Real wine is hard to find. The charade that populates most store shelves is a group of elixirs, created to poke and tickle the right taste buds. Made in the vein of Pepsi or Fritos, these commodity wines typically showcase excessive fruit, residual sugar, and serious chugability. These are circus wines with circus labels, and the industry has created a sometimes-impenetrable wall of them—one that obscures the wines made by real people, from real grapes, for our honest pleasure.
Seeking out those real wines, one could easily go to the wall of $50+ dollar bottles. Here you’ll find many fine examples, made by and for the wealthy. But somewhere between these poles exists increasingly rare $12‒$25 bottles of real wine for the people. These wines manage to transcend the simple task of satiation, instead stimulating both our senses and our minds.
John Grochau pedaled professionally as a cyclist through the nooks and corners of France during his 20s. His experience in the Loire Valley, and many other wine-growing regions in Europe, gave him a respect for wine. Returning home to Portland, Oregon, this newfound curiosity ultimately led Grochau to pursue winemaking, beginning with stints at Erath and Brick House, and finally under his own label, Grochau Cellars, where he crafts honest wines for everyday consumption.
With 10 bottlings a vintage priced for under $25, this alone sets Grochau apart in the Willamette Valley, where rising land prices and the high cost of growing pinot noir grapes makes this price point a serious feat. With economies of scale working against him, Grochau fights tooth and nail to stay true to his goals. “In the United States it seems that once wine gets below $20 a bottle, it generally comes from a large winery,” Grochau says. “The wine will be of good value but will likely display winemaking technique more than where the grapes actually came from. I want to produce more wines that are below $25 that show place and varietal ahead of winemaking.”
Start with Grochau Cellars 2017 Melon de Bourgogne ($18), an uncommon white varietal from the western reaches of France’s Loire Valley used mostly to make Muscadet. Grochau’s Melon displays lemon zest, white flowers, pit fruits, and salinity. At around 12% ABV, the wine pairs with seafood, particularly oysters, mussels, and flaky white fish. Also seek out his value Willamette Pinot Noir, the 2017 Commuter’s Cuvee ($18), and the 2016 Redford-Wettle Gamay Noir ($24). Gamay has captured more and more imaginations in the Willamette Valley, as evidenced by the I Love Gamay Wine Festival held in Portland every May. All three wines are varietally true, while also demonstrating the ethos and flavors of the region.
Yorkville Cellars grows a dynamic mix of varieties on their 30-acre vineyard in Mendocino County in California. Well north of Napa, this region can produce pinot noir and bubbles alongside cabernet and petit verdot. In the tiny Yorkville Highlands sub-region, vineyards rest above 800 feet of elevation along high bench lands, yielding more elegant styles than many areas of the state.
Yorkville Cellars’ 100 percent estate-grown wines are all moderately priced for the winery’s scale, but the 2016 Hi-Rollr Red from their Rennie Vineyard deserves special attention. At $17 locally, this red blend showcases balance like few red blends from California. It pours a medium ruby with purple hues, and leads with aromas of flowers and mixed berries followed by undertones of spice and earth. A mix of malbec, cabernet franc, and merlot, this layered wine overdelivers without overpowering your palate.
Looking for something more brazen and burly? Reach for a bottle from Luke Wines in Washington. Hot and arid, the Wahluke Slope region grows Bordeaux and syrah varietals with uncommon intensity and density. Winemaker and co-owner Thomas Vogele, with past experience working for some of the biggest national wine brands on the West Coast, set out under his own brand with a clear vision to champion the Wahluke Slope—the namesake of Luke Wines. The flagship 2016 Luke Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) is dense with molasses and berry jam flavors and clear toasty oak undertones. Sourced from four respected growers in the Wahluke Slope—and with contracts and relationships firmly rooted—expect to see Luke Wines on more shelves and restaurant lists soon.
Red Mountain AVA (that’s American Viticultural Area, the boundaries of a wine region in the U.S.) in Washington produces close to zero everyday wines. Close. The Williams family pioneered winegrowing on Red Mountain, and today, under their Kiona label, pride themselves on their history and farming roots. Kiona planted the Lemberger grape—called Blaufränkisch in Austria—back in 1976. Despite and because of the atrocious name (anyone else thinking stinky cheese?), Kiona’s Lemberger sells for a silly $16 a bottle. This obscene value surely has Kiona’s financial advisers recommending they rip up these vines and replant with cabernet sauvignon to capitalize on the $80+ a bottle they could (and arguably should) be reaping. Kudos to this act of pure will and the stick-with-your-roots values behind it. Pick up the 2016 vintage on shelves now and you’ll experience blackberry cobbler in a glass—in the best possible way.
Finding Wine for You
The sparsity of wines truly made by and for the people requires those seeking it to shop at independent, locally owned wine retailers. The lack of volume and dearth of options allows only the most thoughtfully curated shops to stock their shelves with wines at this quality and price. Taking the time to get to know one’s neighborhood shop will pay dividends. The act of finding these bottles and sharing them brings a pleasure all too uncommon in our mass-market world.