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California reds too high priced?

CH's, I'm frustrated by the high prices for California reds...good ones, anyway. For example, Carver Sutro Petit Syrah, and the red varietal from Palmeiri Vineyards are both in the high $40s, and we're not even talking about the overhyped reds like Cakebread Cab, etc. Lower priced reds like "Big House Red" or "Station" are ok, but for about the same price (mid-high teens) I can buy a far more supple Bordeaux Blend from France.

Do you agree that good California reds are too high priced, or can anyone recommend a bottle ~ $20 (more or less) that you find to be complex, delicious, good finish, etc.....all the stuff you want from a good bottle?

Share your wisdom/experience, and thanks.

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  1. Generally speaking, these days that's very much the case. In any given price range, the best values are from Europe.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      I don't disagree that there are wonderful values from Europe, but the question was are there good complex, delicious, good finish, etc. wines for under $20 from CA. I think the answer is yes. Whether they are to your taste is a different question. I like CA zins, and I agree that recently they have been very high alcohol content wines. But there are still some wonderful tasting zins, especially from Rosenblum and Seghesio that are under $20. I don't particularly like Cab Franc from North America, and Petit Syrah is not my favorite variatal either. But that isn't to say that there are not good examples of such, just not to my taste.

      1. re: dinwiddie

        Rosenblum's wines are a prime example of what's wrong with California. For a few years I went to their big open house once a year or so, and the quality went down as the alcohol levels went up. First visit, maybe four out of the 20 or so zinfandels were balanced and delicious, I bought a few cases. Next year two. Next year one. Next year zero.

        I talked with one of their former winemakers at a tasting of his own stuff. Told him the only wine I found palatable was his excellent dessert wine, that his dry wines were all overextracted and overly alcoholic. He said, I know what you mean, I'm not happy about it either, but the way the fruit comes in, that's how the wine turns out.

    2. Asimov had a really interesting take on this in his NYT Blog, the Pour, recently. California wines tend to be higher priced than euro wines of equivalent quality for a few reasons:

      1) American equate price with quality, so pricing higher gets you more respect.
      2) Most Americans think of wine as a special occasion beverage, not an everyday thing, so again a higher price is expected.
      3) Real estate is freaking expensive in Napa and other high prestige AVAs, and that factors into the price.
      4) And, (I found this to be the most interesting) the American obsession with the varietal ensures that California focuses on the most precious grapes: Cab, Pinot and Chard. These are generally more expensive to grow and make into wine than say Carignan, Gamay, Malbec and other euro table wine varietals.


      In the $20 price range, I like Clos du Val's Pinot.

      1. If you can find JRE wines they are outstanding and very reasonalbe. Very good zin, cab and petit sirah, all under $30. Samll production, hand crafted. Sure there's a web site.

        1. Disclaimer: My exposure to wine is recent(3~4 years) and modest.
          I have enjoyed these reds recently - Conn Creek Limited Release Cab 2002 ($20-$25), Joel Gott Cab 2004 ($14 - $17), Joel Gott California Zin 2005 ($12-$17). Those Gotts tend to have a great nose, just the right body and right kinds of tannins ..well, at least to my taste!

          1. I prefer Oregon reds in general and there are usually really good ones in the $12-$20 price range. I live in Napa/Sonoma and have to say there's tons of overpriced mediocre wines the past 2 years.

            Try Willikenzie from Oregon. They do a lot of great stuff but I really like the Gamay Noir.

            1. If you're paying in the high teens for a bottle of Big House Red, you're definitely paying too much. Up here in Boston, we can get BHR for $9 per bottle.

              1. The best values long come from Europe.

                That said, if it's Syrah you like, and California you want, I'd strongly recommend Edmunds St. John -- http:\\www.edmondsstjohn.com -- as one excellent example of CA Syrah, period, *and* one that's extremely affordable.

                If it's Petite Sirah you're looking for, I'd suggest CA vintners such as (in alphabetical order) David Bruce, Foppiano, Granite Springs, Lava Cap, Unti and -- my favorite -- Eaglepoint Ranch, in Mendocino.

