Vin Connections (March 2003)


Reveling in Red:
A Focus on the Red Wines of Northern California

As our economy continues to mope along and many experience the need to manage expenses a bit more than a couple years ago, I wondered if there was a golden lining for wine lovers.

After all, many articles have been written on the “California grape glut.” And then there’s the appearance of “Two Buck Chuck”, a “mystery” label (actually, Charles Shaw – Chuck – is a label of low-cost, bulk-wine producer Bronco Wine Co. of California) selling at Trader Joe’s for around $2 a bottle in California.

Is this an aberration or a trend? And what does it mean to folks like you (and me)? While wine prices are definitely down, don’t count on finding any highly rated Zinfandels for $3 at your local bottle shop.

Yes, there is a grape glut. Towards the end of the go-go ‘90s, lots of people didn’t mind spending $150 on a bottle of Napa Cabernet. (No, I wasn’t one of them.) And the industry immediately planted more vines and created more vineyards. In California alone, wine grape plantings soared 45% adding 177,000 acres between 1995 and 2001. The 2002 crush(in volume) was up 12% over 2001. And New Zealand went from 30 vineyards in 1994 to 429 today.

In California, led by the Central Valley grape growing region, prices statewide are down 10% on red wine grapes, and 13% on white. And that’s where “2 Buck Chuck” comes in. Supply way outstrips demand for simple, lower-quality wine grapes.

Unfortunately, the grapes that go into most of the wines We see in the Wine PocketList aren’t that much cheaper. For instance, Napa Valley grapes are still the most expensive in the state, with prices up 4% this year.

It’s actually more consumer-side supply and demand (driven by the economy) than a grape glut that’s affecting the cost of premium wines. Prices aren’t increasing, and in many cases, producers are lowering costs. Wines $50 and up have dropped the most, many by 20 to 30%. And a good number of the wines in the Wine PocketList are 10 to 15% less than they were last year.

This means that when you look in the store for wines you’ve found in the Wine PocketList, you’ll typically find it at less than the suggested retail prices (when reviewed). And this month, as well as the months to come, many wines that were too expensive to be included before now fit our pricing criteria.

In short, you’ll find more really good, reasonably priced wine to try and enjoy. And that, of course, is good news to us all.


  • This Month’s Reader Question:
    Why is wine so darn expensive in most restaurants?
  • This Month’s Wine Pick:
  • This Month’s Quote:


Why is wine so darn expensive in most restaurants?

Q. “Why is wine so darn expensive in most restaurants? I don’t mind paying a premium for service and selection, but isn’t three times retail pushing it?”
— Scott Reay, Atlanta, Georgia

A. Caveat Emptor. That’s the short answer, and you probably knew it already. Like you, most consumers aren’t very happy about the wine prices restaurants charge.

Restaurateurs point to lots of reasons a 200 to 300% markup is both reasonable and usual. The dining experience, wine storage costs, spoilage and rising overhead are but a few.

But not all restaurants adhere to this. Some set a fixed markup on all bottles (say $10 per bottle). Others are making efforts to keep customers happy by dropping wine prices overall. But what it comes down to is that a big portion of the bottom line comes from wine mark-ups, and that simply isn’t negotiable for many establishments.

We have three pieces of advice:

First, don’t patronize restaurants that continually gouge customers (often those establishments that are trying to create an “exclusive” atmosphere for the privileged or preying on hapless tourists looking for a fine dining experience).

Second, order a bottle instead of a glass. Wine by the glass is a false economy. At $8 a glass in even the most basic restaurants, a $10 retail bottle of wine – that might sell for $25 to $30 on the wine list – turns into a $40 bottle after the average five pours.

Last, but not least, use the Wine PocketList to find reasonably priced wines that will be great a accompaniment to your meal. Many of our wines are on wines lists. Or, bring your own and pay the corkage fee. Though you’ll hate paying $15 for the use of their corkscrew and glasses, you’ll get what you like at a significantly lower price.


