Second Wines, First-Rate Quality: Alternate labels deliver huge value

A bottle of 2016 Grand Durif under the Caymus-Suisun label from the Suisun Valley in California // Photo via Caymus Vineyards Faceboook

Caymus, Grgich Hills, Haut-Brion. These wineries, and others of their ilk, have worked tirelessly to build brand awareness. They start by crafting memorable and compelling wines, as all great wineries must. Then they travel, in the flesh and digitally, telling their story from hilltops and dales. With this work they build recognition, and garner top-tier price tags.

Many winemakers though, including those producing the most exclusive wines, share a serious respect for everyday wines. But the economics of selling handcrafted wines at everyday prices rarely makes sense. Tending pristine vineyards on the best terroirs requires serious money, as does spreading the word beyond the winery and tasting room doors. These true costs get compounded by a polished reputation, and the results can cost you $100+ a bottle. This reality inspires some winemakers to take their deep respect for weeknight wines to second labels.

Second labels essentially create a second brand, sometimes associated with the core brand, other times not, that enables winemakers to make something parallel to their main label without undercutting that brand’s value. The best second labels are made with great care, often fermented in-house next to the winery’s main label and occasionally blended with some other finished wine purchased from friends and neighbors in the business.

It all began in Bordeaux. For centuries, the chateaux of Bordeaux employed second labels to produce and sell wine beyond their Grand Vin (top-tier) effort. By the end of the 20th century, second wines were embraced by many Bordelais—they enabled grower-producers to make use of vineyard blocks that performed below house standards or needed time, care, or even replanting to reach their full potential. Some newly acquired vineyards may never reach the quality mark for the Grand Vin, and second wines became an outlet for those grapes.

 Château Haut-Brion // Photo via Château Haut-Brion Facebook

Château Haut-Brion // Photo via Château Haut-Brion Facebook

Equally as important, second wines served as a marketing tool for the winemaker, as most carry part of the name of the chateaux. Famed producer Château Haut-Brion produces Le Clarence de Haut-Brion as their second; Château Lafite Rothschild makes Carruades de Lafite. The list goes on, and is evidence of the niche these wines serve both for brand building and as outlets for second-tier fruit. The resulting wines are often solid values, too—reasonably priced opportunities to glimpse the portraits of some of the most prized wines in the world.

New World producers have also embraced second wines, but with a more expansive view of their role. Rather than viewing second labels as an outlet for excess estate fruit, many producers purchase new vineyards (often in larger growing regions, to help keep the cost down) specifically for the purpose of making second labels. If you’re an Alexander Valley producer, for example, you may turn to Sonoma County as the location for your second labels, enabling you to hit price points not possible with your first wines.

Up in Washington state, Airfield Estates crafts solid quality-price-ratio wines under both their core label, Airfield, and their second label, Lone Birch. The property originally housed a World War II airfield in the 1940s before being planted in the 1960s with grapes. With 100 percent of their fruit coming from their 850-acre estate, Airfield has the perfect combination of scale and estate ownership to craft serious value wines. The 2016 Airfield Estates Cabernet Sauvignon ($18) outshines many $30+ bottles from other growing regions, while the 2017 Airfield Sauvignon Blanc ($15) shows class and pure varietal tones of ripe peach, grass, and tropical fruits with mouth-watering acidity—summer in a glass. Under the Lone Birch second label, expect serious value at $12‒$13 a bottle. The wines hail from their single estate vineyard, made from the second tier and still delicious juice. With their sizable vineyard, Airfield Estates surely machine-harvests the grapes, and the resulting wines should remind us all to celebrate the technological advances that enable this level of quality at these prices.

Also from Washington, producer Dusted Valley crafts the Boomtown line of second label wines. The 2017 Boomtown Merlot ($19) gives much more than simple, lush plum sauce, a trap of many entry Merlots, and provides affordable evidence that Merlot deserves your attention (f–k “Sideways”).

A selection of the Evolution second label offering from the Sokol Blosser family from the Dundee Hills of Oregon // Photo via Evolution Wines Facebook

A selection of the Evolution second label offering from the Sokol Blosser family from the Dundee Hills of Oregon // Photo via Evolution Wines Facebook

The Sokol Blosser family from the Dundee Hills of Oregon started their Evolution second label back in 1998, and it has steadily grown over the past two decades. The pioneering family manages to produce nearly every vintage of these value wines in-house, with only an occasional addition of a neighbor’s juice every few years. The 2017 Evolution Pinot Noir ($20) yields silky red berry fruit while maintaining the elegance of Pinot Noir. Crowd-pleasing, sexy, and giving, pour this year-round and expect everyone who tastes to fall in line.

To the south, Josh Phelps, son of famed producer Chris Phelps, has created his own brand Grounded Wine Co. Early in his career, his father worked as the winemaker at Château des Laurets before living and working at famed Bordeaux producer Château Pétrus. After that, he moved to Napa to work at Dominus Estates from 1984 to 1995 and Caymus Vineyards in 1996. Today, Chris consults across the West Coast, while also making wine with his son under their core Ad Vivum label. With Grounded Wine Co. Josh charts his own path producing blends from Napa, Paso Robles, and the Columbia Valley. The 2016 Public Radio from Paso Robles is a Rhone-style blend that combines quality juice with eye-catching packaging. The wine has both personality and varietal-correctness, an impressive feat at this price.

Finding second wines often requires some help from a knowledgeable wine steward, and the connection to core labels can take a bit of digging to uncover. But whether turning to Bordeaux or the West Coast, the exploration can yield compelling results. Your senses and pocket book will thank you.