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The Best Value Wines in Napa Valley

The Best Value Wines in Napa Valley

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You can find good Napa wines for less than $25

Where to find affordable cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley.

I‘ve recently been tasting through recent cabernet releases from the Napa Valley and have been struck by the appeal of many of the wines. This is due in small part to the string of vintages, cooler than typical, that winemakers have recently been working with. But there might be more to it than that. I’ve written up my thoughts on the matter and will bring them to you in fully on Thursday, but for now I just wanted to kick off the discussion with some Napa Valley cabernets that offer good value.

These may not be really inexpensive wines — Napa cabernets just do not come cheaply — but they are roughly in the less-than-$25-a-bottle category, making them affordable and probably pretty easy to find. These value priced wines offer a lot to like, and serve as a great introduction to both the style of recent vintages and (perhaps) a hint of winemaking trends in Napa Valley circa 2013.

Click here to find the best value Cabernets from Napa Valley.

— Gregory Del Piaz, Snooth

Big Guy Wines

Anthony Bell is easily one of the most reputable winemakers in California. His namesake winery, Bell Wine Cellars, is one of Napa Valley’s most beloved boutique wineries with an unwavering track record of excellence – highly rated wines, hoards of Gold Medals, and reviews from all of the top industry periodicals. His winemaking style exudes elegance, and it comes through in each of his handcrafted wines.

It is because of this rather sophisticated background that Bell was slightly caught off guard when his wife asked him to name a new wine label after their dog, Ty.

“I thought, well, that’s kind of a crazy idea,” Bell recently offered. “Ty was a soft-coated, Wheaton Terrior and he would come to work with us everyday at the winery. He was always my wife Sandra’s companion – she took him everywhere with her – but he was loved very much by both of us. I always called him ‘Big Guy,’ and that’s where the name of our new wine label stemmed from.”

The start of the Big Guy Wines brand happened unexpectedly in 1999, when Bell miscalculated the ratio of bottles to barrels and ended up with a substantial amount of Syrah leftover in barrel. It was high quality fruit from the Sierra Foothills’ Canterbury Vineyard, initially intended for that harvest’s premium Syrah bottling.

“Sandra kept asking me what I intended to do with the barreled wine, and she ultimately suggested I start a new wine label. We’d had wines named after me (Bell), and a wine called Talianna, which was named for our daughters, Talia and Anna, so she proposed that this one be named after her favorite companion, Ty. I just couldn’t say no,” Bell stated flatly.

Bell decided to blend the Syrah with a bit of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and was thrilled with the result of the Red Blend. To complement it, he crafted a White Blend of Napa Valley Chardonnay with Viognier and Marsanne from Santa Cruz to make a Big Guy White Wine. 1999 marked the first vintage for Big Guy Wines, and Bell hasn’t looked back since.

“We really didn’t know what to expect with the Big Guy wines,” Bell started. “But it has become such an important brand to us and it’s been an incredibly successful addition to Bell Wine Cellars. Visitors to the Tasting Room love the wine and, after purchasing it, would insist on taking pictures with Ty on their way out. It was a much bigger hit than we could have anticipated.”

It’s also important to note that the wines blended into the Big Guy wines come from the same lots as Bell’s high-end estate selections for which the winery’s reputation has been built on.

“We treat the Big Guy wines in the same manner that we treat our top of the line wines. Because of that, the cost of goods for these wines is very high and it offers an incredible value to our customers,” Bell explained. “With Big Guy, we also get to be flexible and select what we really want to work with each year. By having access to fruit from each of our estate vineyards, we have the opportunity to cherry pick from the best lots and come up with the best blends possible for each vintage.”

Currently, the Big Guy Wines’ overall case production rests at a comfortable level of 2,500 cases per year, but Anthony Bell does plan for its future growth.

“I would very much like to see Big Guy grow and become a big part of the business. It has the potential, especially with the recent trend of red blends in the market. As it’s been, we’ve let the demand dictate our growth, and we’ve been very pleased with how well the wines have been received.”

Sadly, Ty passed away in 2010 at the ripe age of 12 1/2, and the brand now offers a sense of remembrance for Anthony Bell and his wife Sandra. Big Guys Wines is certainly a proud addition to the Bell Wine Cellars family and its charming blends offer a fresh addition to the Napa Valley entity.