SPLURGE: Redoubtable Reds from Northern California

2000 Zinfandel, Ridge “Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley”
Sonoma County
IE: A+, B, B+$30, Grade A
2000 Zinfandel, Cline “Live Oak Vineyard”
Contra Costa County
IE: A+$28, Grade A+
2000 Merlot, White Oak
Napa Valley
IE: A$28, Grade A
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Arbios “Alexander Valley”
Sonoma County
IE: A, A-$30, Grade A
2000 Petite Sirah, Rosenblum “Pickett Road”
Napa Valley
IE: A+$28, Grade A+

BUY-BY-THE-CASE: Napa, Sonoma Reds: Merlot, Zin and Syrah

2000 Syrah/Shiraz, Cline “Los Carneros”
Napa Valley
IE: A, A-$28, Grade A
1999 Merlot, Chappellet
Napa Valley
IE: A+, A$25, Grade A
2000 Zinfandel, Dashe “Dry Creek Valley”
Sonoma County
IE: A$20, Grade A
1999 Merlot, Selby
Sonoma County
IE: A, A-$24, Grade A
2000 Zinfandel, Dry Creek “Old Vines”
Sonoma County
IE: A$21 Grade A

WIDELY AVAILABLE WINES: Napa, Sonoma Cab, Merlot and Pinot

1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sterling
Napa Valley
IE: A-, B+$24, Grade A-
1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Francis
Sonoma County
IE: B+, B$17, Grade B+
2000 Merlot, Carmenet “Dynamite”
North Coast
IE: B+$18, Grade B+
2000 Pinot Noir, Saintsbury “Carneros”
Napa Valley
IE: A, B, B+$24, Grade B+
2000 Pinot Noir, Acacia “Carneros”
Napa Valley
IE: A-, B+$26, Grade B+

BARGAIN WINES: More Redoubtable California Reds

2000 Zinfandel, Ravenswood “Vintners Blend”
Sonoma County
IE: B+
$10, Grade B+
2000 Zinfandel, ClineIE: B+$10, Grade B+
2000 Zinfandel, Buena Vista “Carneros”
Napa Valley
IE: B+$9, Grade B+
2000 Merlot, Buena Vista
Sonoma County
IE: B+$9, Grade B+
1999 Merlot, Parducci
Mendocino County
IE: B+$10, Grade B+

Wine Quote

Three by Benjamin Franklin, another wine-loving American:

“The discovery of a [great] wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”

“Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance.”

“Wine is a constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”


Understanding our System

Grade: [A-]
Our grades represent a composite score developed using our proprietary system to blend wine quality and scoring information.

Vintage: 1999
This describes both the year of the actual grape harvest as well as the year the wine was made.

Price: $12
The prices quoted in the WPL are the “suggested retail prices” quoted by the wineries and the distributors. Though these are close to what you’d pay at the winery, you’ll often find discounts of 20% and more off these prices at retail.

Individual Evaluations: IE: A, A-, B+
This represents the number of individual reviews and ratings on which the composite grade is based, primarily representing individual reviews in top wine periodicals converted to our scale, and ratings by our tasting panel.

Wine PocketList Exclusive Categories: WPL: BBC, W, S, B
These are four exclusive WPL categories, and many wines rated by the PocketList will fall into one of these special designations.

[W] Widely Available:
These wines typically have bottling of 20,000 cases or more, making them widely available in most regions of the U.S.

[BBC] Top Buy-by-the-Case:
Based on multiple, outstanding reviews and a solid history, these are wines you can purchase by the case to grow your cellar with confidence today, and into the future!

[B] Bargain Wines:
Top-rated wines for $10 or less. Most of these can go head to head with a typical $30 bottle sporting a fancy label . . . and beat it hands down.

[S] Splurge Wines:
For most of us, spending more than $20 on a bottle of wine isn’t something we do lightly. These are wines that, while more expensive, are well worth the price.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *