By Luke Sykora
Anyone who drinks $10 Vinho Verde, $12 Muscadet, $14 Cirò or $16 Cru Beaujolais might wonder why you can find artisanal, hand-crafted wines from the Old World at prices that will afford little more than a cookie-cutter varietal wine from California.
Leaving European subsidies and California real estate prices aside, the competition for good glou-glou is real, and increasingly relevant as wine drinkers in the States become more sophisticated and adventurous. Sonoma-based Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo Wine Co. isn't blind to this challenge. "There's so much European wine in the sub—$20 range that's so freaking good!" he says.
"If I tell my dad I bought a $50 bottle of wine, he thinks I'm insane." —Kenny Likitprakong
He grew up around value-focused Domaine St. George in Sonoma, where his father worked. "That was my early concept of what a winery is," he says. "If I tell my dad I bought a $50 bottle of wine, he thinks I'm insane." When Likitprakong started his own label back in 2002, he felt it was important to make some wines that served the everyday side of the market.
But what if you don't own your own vineyard, and care about, say, minimizing pesticides and herbicides with some control over the farming? Then making something delicious you can sell for $15 gets difficult.
Likitprakong points out a few ways to shave a dollar or two from the final bottle price: you can use lighter glass bottles to cut down on shipping costs, lose the capsule, label with cheaper recycled label paper and avoid purchased yeast and additives. You can also work with higher-yielding valley fl oor sites. ("I'd rather see five tons per acre than somebody spraying Roundup," he says.)
But in the end, it all comes down to fruit cost. At $1,000 a ton, he finds, making a wine under $20 a bottle shouldn't be a problem. At $2,000, you're pushing it. And according to the 2013 crush report compiled by the USDA, the going rate for a ton of Sonoma County pinot noir was $3,079. Maybe grenache? That still averages $2,717 in Sonoma. (In Napa, it's $3,679.)
Which means that small producers who want to compete with Euro glou are looking further and further afield—though he's based in Sonoma, Likitprakong buys fruit from Monterey and Madera counties.
Recently, Chris Brockway of Berkeley-based Broc Cellars also wound up in Madera County. "A place that maybe doesn't have the best history in terms of quality, considering the way grapes were grown," Brockway admits. "Flood irrigation, herbicides, pesticides..." But his friend was leasing a vineyard—Love Ranch—at 1,500 feet of elevation just south of Yosemite, farming with fewer inputs. And the fruit came in at around $1,000 a ton. Expensive for Madera, in other words, but cheap compared to anywhere on the North Coast. So his grenache-based 2013 Love Red and the 2013 Love White (mostly roussanne and marsanne) sell for $20 even.
"The toughest thing is finding something that's grown responsibly," he observes.
Matthew Plympton, whose Revel Wine distributes both Hobo and Broc in California, recalls that these kinds of wines—basic table wines under $20, made by small producers with little manipulation—were easier to find as recently as 2006, when he and his business partner Tom Hunter started the company. Since then, he says, the cost of everything along the chain has gone up, from glass to fuel to trucking. The scant 2010 and 2011 vintages squeezed grape supply and boosted prices.
[ glou-glou, n. [glōō·glōō] From the French onomatopoeia, the sound of a throat chugging a beverage: a juicy, simple, often low-sulfur wine meant for drinking rather than contemplation.]
Still, starting with the 2012 vintage, Plympton put out his own glou-glou play, a wine modeled on the inexpensive one-liter bottles of Austrian grüner veltliner he used to drink when he worked on the Terry Theise portfolio.
The goal was a crisp white sold by the liter, and since it was going to be labeled "California White Wine," grape varieties and exact geography didn't matter too much.
He teamed up with Napa winemaker Steve Matthiasson, and they ended up buying vermentino from Windmill Vineyard in Yolo County's Dunnigan Hills, where the arid Vaca Range extending from eastern Napa meets the hot interior of the Central Valley.
The goal was to hit the shelves at $18/liter. But it turned out no one made those bright green liter bottles in the US, so Plympton had to source bottles from Germany at $1.50 a piece. As a result, you'll find the 2013 Tendu White on the shelf for somewhere between $19 and $22.
Meanwhile, at some little caviste in Paris, François Chidaine's trim and fresh Touraine Blanc goes for seven Euros. Que sera, sera.
This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, June 2014.