Each and every wine selected for our six different Wine Clubs meets our strict guidelines for quality and rating criteria. Each wine is handcrafted by an authentic, small-production boutique winery with a compelling story to tell like the one above. Since our first Gold Wine Club shipment in 1992, we have added five more impressive Wine Clubs to choose from—each a showcase for highly-rated, sought-after wines you can enjoy as a Gold Medal, wine of the month club member.

The Roots of Phylloxera: Where It Came From and How It Spread

Phylloxera made its first appearance in California in the 1860s, after being born and bred on the East Coast of the United States.

The pests likely “came with the westward expansion from the East,” says Dr. Andrew Walker, geneticist and endowed viticulture chair at University of California, Davis.

It also made its way to Europe around the same time, via imported nursery or plant materials or other organic matter from the U.S.

Phylloxera only affects vinifera varieties, not the American rootstock species Vitis rupestris, riparia or labrusca, which are mostly phylloxera resistant.

As a result, the pest aggressively attacked Mission grape vines, a European Vitis vinifera variety that was popular throughout California at the time. The precipitous decline of these vinifera vines tipped winemakers and viticulturists off about a possible infestation.

There’s an unspoken “Rule of 15” when it comes to phylloxera. It takes about 15 years before vineyard managers or winemakers detect phylloxera, since it burrows into vines and creates open wounds in the root system. Few pests actually kill vines, though. In the case of phylloxera, the wounds create the “entry point for soil-borne and pathogenic fungi,” says Walker.

“That was hard for people to understand, since the vines were dying so quickly,” says Walker.

Grape phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae) on the vine leaves / Getty

In the 1870s, European rootstocks were brought to California to see which ones would work best in the region. Many tests and trials were done, and rootstock AxR1, a hybrid of Vitis vinifera and Vitis rupestris, seemed like the most appropriate choice because it was disease-resistant and easy to graft. But part of its parentage was still vinifera, so eventually those vines died off, as they were not immune to the pest’s damage.


1141 First St, Napa

Downtown Napa’s Ca’ Momi Osteria coins itself as “built on Napa Valley soil, but rooted in soulful Italian tradition.” Founders Valentina Guolo-Migotto, Dario De Conti, and Stefano Migotto developed the winery of the same name in 2006, the Enoteca in 2010, then the restaurant in 2015. Ca’ Momi prides itself on “heart- crafted” cuisine made with local organic ingredients with authentic Italian flavors, preparation, and presentation. The restau- rant makes pizza according to Vera Pizza Napoletana guidelines, which means it is cooked for 90 seconds in a 900-degree wood-burning stove. Ca’ Momi is one of the few restaurants in the United States to carry the Verace Pizza Napoletana, Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, and Ospitalitầ Italiana certifications. House specialties include the Pizza Porchetta e Rucola, the Organic Pizza Margherita DOP, and You had me at Pizza! Dinner, which includes burrata and verdure, two pizza choices, a salad, and dessert with portions for two to eight people. Gluten- free crust and flatbread are available, as are vegan options.


1517 W. Imola Ave., Napa

In 2020, Fazerrati’s Pizza, which locals affectionally call Fazi’s, celebrates its 30th anniversary. Napa native and owner, Troy Cary, began at the restaurant in 1990 as a delivery driver and worked his way to serve as general manager 1995. In 2010, he and his wife, Denise, purchased the restaurant from founder John Johnston. The Carys, along with daughter Chelsie Blakley, ensure that this fun, old-school Napa pizza parlor in the River Park Shopping Center, where locals frequently get together to watch sports, stays true to its classic roots. Their pizza dough is made using spring wheat flour from the Midwest, which is cool fermented 24 to 48 hours, hand-rolled, and baked in a revolving-deck pizza oven. The restaurant uses fresh, local ingredients, such as Salinas Valley tomatoes and mozzarella. “We teach our pizza makers to create each pizza with pride as though it were for their best friend,” said Cary. Fazerrati’s offers 16 different pizzas, including the customer favorite, Real Italian – the restaurant’s version of Margherita – as well as Fazerrati’s Supreme, The Ragin’ Cajun, the Create Your Own.

By Appointment Only

Many wineries in the Napa Valley are open by appointment only. This allows producers to provide the twin luxuries of space and attention, as well as exclusive and winery-only wines. Here are some worth booking.

AXR is a new spot on a historic estate between Calistoga and St. Helena. The wines are made by Jean Hoefliger of Alpha Omega Winery and The Debate.

