Ah, the holiday party wine gifting season. That time of year when you'll inevitably spot a bottle of Shafer Hillside Select sporting a shiny red bow among the hostess gifts -- right as you hand over a $19.99 Cabernet you snagged off the Ralph's weekly special list on the way to the boss' house (but it was really $30 full price, right?). When it comes to financial discrepancies, there are few times of year when it's more obvious that your wine budget is nowhere near that of your corporate superiors.
That's why we prefer to do a little upfront research and hand over wines with a great back story. There are plenty of growers who simply sell their top quality grapes to wineries (often used in high-end vineyard-designate wines, not blends). Many of them also happen to be winemakers on the side -- not for another winery, but for themselves. In other words, these are the wines they really wanted to make with their grapes if they weren't handing them over for the boss' pet project. (Sound familiar?)
It's sort of like the farmer becoming the chef, or the employee becoming the boss. And just think, with these wines, now you actually have something to say on the gift tag other than "Happy Holidays, You're Such A Great Boss. I hope to work here forever (until I launch my own business and tell you to screw off)."
The easiest to track down, and most common, are those growers who eventually got completely off the wine grow/sell treadmill and now solely make their own wines. In Washington's Columbia Valley, Gamache is a great stop for Riesling and Viogner under $20. In California, Peju has one of the most widely-known (and very successful) grower-turned-winemaker stories. Google "grower" and "winemaker" along with your favorite wine varietal, and you'll come up plenty of gift bottle options.
But we think the most party-chat fun are those that still sell their grapes to other wineries, yet also make their own wines from grapes from the same vineyards -- often for substantially less. Handing over a bottle feels like letting someone in on your little secret, and it's hard to find a better story than Bucklin.
If Joel Peterson of Ravenswood made old vine Sonoma Zinfandel a household wine geek name, Old Hill Ranch is arguably the vineyard that got it started. Peterson still buys premium grapes from Will Bucklin, the vintner/co-owner for more than twenty years, and sells it under the Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch label for around $60. Most vintages, you can find Bucklin's Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel for around $35 (and don't tell Peterson, but we tend to prefer the Bucklin).
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Either way, if you go straight to the growers, you often can find some great quality, and affordable, wines that don't cost a fortune -- and in theory (at least in the winery's early years), support the little guy. Take that, Screaming Eagle.
[More from Jenn Garbee @eathistory + eathistory.com