Second Label Wines: How to Score Big on a Budget
This weekend, we have our first Saturday wine tasting of the year. Aptly, for this belt-tightening time of year, we are sampling domestic value wines under $20. These are wines that deliver the best bang for the buck. Not surprisingly, I noticed many of these wines are second labels to high-end producers. Although they do not share the same name as their illustrious parent wine, these wines often share a similar philosophy, winemaker, and sometimes vineyards or winemaking techniques. Because of this, second labels can be a pretty reliable bet when trying to find a good deal.
The concept of second labels started in Bordeaux in the 18th century, but the idea really took hold in the 1980s, when bottle prices in that area began to soar. To make truly great and expensive wines involved a lot of risk. Only the finest grapes from that year could go into the bottle, and the winemaker had to discard anything that wasn’t perfect. But using only a portion of the fruit from the vineyard is simply not a smart business move. In comes the second label, which helps protect the risk, capturing any overflow of fruit and supporting a winery’s bottom line. New World wineries quickly adopted this practice as well. However, unlike Bordeaux, American wineries have fewer restrictions, which allows a wider breadth for experimentation in their second labels.
Because these wines are separated from the standards and reputation (and cost) of the first label, the winemaker has more flexibility. There is an opportunity to try new vineyards, new varietals, or new winemaking techniques without the pressure of a large price tag. For this reason, these wines can be really fun. They also can be a great entry point into the brand, allowing an affordable taste of the winemaker’s style. Generally, with a dedicated winemaker, the seriousness of the wine is not lost just because it is less expensive. If the estate is committed to making good wine, they almost always make good second labels.
Bishop’s Peak and Foxglove are two wines that we will be tasting this Saturday. Both of these are highly acclaimed second label wines, garnering almost as much attention from the critics as their parent labels. Bishop’s Peak, which is named after an iconic landmark in San Luis Obispo, is the second label for Talley Vineyards. Known for its exceptional estate-grown and vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, Talley Vineyards produces a small number of wines from one of their six vineyards in Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley. Their second label, Bishop’s Peak casts a wider net, in both sourcing and varietals. These wines are from the Central Coast, and include both estate fruit and fruit sourced from small growers. All the wines are produced in small lots with the same care and attention as their estate wines. The winery points out that these wines are “bottled before the next harvest,” an indicator to the style of the wine, which is young and fresh and meant to be enjoyed immediately.
Foxglove is another second label from the Central Coast. The parent winery is Varner Wines, a boutique, limited production label that is the project of two twin brothers, Jim and Bob Varner. From their Springs Ridge Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, they make hand-farmed and handcrafted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Foxglove wines are made with the same care and dedication as the Varner wines and follow the parent philosophy of simplicity. They believe the key to a perfect wine is letting the fruit speak for itself. All the grapes come from the Edna Valley, and the wines show a lovely balance of restraint, ample fruit and lively acidity. These wines are constantly praised by critics as being one of the best value wines around.