Napa Insider
Cheap Wine: Hack or Worthy? / by Christina Julian / October, 2018

Before I moved to Napa Valley, I was a dreamer. I fantasized of a life that did not involve LA gridlock, gawking at celebrities, nor navigating around red carpet struts on my way to the supermarket. Perpetually stuck in traffic, my dreams of a creative career illuminated—me squirreled away and writing in an idyllic spot, birds tweeting outside my window with a vineyard view, as I sipped artisanal coffee by day and sublime affordable wines by night.

When a friend moved to Napa Valley to reinvent herself as a massage therapist, I inherited a justified reason to regularly flee Los Angeles for the country. These “respites” ultimately led me to quit a job in advertising for a writing career in Calistoga, when I could stand the traffic and hustle of city life no more. However, like any good pipedream—reality, can be a buzzkill, especially when it comes to unearthing those affordable wines I’d tasted so clearly in my fantasies. Vinos that hit the mark in taste without busting the piggy bank.

It could be argued that our wines are better than anywhere in the world, but the luxury of drinking them—costs. Finding worthy, bargain bottles of Napa Valley wine feels like mission impossible, while scoring $40, $60, $100-dollar plus bottles, is, to steal a phrase from my toddlers, easy-peasy.

In May, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote about a sweet spot when it comes to price point and wine quality. “For some years now, I have made the case that the greatest values in wine are in the vicinity of $20 a bottle. It’s easy to find palatable wines for under $10, but very rarely will those bottles offer any sense of excitement or distinctiveness.” Not thoroughly convinced by his statement, I set off to find some drinkable deals.

I discovered three wines from CK Mondavi, each priced at $ 6.99, the same price as a designer cup of coffee at Dean and Deluca. Following Asimov’s wisdom, I assumed these wines would be crap. In reality—they offered a delightful price-palate pay off. The 2017 Pinot Grigio was a crisp, juicy honey suckle blend with a hint of spice. The CK Chardonnay with its juicy pear and stone fruit flavors was equally appealing and perfect with margarita pizza. The Sauvignon Blanc was a crisp collision of apple and citrus flavors. Affordability has always been part of the package according to brand manager, Pam Novak, “CK Mondavi was originally created by the Cesare Mondavi family, in the mid ’40s, to provide quality wines for those not able to afford the family’s flagship wines from Napa Valley, providing 100 percent California varietal wines at a great price.”

Back to Asimov and his price point-quality distinctions, “Spend a little more, say, $15 to $20, and the number of distinctive, exciting bottles increases exponentially.” I decided to sip my way through Asimov’s extensive $20 roundup. While his selections measured up, not one Napa Valley wine made the cut. The majority came from outside the United States with a few from less hyped regions of California, most of which were comprised of lesser known varietals.

This valley-biased repeated itself in other widely read publications including the Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, Food and Wine, Self magazine and several others. There were many red wine bargains on each list, but few bore “Napa Valley” on the label. It’s hard to know whether to blame this trend on the strength of the U.S. dollar, Mother Nature’s beatings, the passing whims of Millennials, or the rising price of Napa Valley Cabernet grapes, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grape Crush
Report, has risen 65 percent over the past six years.

These factoids only forced me to hunt harder. A couple of my favorite finds were the Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet, which boomed with ripe red cherry and strawberry flavors with a spicy zing and smooth finish ($15.99). Another score was the JaM Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.99). This blend was all-in with lush dark fruit flavors of blackberry, black plum and black currant.

As I tasted through my own wine roundup, I redefined my reality—affordability and Napa Valley do not coexist. Yet something my dad burned into my psyche at an early age comes to mind—everything of value in life takes work, whether it’s a relationship, a thriving career or a fruitful vineyard. In 2009, I worked my first harvest as a grape sampler. Up by 5 a.m. and passed out by 8 p.m. with the sweet scent of grapes stained on my fingers. Every fall, as I navigate around trucks piled high with grapes and watch farm workers fly through vineyards, I’m at peace knowing that every dollar spent on wine squeezed from our coveted grapes, is worth it.