Tough Economic Times Mean Great Value Wines

With a little help from the Central Valley, many coastal California wineries have been able to keep prices down.



I dropped by a local big-box liquor store in Oakland recently, and it struck me what a fantastic wealth of value choices wine consumers have these days.

I’ve never seen so many bottles, from such an array of regions, priced below $20. Retailers, who understand that since 2008 customers have been hard-pressed to spend more than that on a bottle of wine, have put pressure on distributors to push prices down. Distributors, in turn, pass that pressure along to producers, which, in most cases, have no choice but to heed the warning: Control pricing, or we may stop carrying your wines.

Increasingly, wineries in coastal regions of California are keeping prices down by turning to the state’s Central Valley for fruit. Because a wine can carry an American Viticultural Area (AVA) on its label even if only 85% of its grapes come from that area, it makes fiscal sense for a winery to blend in grapes that can be bought at a cheaper price.

For example, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Grape Crush Report for 2011, the average cost per ton of Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon last year was $4,659.12. The average cost per ton of San Joaquin County Cabernet—$617.05. You can see why a Napa producer might discretely ask a grape broker to arrange delivery of some inland fruit, juice or bulk wine, preferably via unmarked truck in the dead of night.

Peterangelo Vallis, the executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, can’t offer proof that coastal wineries are turning to valley fruit. Given the confidentiality agreements that accompany such deals, he says, the evidence is largely anecdotal or indirect. “We know that demand for valley fruit has gone up, because prices have gone up,” he says.

Over the past three years, prices for Central Valley Chardonnay have gone from $275 per ton to almost $600. Cabernet Sauvignon has risen from $300 to about $600, and Petite Sirah has soared from $300 to $700, according to Vallis. This demand has been accentuated by short recent vintages along the coast.

Some vintners are taking advantage of the situation. “We do it,” one Napa Valley winemaker told me, when I asked if he blends Central Valley fruit into his wines. He declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from his employer.

“It comes down to value,” he says, explaining how he blends in up to 15% Central Valley fruit to maintain a Napa Valley appellation, or up to 25% Central Valley fruit for a Napa County appellation.

“The wines are good, the customers approve, they have no problem selling them,” he says. “It’s not like wine has to be all Napa Valley to be good.”

The number of Best Buy and Editors’ Choice wines I’ve recommended since October 2011 totals a heady 177 (both of those designations include an evaluation of quality and price). Beyond those top picks are dozens more wines that were below $10, and hundreds more priced between $11 and $20.

Not all of these inexpensive wines were awarded high scores. But many were. And with the simple foods most of us eat at home, a cult wine isn’t necessary. An ordinary wine, or what the French call a vin de table, will do just fine.

I’m not saying that every coastal producer blends in Central Valley grapes or juice. Many of the best don’t, and wouldn’t, even though they can. But it would be fascinating to see the precise fruit sourcing for every “coastal” wine.

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