                1 Reply
                1. re: zin1953

                  I tried the 2002 Edmonds St. John "The Shadow" recently and loved it. Another under $15 California Syrah beauty that I tried recently was from Qupé - I think it was 2005 SYRAH “CENTRAL COAST”, but I drank too much of it too remember the year. Lovely though.

                  I do however agree with anyone who finds California wines generally overpriced.

                2. Vino Noceto makes some of California's best sangiovese and it generally falls in that price range. Flora Springs also makes a sangiovese in that price range. I'm not sure Saintsbury Garnet pinot noir is as complex as you want, but it's a pretty nice wine available for that price. Ridge zins are a little north of $20 and can age. In November we sampled a vertical of Ridge Geyservilles going back to 1972.
                  In general, to find nice wines in that price range from California, you're going to have to look at wines from Lodi, the Sierra Foothills and Monterey.

                  1. I believe that it is all in what you like and are willing to pay for. Is a 1er cru better, than a super-second? Only if you are willing to pay for it. Is a big Cal Cab better than one from Chile? Only if you appreciate the difference and have the $. It is about a free-market economy and personal tastes. If the prices are too high in your estimation, do not buy that wine. Find one that gives you more bang for the buck. Value is on the palate of the beholder.


                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Agree ! The word "best" is for the individual consumer to determine based on their own criteria. Granted, there are some universal "best" and "worst" wines that anyone with a palate and minimal exposure should be able to identify. To this point, the infinite wisdom bestowed upon us by the wine "experts" lists thousands of wines "graded" 85 points or better (not to mention those that receive 80-84 points). I would love to see a list of wines that score under 80 or would that be too harsh ? I personally feel there are many wines from the US under $20 for all types of tastes.

                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        What makes wine A better than wine B is strictly a matter of taste.

                        If wine A costs more than I'm willing to spend, and I buy wine B because it's cheaper, wine A is still better.

                        1. Fellow CH's, thanks for the wine tips thus far.

                          As to the choice of "good" wine being a matter of taste, I would reply of course....BUT most anyone who's drank wine for any length of time can tell the difference, the value, and the pleasure of distinguishing between a bottle of Two (or in Manhattan, Three) Buck Chuck and a bottle of Petrus, so claiming that it's simply (and only) a matter of taste doesn't take you very far.

                          13 Replies
                          1. re: 280 Ninth

                            Actually when it comes to taste, you never know. I have a cousin (in-law) who thinks that Two Buck Chuck is "wonderful wine" but did not like the 1995 Château Beau-Séjour Bécot that I opened the last time she was at dinner at our house. Is the Two Buck Chuck better, not a chance, but she likes it better because that is what she has gotten used to.

                            1. re: 280 Ninth

                              On the other hand, most of the wines I've liked the most in the past couple of years cost under $20, and I've preferred them to many over-$40 bottles other people have chosen.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                Do tell, Robert...what wines under $20 have struck your fancy?

                                1. re: 280 Ninth

                                  Wines I liked well enough to buy in quantity recently enough that I've still got some in the cellar:

                                  2005 Couly-Dutheil Les Chanteaux (white Chinon = chenin blanc)
                                  2005 Blason cabernet franc
                                  2004 Navarro muscat blanc
                                  2004 Haute Victoire Quincy
                                  2004 J. Heinrich "Siglos" zweigelt
                                  1998 Luca Abrate "Casteloé" barbera
                                  2003 Luján de Cuyo "Trilogie"

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston


                                    Chinon $19 (full retail)
                                    cab franc $10
                                    muscat $14.50
                                    Quincy $10
                                    zweigelt $13.50
                                    barbera $8
                                    Trilogie $10? (2003 is now over the hill)

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Thanks for letting me know...a good cab franc for $10 is a terrific deal!

                                      I've been drinking a very nice Bordeaux blend, a 2003 Cotes de Bergerac by Chateau Haut Bernasse (~$17) and less complex, but still drinkable 2004 Rosso Piceno, from Brunori.

