Fans of Old World wines know there’s a storm brewing on that horizon in the form of new tariffs the government has threatened on a range of European Union products, including most of its wine. What’s on the table this time is no small sum—a full 100 percent. No matter your thoughts about the president’s general wielding of tariffs, it’s hard not to see enormous collateral damage in the US wine industry if these particular additional tariffs are implemented. From importers and distributors to shops and restaurants, small businesses would be devastated by the extra cost of goods, and a substantial number of jobs potentially lost. And, of course, bottles from our favorite European regions would become prohibitively expensive. A short-term strategy on this front is simply to speak up. Until January 13, the Office of US Trade Representative is taking comments on this latest proposed round of tariffs here.
This would also seem like a good time to take another look at tactics for finding great West Coast bottles to fill in for those until-now, reasonably priced wines from Old World regions that might be getting a lot more expensive soon. We’re not talking about the equivalent of top Bordeaux, Burgundies or Barolos, but wines that drink like they’re over that $100 mark but in fact are under and that don’t necessarily warrant years in your cellar. These bottles beg to be popped open any night of the week.
Here are the secrets to finding the best ones:
1. Tap Napa Legends’ Projects in Other AVAs
The s most of the buzz about the West Coast’s high-end producers comes from their Napa Valley wines. But follow them to projects in other regions, and you’ll find the same terrific nuance in winemaking, with slightly less sticker shock.
2. Explore Glass-Ceiling Varieties
There’s no rule that says world-class reds have to be made from Cabernet Sauvignon and its Bordeaux cousins. Sure, its reputation for noble structure and longevity makes Cab an attractive inhabitant of well-heeled cellars (running up the price tag of top bottles). But that leaves a world of exciting varieties stuck with a glass ceiling—they will simply never command the price of a great Cab, and yet equally talented winemaking is being brought to bear on the best versions. High on our radar at the moment are Zinfandel and Syrah. On the former front, many winemakers are shifting from the over-ripe, jammy, high-alcohol versions of a few years ago, and finding grape sources in some of California’s oldest vineyards, for beautifully balanced, deeply concentrated Zinfandels. In the case of Syrah, more winemakers, too, are avoiding the fat, blousy style that very warm sites can produce, and instead are sourcing from much cooler places. Their best bottles balance fresh acidity with dark fruit, and make the most of the variety’s intriguing wild side—flavors like cured meat, savory herbs, tobacco and leather.
3. Look to Regions that Don’t Have Napa or Sonoma in Their Names
Okay, this isn’t exactly a novel strategy, just a reminder that outside the West Coast’s crown-jewel regions, much spectacular fruit is being grown, and brilliant winemaking is turning it into bottles worth seeking out. How often have you heard wine writers (this one included) say of a region, “This is like Napa Valley 30 years ago.” The truth is, though, no other appellations will ever turn into Napa Valley, and that’s a very good thing—their best wines will always be more affordable because of that. We could focus on any number of terrific winegrowing regions here, but a starting point for fact-finding missions this year would include Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara County and Washington State.
4. Top Bottles from Affordable Producers
Here’s where we usually advise relying on entry-level bottles from your favorite high-end producers, for tippling on Tuesday night. But collectors already know that wines from the winemakers they most respect are going to be good from top to bottom. Instead, take a look at top bottles from larger wineries generally perceived to be highly affordable. These bottles are the beneficiaries of the best vineyard sources the producers have access to, and often expensive new oak. And yet tied to the large-production reputation as they are, with a ceiling on price, they often punch above their weight.
5. Drink the Other French Bubbly
Where would we be without Champagne to mark our finest moments? But what to do when you need a midweek pick-me-up and the menu consists of fish tacos? Just choose a sparkler from one of the eight regions in France—outside Champagne—allowed to make bubbly. The varieties used in these crémants, as they’re called, vary from region to region, but the regulations are stiff, as they are in Champagne. The grapes must be harvested by hand, for instance, and pressed very minimally. The absolute quality guarantee, though, is that the same, painstaking (expensive) fermentation process that’s adhered to in Champagne—in which the second fermentation takes place in the bottle—must be used in a crémant. The bottom line is, there’s an awful lot of good winemaking for the price. Even if new tariffs do come into play, these bottles will likely remain affordable.
