This is the time of year wine writers and magazines print their top wine lists. As a rule, these high-scoring wines are not secret finds - in fact, they are often already sold out. My list this year comprises wineries that consistently manufacture good products you can currently purchase.
It has been my experience a quality winery will routinely make good wine regardless of the vintage. These wineries usually succeed with all the varietals they choose to make, and any wine you buy from them will almost always be decent.
My inexpensive, value winery would be Cameron Hughes. It is not exactly a winery – it is a nÃ©gociant. Hughes buys wine in bulk and has it bottled. I would guess he only owns a shipping facility. His purchases are from a variety of worldwide sources and they are never disclosed, as the selling winery has discounted its product. It may be that the same wine, sold under its own label, goes for more than double or triple the Hughes' price. We are getting a break on the wholesale price and eliminating the cost of a middleman. Hughes sells to Costco, but before Costco gets the wine it is available on his Web site. There are also some small lots available only on the Web. I have purchased several of his wines and enjoyed them all. The latest is Lot 59, a Russian River Chardonnay for $13.
A dependable, reasonable winery is Chappellet. It makes a broad spectrum of quality wines, but its Napa Valley Chardonnay for $29 is a steal. The 2004 Signature Napa Valley Cabernet is world class and in fact was No. 27 on Wine Spectator's list of top wines this year. In this day of $100-plus Cabernets, the wine is a bargain.
My higher-priced winery that never seems to make a bad wine would be Ramey Wine Cellars. All his Cabs, Chardonnays and Syrahs are made to perfection. His Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay is always outstanding.
Ted Lemon's winery Littorai has from day one produced some of California's best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. He has only made these two varietals and always from the same vineyards. His wines are always good, and they continue to get better. They compare quite favorably with more expensive French Burgundies. (After all, he was trained there.)
Pisoni and its sister winery Lucia both make terrific Pinot Noirs. Lucia adds exceptional Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet and Rose to their stable. These two wineries are in the red-hot Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Gary Pisoni and his two sons, Mark and Jeff, collaborate on the winemaking and marketing and continually do a good job.
We may be at the point that paying for French wines is prohibitive. The Euro is out of sight, and the top wineries in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne add to the problem by charging a large premium every time they think they might have a good vintage. My solution for Champagne is to buy sparkling wine from the French-owned Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley. You can purchase its excellent bubbly for less than $20. Roederer has given great value ever since it came to California in 1988. You get the best of both worlds, French expertise and California prices.
Owen Roe is the latest addition to my fine and fun winery list. This Oregon-based winery also makes wines from Washington. Most labels come from woodcuts of Irish abbeys and castles. The wines are reasonable. Its 2005 Rhone blend, Ex Umbris, made the Wine Spectator top-100 list at No. 69. The wine retails for $24. Owen Roe has an excellent Cab blend called Sharecroppers Red for $18. You have to love a winery that has a label of a severed hand dripping blood. As the story goes, in the 17th century Owen Roe (an O'Neill) was in a rowing race with an O'Reilly and whoever reached land first won the property. The families were like our Hatfields and McCoys. Owen Roe was losing, so he chopped off his hand and threw it ashore, thereby winning the land by touching first. The wine called Sinister Hand is another Rhone blend and at $24 a good buy.
Another Oregon winery I am fond of is Domaine Serene. It was established in 1989 and is located in Dundee. The Evanstads have built a beautiful gravity-flow winery that has a very friendly staff. They produce Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. The prices begin at $35, and no expense has been spared to make these perfectly crafted wines.
Not all these wines are readily available, but most can be obtained by asking local retailers and, if necessary, using winery Web sites and mailing lists.