                                      BTW, there are some pricier but (to my mind) fantastic Cab Francs being produced from a handful of wineries on the North Fork of Long Island. Schneider's and Osprey's Dominion both make a superb Cab Franc for the $$ ($20 - $35 in nyc, would be $80 if a CA wine). And a pricy red blend, 2001 (?) Paumonauk Assemblage, which at $42 is the equal of anything coming out of CA for double the price.

                                      1. re: 280 Ninth

                                        Note that the Blason is nothing like cab francs from most other areas. It's young, fruity, medium body, no oak, made to be drunk on release--as are most reds from northeastern Italy.

                                        If I lived in New York, I'd drink a lot more Bordeaux, but we don't get a lot of everyday ones in California, and what we do get is generallly more expensive than in NY.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          And if I were in CA, I'd be drinking a lot more west coast offerings, especially whatever petit syrah I could get my hands on.

                                          Bordeaux values in nyc are terrific, and I agree with your assessment of the Blason

                                          1. re: 280 Ninth

                                            I can't remember the last time I had a delicious petite sirah, in recent years they've all been overly alcoholic, overoaked, or both. If you're in the mood for that sort of thing, the Guenoc is a good value at $10-15. I don't think I've had the 2004 so I can't vouch for it.

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              I have enjoyed the Victor Hugo Petite Sirah (Paso Robles I think). I have found it in the Boston area for around $18.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                2004 Eaglepoint Ranch Petite Sirah -- NOT overly alcoholic, NOT overoaked, NOT so tannic as to threaten to "rip your lungs out, Jim" -- uh, Robert. (Sorry, I was channeling Warren Zevon for a moment.)

                                                They have some at Paul Marcus, and IMHO, it's better than Casey's Syrah . . .

                                                1. re: zin1953

                                                  Ought to be good for $26 list.

                                                  I think it's hilarious that they say, "Don't let the 14.1% alcohol fool you, there's plenty of extraction here!" 14, the new 12.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    I used to work for a small Santa Cruz Mountains winery -- the first to take the "Best of Show" award at the California State Fair's Commercial Wine Competition since the 19th century. It was for our 1994 Santa Cruz Mtns. Petite Sirah. Casey's (Eaglepoint Ranch) is, I think, the best I've had since that one. I also really enjoy his Grenache.

                                                    FWIW, most of his grapes are sold to other wineries, Edmunds St. John among them.

                              2. I disagree with people stating "European" wines are more of a value........If someone prefers
                                the California style of the " Fruit-intensity forward" wines versus the European style of "terroir-driven" wines then they in general will not enjoy them better. Having been in the
                                fine wine biz for almost 30 years with the onslaught of all the new labels hitting the market all the time, the quality producers still continue forward. A label that I've been successful
                                for years selling has been "ROSENBLUM" with their "appellation series of Zins" ( SFBAY, Paso Robles, etc.) in the 15-17$price bracket one of the clear leaders of the California scene.

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: jonathon

                                  Jonathon, it ALL boils down to one's individual taste preferences.

                                  I was in the California wine trade from 1969 (at age 16) until 2002, and I have *consistently* found better values in the "under $10" category coming from Europe in general, and France in particular, over the past 20 years (+/- 5 years or so). With inflation and time, I would now say it's under $20.

                                  Now then: what do I mean be "better values"? I mean that -- for MY -- palate -- the wines in the <$20 from regions such as the Rhone, the Languedoc, the Loire, Alsace and even Burgundy give me more enjoyment and pleasure than do comparably priced wines from California. When you expand beyond the regions of France, I can quite easily add wines from throughout Spain, Portugal, etc.

                                  -- Does everyone feel that way? No, of course not.
                                  -- Are there exceptions? Absolutely!

                                  Zinfandel is, of course, a notable exception. The number of Primativos I had from Italy leave me convinced that there's no place like California for this grape. The same can be said for Petite Sirah. For Merlot in the under $20 category, I usually pass (or go to Washington), and for Cabernet -- it's a toss-up, depending upon which specific CA Cabernet v. which specific petite chateaux I am comparing. And as I sit here writing this, I'm hard pressed to come up with a single white in this general price category where I consistently find better value from California . . .

