Where are the deals?

Wine buyers reveal how to get the most for your money
SARA SCHNEIDER

They say it's a buyer's market out there ― that a glut of grapes has joined forces with the struggling economy to push wine prices down and create real deals. We went to wineshop buyers to find out if this is true.

Howard Padgett, wine buyer for Beltramo's Wine & Spirits in Menlo Park, California, cautions that, even in these times, "lots of wines taste like they're priced appropriately. 'Two Buck Chuck' [Trader Joe's infamous $1.99 wine] is not a deal." He looks for the overachiever, the wine that tastes like it cost twice its price.

While there's general agreement that high-end wineries haven't lowered their prices, Steve Springston, wine buyer for Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle, does believe that ramped-up grape production has affected prices. "Five years ago people were planting grapes in every potato field in Washington," he says. That pushed the price of fruit down, and the extra wine on the market did the same for midrange bottles: Some $15 wines are down about 20 percent.

That extra grape juice has also created a whole class of "mystery wines." As John Kennedy of Great Wine Buys in Portland explains it, many négociants are buying and blending bulk wine and bottling it under private labels unconnected to a known winery. Some of these wines are better than they should be for the price; some are not.

Mystery wines and second labels

In the better-than-expected category of mystery labels, Kennedy offers Annabella 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, bottled by Michael Pozzan Winery ― a phenomenal Cab for $10.99. He also suggests that top wineries' second labels can be good buys. They pull off lots that are often only slightly off the mark of their signature wine and bottle them at sometimes less than half the price.

Padgett suggests that some regions of the world offer better values in general than others ― Spain and Australia, for instance, but especially the south of France, with wines like the outstanding 2001 Domaine Des Relagnes Côtes-du-Rhône for $10.99. Close to home, he is excited about California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (reports of the latter's death might be premature). Regions like the Sonoma Coast, Russian River, and Santa Rita Hills are producing rich, balanced wines ― if not cheap, good values.

New kids on any block can offer a lot of wine for the money too, according to Padgett. He's excited about Sullivan Birney Winery & Vineyards, whose 2002 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is fabulous, at $25 a bottle.

The point is, these merchants know. They have their ways of finding out which mystery labels conceal stellar wine, who's breaking into the field at loss-leader prices, and which regions offer solid values at lower price tiers (such as Washington, according to Springston, with the likes of Columbia Crest). So here's my advice: Find a good wine shop and build a relationship with a merchant there. They've tasted the juice in those bottles and can steer you toward the best that you can afford.

WHITE SALE

Come warm weather, our thoughts turn to fresh, crisp Rieslings from Washington. (Johannisberg Riesling is a synonym for the same wine.)

Avery Lane Riesling 2002 (Columbia Valley, WA), $8. Mineral and citrus aromas give way to apricot, peach, and nectarine flavors. Fruity Rieslings like this go well with simple Mexican dishes.

Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen "Eroica" Riesling 2003 (Columbia Valley), $20. Made in partnership between Washington's largest winery and famous German wine producer Dr. Loosen, this minerally, citrusy dry Riesling is great with grilled shellfish.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling 2003 (Columbia Valley), $9. The winery's regular dry Riesling has a beautiful nectarine-like aroma and flavors of grapefruit and lime. Try it with a Thai beef salad.

Columbia Crest "Two Vines" Riesling 2003 (Columbia Valley), $8. Fresh and lively, with simple apricot aromas and flavors and a hint of sweetness at the end.

Silver Lake "Roza" Riesling 2003 (Columbia Valley), $7. Apricot aromas followed by vivacious peach, ginger, spice, licorice, and vanilla flavors, with a touch of apricot jam on the finish. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club