleasing" with award-winning cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and the like.
I've compiled a shopping list of 10 widely available award-winning wines that would be hits even for a discriminating crowd of foodies with a taste for the grape. In alphabetical order:
Anna de Codorniu Brut Rose Cava, Spain, $14.99 — They'll ooh and ahh and think it's Champagne.
Allegrini 2016 Valpolicella DOC, Italy, $17 — Pair this with charcuterie.
Artesa 2016 Chardonnay, Los Carneros, $19.99 — Smoked salmon, anyone?
Benziger 2015 Merlot, Sonoma County, $19 — Smooth as silk, easy to sip.
Castello Banfi 2017 San Angelo Pinot Grigio, Tuscany, Italy, $19 — Who said pinot grigio lacks character?
Chateau Souverain 2017 Sauvignon Blanc, California, $13 — Quality wine for the budget-conscious.
Columbia Winery 2016 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $16 — Merlot is one of the money grapes in Washington for a reason.
Edna Valley 2016 Pinot Noir, Central Coast, $16 — For those savory appetizers.
Estancia 2017 Pinot Grigio, California, $11.99 — The perfect holiday quaffer.
Fetzer 2016 Shaly Loam Gewurztraminer, Monterey, $11.99 — An aromatic white that bridges the gap between sweet and savory faire.
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.
Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Champagne, France ($70) — Sourced 100 percent from grand cru vineyards in the Cote des Blancs district of Champagne, this towering blanc de blanc Champagne is the essence of elegance, an accurate expression of the Bruno Paillard style. This multi-vintage blend draws upon 25 vintages of reserve wine going back to 1985. It is rich and creamy while at the same time crisp, tense and fresh, with very low dosage (it is classified extra brut) and a delicate mousse. Notes of lemon and brioche dominate. It's one of the finest Champagnes you can buy for the money. Rating: 97.
La Jota 2015 Merlot, Howell Mountain ($85) — Forget everything you've ever been told about the softness and approachability of merlot. La Jota's Howell Mountain merlot is a beast of a wine that delivers layers of ripe blue fruits, chewy tannins and the heft of a Napa Valley cabernet. This vintage shows notes of wood spice, graphite and cedar, with impressive heft and length. It's built for the long haul, and it would benefit from additional cellar time. Rating: 96.
Mt. Brave 2015 Merlot, Mt. Veeder ($80) — Winemaker Chris Carpenter also authored the spectacular La Jota Merlot, from the other side of the Napa Valley, from this excellent vintage. The Mt. Brave is equally stunning but a bit more suave and approachable, showing a note of cedar and wood spice on the nose, ripe black fruits on the palate and uncommon balance for such a big wine. The finish is long and memorable. Rating: 96.
Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvee, Champagne, France ($55) — The BP Premiere blend is a remarkable testimony to patience and meticulous attention to detail. The final blend includes up to 25 vintages from Paillard's trove of reserve wines, which are held back for the purpose of building richness and depth in these special multi-vintage blends. This release exhibits notes of citrus and crunchy apple, with a touch of brioche, a fine mousse and impressive length on the palate. Such a sophisticated Champagne is a steal at this relatively modest price. Rating: 94.
Art.Terra 2017 Amphora, Alentejano, Portugal ($23) — Fruit-driven dry reds from Portugal are now all the rage, or they should be. These wines, made from obscure grape varieties (aragonez, trincadeira and moreto) that have little traction in the New World, are well-made, beautifully structured and priced attractively because they've yet to be discovered by mainstream wine enthusiasts. The 2017 Amphora shows ripe dark fruits, a strong note of minerality, fine tannins and exquisite balance. What's unusual is the three grape varieties were co-fermented in clay amphoras using native yeasts (as opposed to commercial yeasts) and then aged in clay amphoras before bottling. Rating: 92.
Cambria 2015 Pinot Noir, Julia's Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($25) — The 2015 is beginning to exhibit some of the complexity of evolving secondary aromas that come with age, showing a leafy green tea note that complements its blue-fruit character. Hints of baking spice and softening tannins make for an attractive package at an attractive price. Rating: 88.
Cline 2017 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($23) — Cline is best known for its superb touch with the Rhone grape varieties, but situated as it is in the heart of Sonoma, the temptation to make pinot noir and chardonnay is just too great. The 2017 Sonoma County pinot is a medium-bodied red that delivers complex notes of raspberry and strawberry, hints of mocha and earthy undertones. Modestly priced, it's perfect for picnics and casual cuisine. Rating: 87.
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. Email Robert at [email protected]