                                  As far as the "fruit-forward" v. "terroir-driven" question, while this once applied widely, I do not believe that is a California v. Europe issue any longer. Think Loring Pinot Noir v. Arcadian Pinot Noir; or a "traditional" Bordeaux v. a "modern" one.

                                  Just my $0.02; YMMV.

                                  1. re: zin1953

                                    I am in complete agreement with you about Euro value vs US, for the reasons you state. What's more, as a newbie I enjoy the variety found in the kaleidoscope of appelations and grapes in Italy, France and Spain (then you can expand to Portugal, Germany, Greece, Slovenia...). There are more styles, made in more ways, providing more interest at less cost than is found in the focus on the Noble Grapes plus Zin in CA and Shiraz in Australia.

                                    I also happen not to prefer the alcoholic fruity style that may have its merits in the fine new world wines but is just not interesting or very good, IMO, when imitated to make the lower-priced new world wines.

                                  2. re: jonathon

                                    For the benefit of someone new, can you please define what you mean when you say "fruit intensity forward" and "terroir-driven"? What I have learned in a very short time is that a lot of people use the same terms to mean different things. I have heard both terms described differently by wine store owners. Thanks for indulging my ignorance.

                                    1. re: bobby06877


                                      BROAD GENERALIZAITON AHEAD . . . and this is what Jonathon was referring to . . .

                                      Red wines from California are *generally* more fruity -- in other words, taste more like ripe, fresh fruit -- than do wines from Europe, which taste more "of the earth" (terroir), of that particular place as distinct from all others. (This is broadly true of most wines from the New World compared to most wines from the Old, but let's stick with California compared to France.) We're not talking about oak, or other characteristics that a wine may gain at the winery, but the charcter of the grapes from the vineyard and how that translates into the final wine.

                                      The best way to understand this is to taste the difference. I don't know where you live, so I'm going to mention some wines which are widely available that can help illustrate the differences -- there are better examples, but you'll be able to find these.

                                      Look for something like a Cotes-du-Rhone -- sticking with larger houses, see if you can find a Jaboulet or Guigal. Taste that next to the Rosemount Estate GSM from Australia.

                                      Try a Bourgogne Rouge from a single domaine, rather than a negociant, and taste that next to a really fruity California Pinot Noir under $20 -- try to find one over 14% alcohol. (It's another generalization; bear with me.)

                                      Better yet, ask the store owner(s) you've already spoken with to recommend two bottles of similar wine, similarly priced, that they feel are really good examples -- one "fruit-driven" and one "terroir-driven" -- and taste them side-by-side. Pour yourself two glasses, one of each. Taste them now, when first opened. Taste them again in 20 minutes. And in another 20 . . . not only will you see how the wine(s) evolve over time, but you'll get a really clear idea of the fruit-terroir thing . . .

                                      1. re: zin1953

                                        Finding a California pinot *under* 14% alcohol would be more of a challenge!

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Oh, Robert -- not as easy as finding 2BC, I'll grant you, but . . .

                                        2. re: zin1953

                                          Well stated. Another quick way to pick up the differences/similarities is to grab a copy of Andrea Immer's "Great Wine Made Simple." Work through the first tastings and it should become clear.


                                    2. There are lots and lots of good CA red wines for $20 or less. Just to mention a few recent vintages in several differnt varietals that were made in fairly good quantity:

                                      Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Sonoma 2002
                                      St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2002
                                      Vinum Petite Sirah Clarksburg Pets Wilson Vineyards 2003
                                      Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2003
                                      Acacia Pinot Noir Napa Valley-Carneros 2002
                                      Cline Red Truck California 2002
                                      The Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Hess Estate 2002
                                      Beringer Merlot Napa Valley 2003
                                      Chateau Souverain Merlot Alexander Valley 2002

                                      8 Replies
                                      1. re: dinwiddie

                                        great list! i would add:

                                        2004 four vines zinfandel california old vine cuvee
                                        2004 rosenblum cellars zinfandel appellation series paso robles
                                        2004 cline cellars zinfandel california

                                        1. re: ericalloyd

                                          I could have added 30 more if I wanted to, but the point is, there are lots of wonderful CA wines for under $20, you just have to look for them. I also think that there are great values from France (especially Rhones and Langadoc) and Spain, but he asked about CA wines.