Cade Estate Winery, high atop Howell Mountain, has unrivaled views of the valley and plenty of outdoor seating. It’s also the region’s first LEED Gold-certified estate winery dedicated to organic farming. Bottles from sister wineries Odette Estate and PlumpJack Winery may be tasted here, too.

Melka Estates / Photo by Liza Gershman

Crocker & Starr, tucked behind an industrial hub near St. Helena, has a personalized vineyard experience worth taking. They also offer what they call the “Farmhouse Porch Experience,” a tasting at the winery’s 1918 farmhouse that is reserved for guests who have a limited amount of time.

Dana Estates sits just under the Mayacamas Mountains in Rutherford. It’s a favorite of local winemakers, visitors and savvy collectors alike. The estate makes three single-vineyard wines and just launched a value-priced sister brand, Vaso Cellars, which can also be tasted here.

Melka Estates is famed consultant Philippe Melka’s personal pied-à-terre and production site in St. Helena. It houses a 3,000-bottle library of Melka wines that goes back 20 years.

The Inevitable Rise of Cult Napa Wines

This spring, a Fourmeaux 2016 Red Blend from VGS Chateau Potelle set a record for the highest barrel price of 2018 at Auction Napa Valley. A 10-case lot sold for $114,300, or just over $952 per bottle.

Auction Napa Valley was originally conceived in 1981 as a way for area vintners to give back to their community. Today it’s also a showcase where iconic Napa Valley wines like Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle demonstrate their popularity. These legendary bottles are often referred to as “cult wines,” and they fetch top dollar — the Fourmeaux sale was the latest in a long line of record-breaking auctions.

The phenomenon of cult wines is not limited to Napa, of course. A similarly breathless reception greets bottles from Lebanon’s Chateau Musar, Spain’s Clos Mogador, and select others worldwide.

This Is The Last Corkscrew You’ll Ever Buy

Yet Napa’s cult culture is distinct, driven by a confluence of historical, financial, and sociocultural factors. America’s economic development, agricultural trends, a shifting media landscape, and good, old-fashioned supply and demand all play a part.

In an industry irrevocably linked to weather, the cult of Napa wines is a perfect storm.

What Is a “Cult” Wine?

It depends on whom you ask.

Rob McMillan, EVP and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, defines a cult wine as “a brand of exceptional strength and difficulty to attain.” The wines must be consistently great, year after year, he says. A cult wine is “a luxury good that if you could get easily, no one would want,” McMillan adds.

Of course, what constitutes luxury is also subjective. Most industry members consider luxury wines to be scarce, high-quality, and extremely pricey. The term “luxury” also tends to indicate factors like heritage, a proven track record of 20 years or more, a special place of origin such as a particular vineyard, and a sense of privilege and pleasure for the buyer. Dr. Liz Thach, Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University and author of the upcoming book, “Luxury Wine Marketing – the Art and Science of Luxury Wine Branding,” believes cult wines are a subset of luxury wines.

The simplest definition might come from Kale Anderson, VGS Chateaux Potelle’s winemaker. “A wine that has been proven to be very good over multiple vintages that develops a following quickly where the demand outpaces supply,” he says. “It’s a combination of factors — but it doesn’t happen if the wine isn’t good.”


Cult wines are typically in such low production and high demand that advertising and traditional consumer outreach is unnecessary. Instead, word of mouth, especially among influential or moneyed crowds, builds enthusiasm and wait lists for popular wines. Tach calls it “anti-marketing.”

Auction Napa Valley, for example, connects winemakers with deep-pocketed consumers. It “creates the buzz with the right group of people,” Thach says. “It can propel an unknown wine into the limelight.”

Attendees might feel like they are part of an inner circle, or ahead of the curve, because they heard about a new bottle directly from the winemaker instead of reading it in a magazine or hearing it from a friend.

“Everyone knows what they are doing at Auction,” Pam Starr of Crocker & Starr says. “There’s not an immediate return, but… Auction Napa Valley builds relationships, enthusiasm, and excitement.”

Cate Conniff, the communications manager for Napa Valley Vintners, the organization that sponsors Auction Napa Valley, echoes the value of relationships. “Our guests meet the winemakers as they’re tasting their wines at the barrel auction, sit with vintners around tables at the live auction. Often these connections lead to long-held relationships and friendships,” Conniff says. “And for the collectors who procure these special wines at Auction Napa Valley, the story behind the wines becomes part of their story, to share with friends and family often over the course of many years.”

“Would the cult thing have happened without Auction Napa Valley? I’m not sure,” Starr says.