Pirouette 2016 Red from the Long Shadows Vintners Collection Columbia Valley
Long Shadows Vintners Collection is the best place possible to find wines from the world’s top winemakers outside their home bases. The company’s partners include John Duval (think Penfolds’ Grange), Michel Rolland (hard to know what reference to use, among dozens available), and Napa’s own Randy Dunn (of Caymus fame, as well as his own label), all working with Long Shadows’ talent on the ground, Gilles Nicault. The consultant behind Pirouette is Philippe Melka, and the wine is a stellar Bordeaux blend, leading with Cabernet Sauvignon but including the other four varieties as well. Not afraid to show a savory side, the nose offers an earthy, minerally character, with resiny herbs, anise, and cassis. The palate is generous with its gamut of ripe fruit—cherry and mixed berry—mocha, and oak spice.
Jonata 2015 Fenix Red Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley
When Screaming Eagle is your calling card for collectors, it might be a little tough to gain traction with other brands. But vintner Stan Kroenke, along with winemaker Matt Dees, is turning out seriously good bottles in Santa Barbara County. Ballard Canyon–based Jonata offers a highly diverse range of reds, from Bordeaux and Rhône varieties to Sangiovese. Merlot is the cornerstone of Fenix (which, by the way, is made only in the best years), with Cabernet Franc a clear player as well (Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot complete the blend). This is the powerful, muscular side of Merlot. Dense, dark fruit—blackberry and cherry—is brooding and soulful. Even the chocolate notes in this one are dark, layered under savory herbs (the Cab Franc talking) and wrapped in chewy tannins. A second Santa Barbara project from Kroenke and Dees should be on your radar as well. Sta. Rita Hills’ brand-new The Hilt winery is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir territory, with wines hitting beautiful stride from the large ranch’s three vineyards: Bentrock, Radian and Puerto del Mar. In 2017, Dees bottled single-vineyard designates for the first time. Do whatever it takes to get your hands on some Radian Pinot.
Dutton Goldfield 2016 Dutton Ranch Zinfandel, Morrelli Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley
This is a fresh and lively but complex Zin from Dutton Goldfield. Violet notes and berry pie aromas are balanced with damp earth and hints of savory herbs, while juicy plum and raspberry flavors have a backbone of smooth tannins.
Thacher 2016 Triumvirate Reserve Zinfandel ,Paso Robles
Combining fruit from three Paso vineyards (thus the name), this reserve Zin from Thacher opens with high-toned floral aromas mixed with raspberry and spice. Beautiful, concentrated red fruit—cherry, plum—on the palate is punched up by bright acidity and a hit of black pepper.
Seghesio Family Vineyards 2016 Home Ranch Zinfandel Alexander Valley
Sourced from some of Seghesio’s famously old Home Ranch plantings, this perennially delicious Zin unfolds in complex layers of dusty, briary blackberries, black raspberries, warm spice, and black pepper, playing out on an endless finish. ($60)
Force Majeure 2016 Syrah Red Mountain
In this inky Syrah from Washington’s Force Majeure, dark-souled aromas lead on a deep and savory nose, with crushed rock, charred meat, and espresso hauntingly brushed with spicy florals. Densely textured blueberry fruit and layers of earth offer a distinct sense of place.
Ramey 2015 Cole Creek Vineyard Syrah Russian River Valley
Gorgeous floral aromas in this cool-climate Ramey red (hinting that it was co-fermented with a bit of Viognier), along with blueberry and dark plum flavors, are the foil for savory layers of espresso, tobacco, cured meat, and olive. This Syrah is lean and generous at once.
