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Monday, November 2, 2015

Saving Money on Premium California Wines

It's not so much about finding sales at Costco or great deals at Trader Joe's although this certainly does happen. This is more about what to look for on a label to find the bargains.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley is famous and therefore the wines usually carry a premium price, but not always. There are Napa producers who have been around a long time and maybe own their own vineyards so their costs aren't as high -- from small guys like Buehler or Casa Nuestra to the more well known like Heitz or Louis Martini. This doesn't mean everything at these wineries will be a relative bargain, but many of their wines can be reasonably priced. You can still find decent prices on classic Napa Valley Cabernet from wineries like Beringer, Mondavi or Conn Creek.

Outside Napa Valley

Yes, there are great wines (including Cabernet) from other areas of the state and you are likely to pay less. The less well known a growing area is the less expensive the wines will generally be. Alexander Valley Cabernet is almost always less expensive than Napa Valley Cab. Are they just as good? Up to you to decide.

Vineyard Designated

The hot trend is to see wines labeled with a specific vineyard name and even a certain block from that vineyard. You will always pay more for a wine labeled Maple Vineyards Tina's Block than you will from one labeled Dry Creek Valley. And the Dry Creek Valley wine is usually more expensive than the one with the more general designation of Sonoma County. Is the one with the vineyard designation better? No guarantee.


American wine labeling laws are directed towards wines being made from a single variety. That is, to call a wine Cabernet Sauvignon it must contain at least 75% Cab. If the wine doesn't contain at least 75% of one grape you can make up a name or just call it simply red (or white) wine. For American wines those with a variety designation usually cost more (though there are many high-priced blends, too). There's no guarantee a wine that's 100% Cabernet is better than one that's 50/50 Cab and Merlot, for instance. St. Francis Winery in Sonoma Valley makes a Claret (a name often used for Cabernet blends) that sells for under $20 and will shame many Cabs costing a lot more.


Some wineries are pretty trendy among the wine geeks. Usually it's the small ones with a limited supply so you know where this is going -- as demand grows so does price. In Sonoma County a couple big operations are Dry Creek Vineyards and Kenwood Vineyards. A couple smaller ones you may not know are Pedroncelli and Trentadue. They've been around a long time, but trendy? Not even close. I bet you can find some wines from them that you'll like just fine and they won't cost an arm and a leg.

Outside California

In Oregon the Willamette Valley is well known. The southern regions of Oregon are not. Washington state wines are generally less expensive than similar wines from California. Are they equal dollar-for-dollar? That's up to you to decide.