New World second labels

The Judgment of Paris, as the infamous 1976 competition has come to be called, proved to the world that California wines could not only stand up to the French, but that they could beat them blind. The competition kick-started the California wine industry and established an instant, American wine aristocracy. Among the winners thus anointed was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, with Warren Winiarski as its new nobleman.

There being no willing dauphin to pass the title along to, Winiarski recently sold his holding to the Chateau Ste. Michelle consortium, but the enterprise still retains traits of the celebrated chateaux — among them the practice of second labels. In France, a second-label wine is often made from the same grapes as the first-growths, which are strictly limited as to yield and production and can thus be both a good introduction to the rarefied world of vintage Bordeaux and a relative bargain.

The circumstances aren’t exactly the same at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, but their Hawk Crest label offers bargain-priced wines with much to recommend them — especially in the face of exalted prices for bottles of Stag’s Leap Cabernet. I recently tasted three of the Hawk Crest bottlings: the ’06 Chardonnay, the ’04 Merlot, and the ’05 Cabernet. In the $10-$12 range, these wines (though they are not made from the same vineyards) are all impressive, with the Macon-styled chard and the Lake County cab (mint, cedar, and eucalyptus) being especially impressive. All of this got me thinking about other “second labels,” and though some of the early contenders, such as Caymus’s Liberty School, have since been spun off, there remain some worthy examples.

Among them is the 2005 Logan Pinot Noir Monterrey County, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard — at around $16, a more affordable version of the Talbott pinots and chardonnays that often command prices over $100. The winery is dedicated to Burgundian-style wines, and this pinot has it all: earth, forest, leather, and beautiful acidity.

Equally useful as a preview of a pricier product, screw-capped Bommarito, at around $17, presages the quality of parent Whitehall Lane, whose reserve cabernets retail at four times the price. Dark, rich, and plummy with mocha, earth, and velvety tannins, this 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon works regardless of sibling status.

It’s a little harder to understand what Raymond Vineyards is attempting with its R Collection; the winery produces an even more economical line called Amberhill, and the flagship products, “Reserve” and “Limited Edition,” top out at around $80 at the winery. On its own merits, though, the R 2005 Monterey Chardonnay (about $12) is a beaut, showing juicy tropical tones coupled with ripe pear and quince. The 2003 Napa Valley R Cabernet Sauvignon (around $18) is full of blackberry-bright fruit, but doesn’t impress to the same degree.

The second-label syndrome isn’t confined to the U.S.; South America and South Africa offer several examples, with the $11 2006 Alamos Malbec Mendoza being a worthy scion of
Argentina’s vaunted Catena label. It shows caramel and toast on the nose, with plum and coffee giving way to black pepper on the finish.

Ironically, at least in this country, Fairview’s second tier is perhaps even better known than the parent. The cheeky South African vintner has gotten the goat of the Gauls with its Goat Roti, Bored Doe, and Goat Door, all plays on famous French regions, but there’s more to the wines than mischief: cedar, dark plum, and mineral are all to be found in the smoky Goats do Roam — at $9 worth seeking out both as an introduction to Fairview and to an entire country.

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