Sosie 2016 Vivio Vineyard Syrah Bennett Valley Sonoma County
A decided deal, this Sosie Syrah has much to like—juicy blue and black berries with whiffs of violets interplay with savory notes of minerals, black olive, leather, and a hint of bacon fat (that’s a good thing). Substantial tannins suggest that a little decanter time is in order.
Fathers and Daughters Cellars 2016 Ferrington Vineyard Ella’s Reserve Pinot Noir Anderson Valley
Powerful but elegant, this Fathers and Daughters Pinot presents a savory side, with hints of bay and wild herbs, but bright strawberry flavors and warm baking spices carry a vibrant palate.
FEL Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
One of Anderson Valley’s notable vineyards is FEL’s Savoy Estate, and the winery’s single-vineyard Savoy Pinot reflects some of the region’s best. But a substantial percentage of Savoy fruit goes into this general Anderson Valley Pinot too, making it a great deal. The wine is bright and energetic, with spicy cherry and cranberry fruit slipping with silky textures over the tongue.
Beckmen Vineyards 2017 Purisima Mountain Vineyard Block Six Syrah Ballard Canyon
For 25 years the Beckmen Family has been a leading producer of Rhône varieties (as well as some Bordeaux) in Santa Barbara County. This small-production Syrah is rich and elegant, with complex layers of blueberry flavors, mint, florals, chocolate, and minerality cloaked in nuances of texture.
Sea Smoke 2017 Southing Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills
From Sea Smoke’s biodynamic vineyard comes an elegant, cool-climate Pinot. Pretty floral aromas mix with hints of loam and spice, followed by lovely red berry and cherry flavors underlined by minerality on a fresh, vibrant palate.
Hedges Family Estate 2016 Le Haute Cuvée Red Mountain
Here’s a beautifully restrained but complex Cabernet from the Hedges Family (whose stately château is a Red Mountain landmark), harboring layers of bright fruit and savory elements of earth and crushed rock.
Waters 2013 Forgotten Hills Syrah Walla Walla Valley
Waters 2013 Forgotten Hills Syrah Walla Walla Valley
Addendum: Napa Valley 2016 Skellenger Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley
From the Fess Parker family, known for their Santa Barbara–based wines, this Addendum is bright, focused, and elegant. Classic Cabernet aromas of cassis, graphite, cedar, and mint give way to dark fruit (berry, plum), warm spice and chalky tannins.
Black Stallion Estate Winery 2016 Gaspare Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley
From its estate vineyard in the Oak Knoll AVA, Black Stallion has crafted a richly fruited but vibrant Cab. Blackberry aromas are layered with notes of pencil shavings and forest, followed by juicy boysenberry and black plum flavors on an expressive yet impressively structured palate.
Chalk Hill 2016 Estate Red Chalk Hill
This ink-stained Cab from Chalk Hill opens with dark aromas of blackberry, smoke box, and licorice leading into more dark fruit—cherry stars—layered over very dark chocolate, savory herbs, and firm tannins.
Silverado Vineyards 2016 GEO Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville, Napa Valley
With this elegant Cab, Silverado taps the newest (and one of the coolest, quite literally) of Napa’s AVAs. On the aroma front, it leans savory in the best way, with crushed herbs mixing it up with mint and florals. In the mouth, the wine is bright with acidity, its complex range of fruit—from red raspberry to dark berry and cherry—carrying through a long and structured finish.
Faire La Fête Brut Crémant de Limoux
Limoux makes a good argument that their own winemakers invented the méthode traditionnelle in the 1500s—almost 100 years before Champagne “stole” the recipe. In fact, this sophisticated sparkler holds its own in comparisons with bottles more than twice as expensive. Complex notes of brioche join apple and pear on the nose, while bright citrus is layered with minerality on a palate that’s drier than many Champagnes.
Valentin Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Rosé Brut Zéro
Made from 100 percent Pinot Noir—without any added sugar or sulfur—this salmon-colored bubbly is refreshingly unusual. A gamut of tart red fruit flavors, from raspberry to cranberry to rhubarb, is carried on delicate bubbles through an absolutely dry finish.