Sour Grapes? Hardly

Second label wines are bargains by design

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Since I view handcrafted winemaking as a worshipful art form, it's depressing to realize that marketing plays a role in it. But I guess even wineries have bills to pay. One little- publicized marketing tactic is selling a less expensive second label. Second labels allow wineries to make use of grapes that wouldn't otherwise make the cut for their flagship brand, and provide a cheaper alternative to consumers who can't afford the designer prices.

There are plenty of reasons to appreciate this concept. Second label wines give us an opportunity to drink juice made by an expert winemaker we know and love, without the high ticket price. Most second labels retail under $15 per bottle, compared to $25 and up for their main brands. Making second label wines also lets a winemaker experiment on new grape varieties without risking his reputation.

Wineries realize there are two types of wine buyers: those who can fork out the bucks, and those who cannot. Second labels provide access to both. And it's not like winemakers are scraping excess grapes off the winery floor; it's just that they don't want to waste their good but not great grapes. In addition, the fruit doesn't necessarily come from the wineries' estates. Thanks to the current glut of California grapes and bulk wine, winemakers can snag high-quality products for less money than it would cost to grow grapes themselves, providing additional profits. Some winemakers even consider it a challenge to make great wine from average grapes rather than top-of-the-line fruit.

But why the secrets? It's often hard to find the connection to the mother winery on the bottle. Many wineries establish their second label as a separate business, taking pains to obfuscate the connection between the premium and "discount" brands. The marketing people worry, sometimes legitimately, that the second label may get higher ratings than the flagship or that the second label stuff might be so lackluster that it taints the image of the premium stuff.

I haven't seen the younger label beat the elder, but it has come close. I especially enjoy paying a quarter of what you'd pay for, say, Stag's Leap Vineyards, for their Hawk Crest second label. Established in the early 1970s in Napa Valley, Hawk Crest is considered Stag's Leap's "house wine" and retails for around $10, as opposed to the main brand, which runs $30 and up. Another would be Liberty School, originally a Caymus Vineyards brand, which is still overlooked by Caymus' famed winemaker Chris Phelps.

Another cheaper-yet-still-designer option is Pastiche, made by Joseph Phelps. Markham Vineyards produces Glass Mountain, Chalone markets Echelon, and Duckhorn flaunts its Decoy label. Some other quality second labels are Napa Ridge (Beringer), Reds (Laurel Glen), Amberhill (Raymond), Novella (EOS), Kings Ridge (Rex Hill), and Rutherford Ranch (Round Hill).

Even France's Bordeaux, with its maze of chateaux and estates, sports some second label wines, named "second wines" in France. Famed Chateau Lafite Rothschild calls its second label Moulin-des-Carruades, Chateau Latour's is Les Forts de Latour, and Chateau Palmer produces Alter Ego de Palmer.

Although it may feel like shopping at Marshall's, choosing the second label path is the way to go if you're watching your budget. The winemakers at these high-profile wineries only want to make the best wine they can, so we might as well take every advantage.

Recommended Wines

Novella 2001 Synergy Juicy blend of zinfandel, petite syrah and sangiovese. $14

Napa Ridge 2001 Coastal Pinot Noir Great value in a California pinot noir. $9

Liberty School 2001 Chardonnay Grapes are sourced from two of the best regions to grow Chard: Santa Maria Valley and Santa Lucia. $14 1/2

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