“I hope I don’t offend your wine palate,” my oldest friend in Seattle asks, “but I was wondering if you could recommend some inexpensive whites for our party.”
The sound of my head hitting the desk wasn’t because my palate has a thing against value wines, it’s the sound of fear that my friends think my palate is gold-plated. Truth is, there’s a lot of good wine out there that costs a lot less than people think. Wine doesn’t, after all, have to be expensive to be memorable.
First, a primer: There are primarily two things that make wine expensive: oak and grapes. The more exclusive the fruit source—think about those highly acclaimed vineyards like DuBrul, Ciel du Cheval and others—the greater the likelihood the grapes will be pricier. Also, if an acre of Washington grapes costs, say, $10,000 and yields 2 to 3 tons per acre, and an acre of grapes in California’s Central Valley costs, say, $6,500 and yields say 15 tons per acre… well, it’s easy to see why cheap wine from our southern cousins can have a substantially lower value, too.
Fermenting wine in oak barrels also significantly raises the price. A new, air-dried, French oak barrel typically costs anywhere between $1,000 and $1,300 (and there are roughly 25 cases of wine to a barrel); American oak typically goes for something between $500 and $800. And, while the price of an oak barrel plummets after it has been used once, so do the characteristics it imparts into the wine.
Stainless steel, on the other hand, which does not impart oak flavoring into the wine, can be used endlessly.
Still, nevermind the oak, the vineyard sources or the yields, often times the tendency is to go out of the country for “value” wines. Spain, for example, is known for producing a plethora for great wine at lower price points. But we don’t live in Spain, we live in Washington, where the fruit is great and where the winemakers are exceptionally serious about making it live up to high standards. Sure, that means that we’re not producing vast quantities of cheap jug wine, but thanks to smart winemaking (think the strategic use of stainless steel, for example) the state offers some incredible values. Hence I made it my task to find my friend a handful of delicious wines well below her $15 price point.
Keg wine offers some exceptional values, but I wanted to provide a handful of bottles she could have chilling in a tub of cold water inches away from the quarter barrel. And, since she’s of the "no chardonnay" club at the moment, I decided that rather than strongarm her into discovering that well-made chardonnay is delicious, I’d give her some other suggestions. I’ll start with rosé, because one way or another, I’m going to bully the sun into shining, and pink wine seems like a good way to do it.
2010 Columbia Valley Rosé (Columbia Valley)
Renegade Wine Co.
In the Glass: Bright pink
On the Nose: Strawberry, cherries and rhubarb.
On the Palate: Strawberries, strawberry creams, cherries, rhubarb and cantaloupe. The acidity of the wine—a blend of 87 percent syrah, 10 percent mouvedre, and 3 percent grenache—balances the sweetness of the fruit to make this a quintessential crowd-pleasing rosé, especially given the price. Stick it in a tub of ice water and serve it to the guests with reckless abandon.
Price: $9.99 at Esquin and BevMo (when it opens)
Wind Rose Cellars
In the Glass: Fuchsia
On the Nose: Raspberry and red fruits lead to a lovely, ever-so-slight balsamic-reduction character, backed by layers of floral notes.
On the Palate: The color of this wine belies the palate, which is lean and not overtly sweet. Instead, this rosé blend (60 percent barbera, 20 percent each primitivo and dolcetto from Red Mountain, Wahluke Slope, and Yakima Valley) is full of tart cherries and herbs, lots of wildflowers—maybe even some scotch broom—with a nice back note of minerality. And because it’s tasty, subtle, and not a toothache waiting to happen, it’s also a steal for the money.
Price: $12 at Vino Verte, Fremont Ave Cellars and Wine World Warehouse
2010 Sauvignon Blanc, Bacchus Vineyard (Columbia Valley)
Arbor Crest Wine Cellars
In the Glass: Pale straw.
On the Nose: Full of pear, slight nectarine, candied pink grapefruit, and white flowers. Though it was fermented entirely in stainless steel, the wine doesn’t have that needling sort of funky mary jane note associated with so many New Zealand-style sauvignon blancs.
On the Palate: Green apple, lime zest, pink grapefruit and honeydew melon. While the wine is high-acid, it’s not bracing: there’s a roundness to it that makes you pray for the sun to shine and the glass to sweat so you can just stand in the light and roll this around in your mouth for a while.
Price: $8.99 from Esquin
A2, 2011 Pinot Gris (Columbia Valley)
Alexandria Nicole Cellars
In the Glass: Pale straw with a hint of copper.
On the Nose: Pear, baked pear, peach, cottonwood blooms, slight honey, tangerine, wet wool.
On the Palate: The wine, which was fermented in stainless steel, is packed with pear, peach, red apple and a hint of cantaloupe, all followed by slight honey and floral notes.
2010 Semillon (Columbia Valley)
L’Ecole No. 41
In the Glass: Bright straw
On the Nose: Candied lemon and apricot give way to white flowers and honey.
On the Palate: There are white tree fruits—especially pear—here as well as candied citrus and a kiss of honey, though the wine is clean and dry and definitely not sweet. That you can get nearly 30 years of winemaking, reliable consistency, and fruit from vineyards such as Klipsun and Les Collines to boot at this price point definitely qualifies the wine as a “value.” New labeling doesn’t hurt the winery’s image, either.
Certainly this isn’t an exhaustive list of Washington’s value wines—more of those stories will come—but it’s a start for a Saturday when summer is just waiting to arrive.