Perfect Storm

A paradigm shift took place in the 1990s, and, as a result, Napa winemakers began developing wines with a radically different character from those of the 1980s. According to McMillan, some of that had to do with the replanting that took place due to phylloxera in the 󈨔s and 󈨞s.

As a result, the region embraced high-pH modernism, terroir, and small production. Technical aspects like texture, weight, depth, and aromas changed, as did “really everything in terms of wine quality and winemaking style,” according to Jeff Smith, founder of Hourglass Winery. “Their flavor profile changed from their predecessors. In a classic economy of supply and demand, desirability compounded that.” The Napa Valley wines created in the 1990s had “mystique,” Smith says, and “desirability is the core of cult mentality.”

For Smith, eight wines in particular drove the movement. They are Abreu, Araujo, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Grace, Harlan, and Screaming Eagle.

The American economy was also booming in the 1990s, so many buyers had cash to spend. Critics such as Robert Parker spoke to these new wine consumers by championing a numerical system of rating wines, which was easier to understand than floral tasting notes or Old World classifications.

“Robert Parker had a great effect on Napa Valley, he’s been a champion for the region,” Smith says. He adds, however, that Parker “had more impact when criticism was consolidated and there were fewer voices.”

“In the 󈨞s the scores were leading the way,” Starr says. “Wine collectors turned to Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer, and Wine Spectator, who were giving scores to wineries that were doing something new. It drove collectors to return to Napa to see what was going on here.”

The first time Starr heard the term “cult wine” was at Spottswoode Winery in the 1990s. Then as now, it was associated with the unattainable.

“You didn’t know what it tasted like, but you could buy it and resell it,” Starr says.

High retail prices are a hallmark of cult wines, but the real money is in the secondary market. Auctions provide opportunities to resell wines from cult producers at exponentially higher prices.

Auction Napa Valley propels and maintains the Napa cult wine phenomenon. “If you go back to when these wines were first establishing a market presence, in the 󈨞s and 2000s, Auction Napa Valley was a platform, a springboard for these wines,” Smith says. “It helped put the wines on the map and created mystique.”

Price of Fame

While the economics of scarcity do generate consumer enthusiasm for wines, Napa insiders say that’s half the story. There are hard costs associated with making cult wines in Napa, especially small-production Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

When Smith’s family family moved to Napa in the 1960s, you could buy an acre for $2,000, he recalls. Now that same acre may go for $500,000 to $1 million. Grapes might now cost you anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per ton. And, if you’re buying grapes from a top vineyard such as the legendary To Kalon, you may be paying as much as $40,000 per ton.

There are high labor costs associated with farming, too. Smith estimates the grape clusters at Hourglass might be touched anywhere from 15 to 18 times throughout the growing cycle, from pruning to spraying to leaf-removal canopy management to picking blocks multiple times.

Most of Napa’s cult wines, such as Harlan and Colgin, are aged in French oak barrels. These can cost $1,200 to $1,500 per barrel.

Tim Martin, co-owner of Tusk in Oakville, Calif., mentions that, while large wineries can negotiate, small-production operations have no opportunities to save money via scalability. Every year, he says, everything costs more.

Additionally, while winemakers may whimsically refer to themselves as glorified farmers, these days technology plays an important role. If you want only perfect fruit going into your fermenters, Anderson says, you will likely invest in a $250,000 sorter with optical scanning. Smart tanks can connect to winemakers’ personal devices via cloud technology so they can “micromanage” the process on their phones and get the profile and styles they want.

Finally, over-the-road tractors start at $500,000. Drone technology is increasingly popular in the Bay Area as well, used by forward-thinking wineries for spraying and mapping. Prices for complete, ready-to-fly professional agricultural drone systems range from $1,500 to well over $25,000.

Future of Cult Wines

Much of the industry no longer likes the term “cult,” saying it implies excessive publicity or exceptionally high prices. Many vintners would rather be perceived as “authentic” than “hyped.”

Some analysts believe cult wines will never go away. According to McMillan, young consumers will simply replace older ones, spending their hard-earned money on labels like Chateau Montelena and Ashes & Diamonds.

But Martin is concerned. Many buyers of cult Napa wines are in their 70s, he says. Their kids may not want to buy their parents’ brands, preferring to forge their own paths and find their own favorites.

Immeasurable ink has been spilled analyzing the buying power and preferences of millennial consumers. They drink less than their parents, studies say, and opt for beer, wine, and spirits in equal measure. Thach believes younger wine consumers also hold different values from their parents, caring about environmental sustainability and responsible business more than historic labels.

