Wine buyers reveal how to get the most for your money

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

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

While there's general agreement that high-end wineries haven'tlowered their prices, Steve Springston, wine buyer for Esquin WineMerchants in Seattle, does believe that ramped-up grape productionhas affected prices. "Five years ago people were planting grapes inevery potato field in Washington," he says. That pushed the priceof fruit down, and the extra wine on the market did the same formidrange 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 Portlandexplains it, many négociants are buying and blending bulk wine andbottling 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, Kennedyoffers Annabella 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, bottled byMichael Pozzan Winery ― a phenomenal Cab for $10.99. He alsosuggests that top wineries' second labels can be good buys. Theypull off lots that are often only slightly off the mark of theirsignature wine and bottle them at sometimes less than half theprice.

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

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 offinding out which mystery labels conceal stellar wine, who'sbreaking into the field at loss-leader prices, and which regionsoffer solid values at lower price tiers (such as Washington,according to Springston, with the likes of Columbia Crest). Sohere's my advice: Find a good wine shop and build a relationshipwith a merchant there. They've tasted the juice in those bottlesand can steer you toward the best that you can afford.

WHITE SALE

Come warm weather, our thoughts turn to fresh, crisp Rieslingsfrom Washington. (Johannisberg Riesling is a synonym for the samewine.)

Avery Lane Riesling 2002 (Columbia Valley, WA), $8. Mineraland citrus aromas give way to apricot, peach, and nectarineflavors. Fruity Rieslings like this go well with simple Mexicandishes.

Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen "Eroica" Riesling 2003(Columbia Valley), $20. Made in partnership between Washington'slargest winery and famous German wine producer Dr. Loosen, thisminerally, citrusy dry Riesling is great with grilledshellfish.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling 2003 (ColumbiaValley), $9. The winery's regular dry Riesling has a beautifulnectarine-like aroma and flavors of grapefruit and lime. Try itwith a Thai beef salad.

Columbia Crest "Two Vines" Riesling 2003 (Columbia Valley),$8. Fresh and lively, with simple apricot aromas and flavors and ahint 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 thefinish. ― Karen MacNeil-Fife

Sunset's Wine Club

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