Thursday, November 10, 2011

Some Great (Cheap) Wine Picks

The phone rings, then a text message, and sometimes I’m stopped at the grocery. It’s no sudden rush of fame but more likely after three years of wine writing I’ve become the ‘wine guy.’  And I admit I really enjoy it.
It’s usually a wine newbie, or even a really young (always over 21) wine drinker wanting a question answered or a recommendation. It’s happened a lot lately so that made me think it’s time again to offer up some really affordable choices and maybe repeat a few old ones.

All of these wines are under $15 (or less) and readily available in Indiana, Illinois and most Midwestern states.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection – This is the entry level wines for the iconic Mondavi line mentioned in my last column. I have tried one more of those wines since the last Grape Sense and the quality is very consistent. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are all consistently good value wines for $11. And better yet, the Mondavi Private Selection label is really easy to find.
Here is the spot where I should also repeat an oft-suggested label or two. Mirrasou wines are another great pick from the grocery or a liquor or wine store with limited selection. Smoking Loon,  Bogle, and Blackstone are also palatable wines well under $15.

Banfi Centine Rose’ – Summer is not the only time of the year for dry pink wine. The Centine label is the value line from Banfi – which promotes itself as the world’s oldest winery. They do make some remarkably nice wine for, again, the $11 price point. I recently enjoyed the Rose which was very light in body with nice fresh red berry flavor and a hint of strawberry. The alcohol was a low 12.5 percent which makes it a great party wine. The Centine line also include a nice white blend and a Tuscan red blend which features Italy’s signature Sangiovese grape and Cabernet. These wines are also very easy to find.

Georges Duboeuf 2010 Morgon – The Duboeuf label is widely distributed and something you really should try. Duboeuf is king in France’s Beaujolais district but most people only think of the Nouveau when mentioning Duboeuf. I’ve never been a big fan of the Nouveau (wines that are bottled and sold within months of harvest), finding them rather uninteresting and bland. The Grand Cru Beaujolais is another matter. The Grand Cru (specific growing regions) offer bright fruit, smooth drinkability, and a light mouth feel. The Morgon is one of the top appellations for Beaujolais, I also like the Julienas for its earthy characteristics. The Beaujolais red wines are made from the Gamay grape. These wines are found under $15 and often around the $11-$12 price point.

Domaine de Noire ‘ Chinon  - This is another French wine but from the Loire Valley region. This recommendation is less about the bottle I appreciated and more about the grape. Chinon wines are made from Cabernet Franc, a grape that has gotten little respect and little notice for too long in the wine world. Cabernet Franc might be thought of as Cab Sauvignon’s little brother. It’s certainly lighter and has a nice spice or pepper finish.  It’s often used in blending Bordeaux-style wines. But the grape has gotten much more notice the last year or two for its flexibility. The de Noire was $16 and it is a label that is also easy to find. But pick up a Cab Franc wherever you can find one and give it a try. If Cab Sauv is a little too big for your taste, you just might like Cab Franc. I tasted some wonderful Cab Franc in Michigan last summer and it’s always on the shelves of most wine shops.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, In., writes every other week for 18 Midwestern newspapers. Check out is wine blog at:

Robert Mondavi's Impact in Perspective

The Oct. 5 death of Apple founder Steve Jobs had many people grappling with perspective on his death. Many called him this generation’s Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.

At about the same time two shipments of Robert Mondavi wines arrived to my office. Mondavi has been a household name to many for decades. But the odd timing brought into focus that beginning wine drinkers or value wine drinkers should know about America’s most iconic wine name.

Anyone interested can certainly find ample material online about Robert Mondavi. The details shared in Grape Sense come from internet research and the marketing firm that handles Mondavi wines.

The wines are distributed in all 50 states and are always good representatives of the grapes and a safe choice when nothing else on the shelf looks appealing.

Robert Mondavi became one of the world’s biggest wine brands not just through winemaking but the man’s marketing savvy and business sense. He was the son of Italian immigrants and a graduate of Stanford with a degree in economics and business administration.

He worked at Sunnyhill Winery with his father before the family purchased Charles Krug Winery. At the age of 53 he opened Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa. He pioneered winemaking techniques, led blind tastings, and preached the pleasures of wine, food and the arts to anyone who would listen.

He co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food with Julia Child and Richard Graff in 1981. He has been “man of the year” for more publications and organizations than there is space to list. Perhaps one of his most notable honors came in 2005 when he won the Legion d’Honneur award, France’s highest Presidential honor.

His story got complicated in the early 1990s when his sons took over the business. They were producing a half-million cases of wine a year but were buried in debt. The family business went public and production soared to nearly 5 million cases annually. The Mondavi empire ended in 2004 when Constellation brands bought Mondavi for more than a billion dollars.

But throughout the ups and downs of the business Robert Mondavi was the spokesman for American wine. He deserves considerable credit for showing the world great wines could be produced in regions outside of Old World Europe.

One of the great partnerships of the last decade was Baron Philippe Rothschild and Robert Mondavi combining efforts in 1979 to create Opus One. The wine became one of the first super premium wines with the two rock star winemakers at the helm. The Bordeaux style blend is currently in its 2008 release and retails for $210.

Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94. His name should be alongside Edison and the light bulb, Henry Ford and the Model T, Michael Jordan and basketball.

I’m frequently asked what wineries one should visit when making a first-time trip to Napa. I always suggest hitting Mondavi’s Spanish style landmark. It is the “granddaddy of them all,” to steal a line from sportscaster Keith Jackson.

The wines are good value at the lower price point and great wines in the upper echelon.

Howard’s Picks:
Robert Mondavi Private Selections include nine different wines at value prices you’ll find in groceries, wine shops, and liquor stores. The wines are very consistent for the under $15 price point. Another good choice in the value category is Mondavi-owned Woodbridge wines.

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley wines are the real flagship wines. These wines retail around $20-$30 and represent great wines, good critic scores, and consistent value for the price point.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Cabernet is the top bottling, consistently garnering 90-plus points and measuring up to any Napa Cab. But it is a $100 a bottle of wine.