Napa winemakers are wise to adjust their outreach to appeal to new generations of consumers, McMillan says, by embracing social media and highlighting environmental and social responsibility. Auction Napa Valley, for example, donates to 25 local nonprofits and has strategic initiatives dedicated to community health and children’s education. These are powerful message points for conscientious consumers of any age.

So long as consumers want what they can’t have (new iPhones, Fenty cosmetics), the appeal of cult wines isn’t going anywhere. Napa winemakers simply have to assess conditions where they are, versus where they’re heading.

Valley Legend Wines

Owned by third generation Napa Valley winemaker Greg Lawson, Valley Legend Wines is quite possibly Napa’s best kept secret. The small winery focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, and recently just a tiny amount of Merlot, crafted in distinctive styles from Napa Valley’s most prestigious sub-regions.

From the Narsai David Vineyard in Conn Valley, to the Rock Cairn site in Oakville, it’s clear that Valley Legend only works with the best of the best, and the wines speak for themselves. Greg Lawson is joined by his brother Rob, who helps craft the Valley Legend wines, in addition to a number of other select Napa Valley brands.

With a small, yet incredibly focused wine portfolio, the Lawson brothers are upholding their family’s Napa winemaking tradition, going back to their father who made Pinot Noirs in the 80s and 90s, and to their grandfather who became the first president of Beringer Winery, after it was purchased from the Beringer Family by Nestle in 1971.

Valley Legend’s name refers to the “legend” table on a map or chart, listing and explaining the symbols used. All bottles show the latitude and longitude of their source vineyard’s location, even down to the specific vineyard block – a true indication of the winery’s dedication to producing wines that represent the site and grapes from which they were made.

It is Valley Legend’s goal to tell a unique story with each bottling, a story that shows their dream to make wines without compromise and to focus on the true fundamentals of winemaking. With an incredible start, and a collection of award-winning, limited production wines, it seems their own Legend has just begun.

Each and every wine selected for our six different Wine Clubs meets our strict guidelines for quality and rating criteria. Each wine is handcrafted by an authentic, small-production boutique winery with a compelling story to tell like the one above. Since our first Gold Wine Club shipment in 1992, we have added five more impressive Wine Clubs to choose from—each a showcase for highly-rated, sought-after wines you can enjoy as a Gold Medal, wine of the month club member.

About Us

The O'Connell Family Estate Vineyard is located in the cooler climate Oak Knoll Appelation. The O'Connell Family Wines has 4 brands:
O'Connell Family Vineyards- The OCFV Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, single Vineyard. Highly rated and allocated. It reflcts the distinctive estate terroir. A wine collector's favorite.
Gabrielle Collection- a collection of signature Cabernet Sauvignons crafted by Vintner Gabrielle Leonhard O'Connell. She has a deep history in the wine world- her mother was a wine chemist in France, her grandfather a food & wine critic, writer and publisher in Europe. Influenced by classic Bordeaux wines, her style reflects the varietal character and soils of the vineyard and appellation.
Pietro Family Cellars- these wines reflect Wayne O'Connell's grandfather Pietro, who came from a winemaking family in Italy, then planted and vineyard in California in 1906. He brought the family brand back in 2006 with Chardonnay, Red Blends, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
CE Cellars- founded by the next generation of the O'Connell Family, Preston O'Connell created wines geared to the causal entertaining lifestyle of the Millenniums.
The wines can be tasted at Gabrielle Collection taste+ at 1000 Main St located at the foot of the First St. Bridge, Napa, Ca.

So, what’s not vegan about wine?

Wine, and alcohol more generally, is often subject to refining processes that use animal products. The two most common are egg whites and fish bladders. In the case of red wine, egg whites are often used to remove tannins which can create the dry sensation in your mouth when you drink wine. For white wine, isinglass, made of fish bladders, is used to remove proteins that give a wine a cloudy look.

According to Brow, Napa is combatting this by doing one of two things: simply replacing animal derived refining agents with plant based ones or, more commonly, getting rid of the refining process altogether.

Ivo Jeramaz, vice president of Grgich Hills Estate, a winery in Rutherford, claims that refining is not necessary. “We want to make the best, most authentic wine,” he says. “We grow grapes organically. We do everything to get grapes that you don’t have to add anything to.”

So, if you can’t keep your nose out a wine glass but want to go vegan, don’t worry, there’s plenty to choose from!


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