                                        2. re: dinwiddie

                                          I don't think an open-minded taster would find most of those very good values compared with a well-chosen European wine that cost significantly less.

                                          Except for Acacia and Vinum, those are all labels I've learned to avoid.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston


                                            If you make it a point to "avoid" Seghesio I would love to know why. My guess is that you either do not like Zinfandel or your penchant for French wine has destroyed a portion of your palate. Seghesio consistently makes an excellent product, year after year, a point agreed upon by the "experts" and the majority of wine drinkers I know.

                                            1. re: TonyO

                                              I'm not Robert, but . . .

                                              The only wines from dinwiddie's lists that I would enjoy are the Seghesio Zinfandel and the Vinum "Pets" Petite Sirah . . . it's all personal preference.

                                              1. re: zin1953

                                                No issue with that, I'm just curious about the Seghesio bashing.....

                                              2. re: TonyO

                                                I had some nice zins from them a few years ago (after they got out of the plonk business), but like most zinfandel producers they've been letting the alcohol levels get out of control in recent years. All their current releases are over 15%.

                                                That said, I've tasted some of their recent >$30 zins that were pretty good, if you like that sort of thing.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  I should say that my standard for good zinfandel was set by the Edmeades (now just a corporate brand name) zins from the late 70s and early 80s, and the early Nalle zins from the late 80s.

                                                  I'm not sure anyone even makes zinfandel that good any more, at any price.

                                          2. You can buy a few gallons of Gallo Paisano for $20...not half bad after the first 3 glasses...

                                            Otherwise there are tons of good wines under 20....ask your knowledgeable folks at your local wine shop and you should do just fine.

                                            1. While there's good values and great wines in Europe, there are also many over-priced trophy wines there we'd be listing them all day... alot of first growth bordeaux, red burgundy, super-tuscans, high-end rhones, white burgundies, some nebbiolos are pretty ridiculous... it's a long list. Ports, lets face it they're no bargain either...

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Chicago Mike

                                                I don't care how many overpriced wines a country makes so long as I can find some good values.

                                                1. re: Chicago Mike

                                                  Every country has OVER-priced wines. That isn't the question. The question is/was focused on where the "bargains" are . . .

                                                  And while I agree with you that there are that the prices for *some* Bordeaux, Burgundies, etc. are ridiculously priced (remember, this comes from someone who paid <$20 for Petrus!), there are only eight (sort of) First Growth chateaux in Bordeaux, yet over 2,000 in the Medoc alone.

                                                  I disagree with you regarding Porto, but that's a topic for a different thread.

                                                2. European wines are definitely the best bang for your buck. I personally like Sebastiani's Pinot Noir. It's anywhere between $12-$17. It's much better than MANY pinots from Carneros that are much more expensive. You can buy it at Cost Plus for $12.99

                                                  1. Spain, southern France and the Loire are the best bang for a buck wines I can find. Nice wines there that seem to be of a quality the U.S. can't match overall.
                                                    But there are nice wines in the United States.
                                                    I also like Seghesio zins. Another I forgot to mention is Handley Pinot Noir.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: SteveTimko

                                                      Handley's regular pinot (which is over $20), seems one-dimensional to me. Their reserve is good maybe one year out of five.

                                                      Same goes for most other Anderson Valley pinots. Lazy Creek's is usually good but the new owners have jacked up the price absurdly.

                                                      1. re: SteveTimko

                                                        Hear hear! Spain and the Loire--absolutely! Best wine values in the world.

                                                      2. Big name brand California reds are substantially overpriced. I find myself buyinig fewer and fewer of them. For every bottle of California red I'm not buying, I'm probably buying 2 or more from Spain (and I seem to be enjoying them more than ever) along with a handful of French, South American, and occasionally, Australian wines. There are a fair number of respectable reds from the region just south of Sacramento down through Lodi which are very good values, as well as from the Livermore area. This is in addition to many small places in various nooks/crannies in Sonoma County, although most everything seems to have hit $20 there on the low end. In a way I almost think that the producers are doing me a favor because the variety of what I now drink is much more varied and interesting than before.