Over the years, this column has taken California wine prices to task. The cost of land and new oak barrels, especially French ones, are expensive, but I maintain my original position: The quality often does not justify the price, and finding bargains in this state is not an easy task.
The best values are usually blends. While some winemakers rely entirely on estate grapes, many also purchase from growers. A producer can make a single-varietal wine from a variety of sources, but anyone wanting to make a field blend has many more options. Since pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are among the most expensive grapes to purchase, we don’t see their inclusion as much as syrah, petite sirah, grenache or zinfandel.
These four, along with mourvedre and carignane, can tolerate the heat found in some of the state’s more affordable areas, although there are few places in California where owning a vineyard is exactly cheap.
Nonetheless, enjoyable and well-priced blends for a variety of tastes are being made from the Central Coast to Sonoma. Here are three:
Tobin James Cellars Chateau Le Cacheflo, 2009 (Paso Robles): Paso Robles is known for its jammy zinfandels and syrahs, and this blend fits into that flavor profile. The name says it all; the wine is meant to be cheap, cheerful and profitable. The 15.2 percent alcohol level might scare off some people, but for all its ripeness, Le Cacheflo is balanced.
From the first whiff there is a storm of huckleberries, cherries and strawberries that will stay with you long after the glass is empty. Luscious and maybe even a little hedonistic, it could be described as a guilty pleasure. Suggested retail: $11.50
Sherman & Hooker’s Shebang Cuvee V (Bedrock Wine Co.) (North Coast): The son of famed winemaker Joel Peterson, Morgan Twain-Peterson might have benefited from his exposure to the world of Ravenswood in its heyday throughout the 1980s and ’90s, but he deserves much credit for his efforts with Bedrock. Peterson works with a variety of grapes, but the nonvintage Shebang is quite an achievement for its price.
A blend of zinfandel, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault, it has bright raspberry, cherry and blueberry fruit — maybe a little strawberry too, with iron and dried leaves in the nose, cloves, a few shakes of white pepper and mild tannins. Suggested retail: $12.50
Bonny Doon Vineyard Contra, Old Vine Field Blend, 2010 (California): Since selling off the Big House and Cardinal labels in 2006, Bonny Doon has made a concerted effort to return to glory, which, like with Ravenswood, was before the millennium.
One of the early Rhone Rangers — winemakers who use varietals from the French region that are grown in California — Bonny Doon founder Randall Grahm is facing a lot more competition these days. Each vintage, however, seems to show that Bonny Doon is getting closer to its original track.
Composed of Contra Costa County carignane from 100-year-old-plus vines and Central Coast syrah, Contra is named for its contradictory nature of representing an older style of winemaking that is again becoming popular.
While not claiming to be a natural wine — it is partially inoculated and acidified — it does not seem overmanipulated. Medium-bodied with violets, dried herbs, cherries, plums and a little spice, Contra is a great indication of the direction this historic winery is heading. Suggested retail: $14.50
These wines can be found through Coit Liquors; Haight Street Market; Noriega Produce; Oxbow Wine Merchant; Wine House; Wines of California; Farmer Joe’s Marketplace; Piedmont Grocery; The Wine Mine; Wine on Piedmont; Castro Village Wine Co.; D&M Liquor; Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants; K&L Wine Merchant; Plumpjack Wine Shop-Noe Valley; Solano Cellars; Vintage Berkeley (Vine Street, College Avenue); and Whole Foods (Franklin Street, Noe Valley, Ocean Avenue and Potrero Hill in San Francisco; East Blithedale Avenue in Mill Valley; Oakland).
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.