Why there are so few great, inexpensive wines from California.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 19 2010 2:56 PM

The Great California Wine Mystery

Why superstar West Coast vintners don't (or won't) put out inexpensive bottles.

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I also spoke with Ehren Jordan. He is an old friend, so consider me biased, but I think Jordan is one of the most talented vintners around. He makes the wines for Turley Wine Cellars, famed for its full-throated zinfandels, and also crafts earthy pinot noirs and syrahs at Failla Wines, which he owns with his wife, Anne-Marie Failla. Jordan pointed out that the value wines made by these European eminences tend to come from relative backwaters; Dominique Lafon, for example, makes his cheaper stuff in the Macon region, not Burgundy proper. To turn out a seriously good, artisanal $20 wine in California, he said, would require something similar. Napa and Sonoma are prohibitively expensive—according to Jordan, an acre of choice vineyard in either county runs $100,000 to $200,000, and grape prices are also exorbitant—but there are other areas where it can be done. He speaks from experience: Two years ago, he made a $17 cinsault for Turley using fruit from the comparatively unglamorous Lodi appellation.

Jordan went to Lodi because he likes cinsault and discovered some great old vines there. But he also said that because he depends on wine for his livelihood, it is important for him to appeal to a cross-section of consumers by offering wines at a variety of price points. That's not the case for many of his neighbors. He noted that in the last two decades, Napa (and to a lesser extent Sonoma) has seen an influx of people who earned fortunes in other fields and came to wine country with a trophy-hunting mentality (my phrase, not his): Their aim was to craft luxury cuvees that would get big scores and become collector's items. By buying up prime vineyards and hiring fancy consultants adept at pleasing the critics, quite a few of them succeeded. Among this new Napa elite, bargain wines were just not part of the equation—and that remains the case, Jordan said, even though demand for upscale cabernets and chardonnays has tanked and Napa is experiencing an epic slump. A lot of these producers are "not in the business to make money," as Jordan put it, and are flush enough to ride out the downturn without slashing prices, let alone resorting to $20 bottlings.

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It would be silly to claim that consumers are suffering because of this lack of big-name budget wines. Thanks to the work of great importers, wine shops are filled these days with excellent values from around the world. Still, I think it's a pity that so few top American winemakers dabble at the lower end of the market. Although millions of Americans are now oenophiles, wine hasn't entirely shaken its elitist image, and it persists in part because of the attitude that prevails in places like Napa. The fact that Aubert de Villaine, the co-director of Burgundy's Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose wines now fetch thousands of dollars a bottle, also sells a $20 wine under his own label sends a powerful message—it says that quality is not entirely connected to price and that fine wine is a democratic pleasure, accessible not merely to the affluent. It would be nice if a few prominent figures in California viticulture were sending the same message.

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