Editor’s note: This column was originally published in 2017. Pricing and availability may have changed.
Here’s a dilemma most wine drinkers face: You want to buy a good bottle of wine, but you don’t want to spend a fortune.
And, if you’re like me, you’d like to help support a fellow small business owner, choosing a pleasurable wine from a small winery at an affordable price. How do you figure out which one to buy from all those on your local liquor store’s shelves?
The judges of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition have suggestions to solve our dilemma. Since it claims to be the largest competition for American wines, with 63 judges spending more than four days rating more than 7,000 entries from 28 states, and with one of the only wine competitions with categories specifically for lower- and moderately-priced wines, it can reasonably be stated that they have named the “best wines in America” under $10.
Since its humble beginning in 1983 as the Cloverdale (Calif.) Citrus Fair Wine Competition, the competition has grown in prestige. Winning can be a major boost for a small winery, increasing both sales and their reputation.
“Winning puts me on the map. It gives me credibility,” said Peter Tonti, whose Tonti Family Wines 2013 Old Vine Zinfandel Artisan Series won the Red Sweepstakes award.
Tonti Family Wines is a small business, producing only 500 cases a year. Since winning, they’ve been getting orders from Florida to Canada.
“I’m new in the business, and I’m 77 years old,” Tonti says. “I don’t know how hard I want to work, but there’s already been increased demand.”
This was truly a delicious Zinfandel, as was their slightly less-expensive Old Vine Zinfandel Reserve. Priced at $60 and $50 respectively, they were at the higher end, price-wise, of most wines competing.
The overwhelming number of wines in the competition were priced considerably lower. Judges rated wines at a wide range of price points by varietal, primarily at prices most of us look for. So they’ve done a lot of the homework in finding the “best” wines under $10, $20 or $30.
The Public Tasting of the Competition, held in San Francisco, featured more than 300 wineries, so I could not only try the winners but discover some other terrific options. I particularly enjoyed the wines from a small winery in Sonoma, Calif., called Lucinda and Millie (www.lucindaandmillie.com). Both their Chardonnay ($15) and Cabernet ($16) were organic, appealing and nicely balanced. And I’ll definitely be looking to buy the slightly citrusy Sauvignon Blanc ($14) from the small Steelhead Vineyards.
Typically, in most wine competitions, judges look for an overall winner regardless of price. But that tends to favor expensive wines. The very best cabernet sauvignon, for example, is likely to come from a winery that grows or buys expensive grapes, ages wine in first-use French oak barrels and cellars it for a number of years before release. That all costs money, making it virtually impossible for a less expensive, but still enjoyable, cab to compete.
It also means the winning, lower-priced-point wines are likely to come from large wine-making companies who own large tracts of their own vineyards. Many of the winning $10 and under wines, for example, came from Trinchero, including wines from Trinity Oaks (Pinot Gris $9), Menage a Trois (white blend $10 and Rose $10), Sutter Home (Zinfandel $6) and Three Thieves (Pinot Noir $7.99). ForestVille, named “Best in Class” in the Chardonnay $9.99 and under category, is made by Bronco Wines (who also make Charles Shaw “Two Buck Chuck” among many other brands). It means these very affordable wines are likely to be consistent year after year and widely available. You’ll probably find many at your supermarket, local liquor store or the wine list of your local casual dining restaurant.
But not all good, affordable wines have to be from big wine companies. The white Sweepstakes winner, Hanna Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($20.99) was made by a small family-owned winery. By sheer coincidence, the day after I attended the Public Tasting of the Chronicle Wine competition, I was at a friend’s home for lunch, and my friend — who knew nothing of the competition — served that wine, which paired nicely with the chicken curry and endive salad. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon wine.
You can find the complete list of all San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition winners by category here: http://winejudging.com/medal-winners/
Best wines in America $10 and under
San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition — Best of Class and Double Gold winners $10 and under
Sauvignon blanc — 2015 Bogle $10; 2015 Darkhorse $9.99 — both double gold
Chardonnay — McMannis Family Vineyards 2015 $10; 2015 ForestVille $6.99 — both best of class;
Pinot Gris — 2015 Trinity Oaks $9 — best of class
White blend — 2015 Menage a Trois $10 — best of class
Pinot Noir — 2015 Three Thieves $7.99 and 2014 Bubo $8.99 — both best of class; Smoking Loon $8.99 double gold
Zinfandel — Sutter Home NV $6
Merlot — Round Hill 2014 $9; Coast 2014 $9; Backhouse 2015 $10 — all double gold
Cabernet Sauvignon — 2015 Silver Creek $9.99 — best of class; California Dream 2015 $5.98 and Sutter Home NV $6; and Trader Moon 2015 $5.99 — all double gold
Red Dessert Wine — Barefoot Sangria NV $6.99 and Merritt Estate (N.Y.) Bella Rosa NV — both double gold
Rhonda Abrams is the author of 19 books, including Entrepreneurship: A Real-World Approach, just released in its second edition. Connect with Rhonda on Facebook and Twitter: @RhondaAbrams. Register for Rhonda’s free business tips newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com.