Can you find delightful bargains in Napa? You bet

By April 20, 2011

On my check-out-the-wine visit to the new Davis Grocery Outlet, the cashier announced gleefully that I had saved $72 — considerably more than I spent. So far, no gem has emerged from my six-pack of extreme bargains. In fact, we have three partially-drunk bottles languishing in the kitchen.

“Should we finish this off with dinner?”

“No, let’s open something else.”

Bob Dunning recently wrote of Grocery Outlet’s stock of near-expiration-date products: “Many folks have told me it has great deals on wine, which is a good thing since wine is one of the few grocery items that doesn’t come with an expiration date.”

Alas, Bob, wine does expire, which is, I suspect, why you can find so many ’08 — and earlier — whites on the GO shelves.

Some will taste just fine; others will taste as though the years have sucked half the life out of them; a few, like a bottle of German Riesling I picked up for $4.99, will be downright nasty. At those prices, you take your chances.

You can return a bad bottle, but that requires another trip, which makes the “bargain” seem a little less of one. To be safe, stick with ’09 and later whites. Even then, keep an extra bottle chilled in your refrigerator in case the wine didn’t have much to recommend it in the first place — another risk you take with that supposedly $18 bottle marked down to $4.

In the end, why bother, I ask myself. For just a dollar or two more, I can get a reliable bottle of Portuguese Vinho Verde from just about any of our local wine shops. And for a bit more than that, I can get either of my new delightful white finds — Pomelo and Three Pears.

I promised an account of our visit to the Mason Cellars tasting room in Napa (714 First St.), which is where I re-discovered Pomelo and discovered Three Pears. Mason Cellars is a family-owned and -operated winery founded in 1993 by Randy and Megan Mason.

Like so many of our wonderful local winemakers, Randy got his training at UC Davis before his 38 years of winemaking in Napa. He’s now considered one of the top producers of Sauvignon Blanc — his very first SB release received 91 points from the Wine Spectator, and Pomelo (pronounced POM-a-low) has been named a WS Best Buy for three years running.

It surprised us that the friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable Trisha didn’t ask for a tasting fee. No, she said, Randy doesn’t like to charge for tasting. It surprised us even more that the price listed for the bright, lively, citrus-y, zingy Pomelo Lake County Sauvignon Blanc was $10. I first tasted this wine several years ago, when I walked into a fancy wine shop in San Francisco, took one look at the prices and nearly walked out. Then I decided to ask if they carried ANYTHING in the $10 range. The guy smiled and handed me a bottle of the beautifully labeled Pomelo. “It’s really good,”” he said. It confirmed my conviction that buying the least expensive wine in a good wine store often gets you a real bargain.

Randy makes another Sauvignon Blanc — with grapes from Napa — that he just calls “Mason.” While the Pomelo is fermented exclusively in stainless steel, 15 percent of the Mason is barrel-fermented. This is a more elegant, restrained wine than the Pomelo — and one that makes the ’08 on the bottle a sign not of lifelessness but of coming-into-its-own. It has hints of citrus — especially grapefruit — but leans more toward peaches than the Pomelo. This wine, too, seemed a real bargain at $16. (Don’t forget we’re in Napa.)

The newest addition to the Mason list is a Pomelo sibling made from 100 percent Pinot Grigio grapes. Also fermented in stainless steel, it offers an explosion of vivid fruit with the balancing acidity of a more expensive wine. The Three Pears label is equally lovely — just three simple pears, one yellow, one green, one red — promising the pear-y nose and flavor of the bottle’s content. (“No pears harmed in the making!”) The tasting room sells this, too, for $10. You’ll pay a bit more for these wines at Nugget (though they’re currently on sale for $9.99); Mason Cellars tasting room, unlike most, actually sells their wares for less than retail.

All these wines reflect Randy’s minimalist approach to his craft; convinced that the source of great wine is the vineyard, he attends to each block’s unique character and avoids excessive processing and unnatural enhancements. He also makes a reserve SB, grapes from 34-year-old vines in the Russian River area ($25), and two reds, a Merlot and a Cab, both excellent, true-to-varietal wines, and, as Napa goes, very reasonable — $20 for the Merlot and $24 for the Cab.

“Randy thinks that if you can’t make a good Cab for $25 you shouldn’t be making wine,” Trisha said.

I like this guy already. And I plan to move into the long, hot season with a bottle of either Pomelo and Three Pears always chilling — just in case.

Don’t forget to save May 7 for the Putah Creek Winery Spring Tasting. And head out to Rominger West, 4602 Second St., this afternoon to sample wine and hear Tree-O from 4 to 7 p.m. You can also sign up for their spring vineyard tour and luncheon on April 30. And taste with me next Tuesday at Monticello, 630 G St.  from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Susan Leonardi

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