VinePair wine enthusiasts, we hear you! Readers have told us how hard it has been to discover new wines during the pandemic. Somms are in short supply, as many restaurants are still closed. Online wine platforms have algorithms that prioritize the same big brands, and many customers are still picking up their wine shop orders curbside. So we reached out to wine professionals we admire to ask for their help. With the challenge to build a 12-bottle case for under $250, these wine pros sifted through hundreds of bottles to find the best case possible — so you don’t have to. (And for wine pros who work with a brand, we also let them choose one of their own wines to highlight.) Then, we choose a retailer that ships nationally, and the pros only learn which retailer they’ll be choosing from after they accept the challenge. Their only guidance? Find wines that will wow wine enthusiasts.
For this $250 Case Challenge, Washington, D.C., beverage professional Nadine Brown was tasked with selecting a dozen bottles from Bottle Barn, a Santa Rosa retailer that ships to a whopping 47 states. In addition to its impressive reach, Brown was impressed by the retailer’s large selection of domestic wines, namely from Sonoma and Napa. “Bottle Barn also has some rare and hard-to-find wines, great for high-end gifts,” Brown says.
Born in Jamaica, Brown says there was no wine in her world growing up. It wasn’t until she moved to the U.S. for college, and worked in D.C. restaurants as a hostess, server, and manager, that she gained an interest in wine. She eventually pursued and earned a certification with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET II).
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Brown’s philosophy on wine is simple: “Wine is for everyone. The No. 1 thing is that you should drink what you like,” she says. “I also sincerely believe wine to be a catalyst that helps us to form human connections.” Crucial points of advice she gives are also to “discover your palate,” and “be curious.”
VinePair’s $250 Case Challenge was indeed difficult, Brown says, but not for the reason you might expect — where past somms found the budget to be constraining, Brown saw opportunity. “This exercise has been a true challenge, not because of the monetary amount of $250, but because there are so many great wines being made around the world today,” she says. It’s a concept that is still new to some consumers. “As a sommelier working the floor, occasionally a guest would seem put off when I presented a wine as a good value. The connection between price, quality, and perception is an interesting one to me,” Brown says.
When picking wines for her case, Brown favored brands with long family histories, and focused on producers she considers pioneers and leaders. Having spent the majority of her career selling and promoting wines from the U.S., she also chose wines a little closer to home, specifically from California wineries in areas recently devastated by wildfires.
Below are Brown’s selections, many of which are “centered around love, family and tradition,” and all of which pair with her favorite foods, especially fried chicken.
For her first pick, Brown chose a non-vintage Brut Reserve from Billecart-Salmon, one of her favorite Champagne houses. Founded in 1818, the brand has been family-owned for seven generations. “Billecart-Salmon Champagne is a story about love, the marriage of François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, and of a family that’s endured for over 200 years,” Brown says. “2020 has been a challenging year, to say the least. It’s important to treat yourself with grace and have some bubbles on hand at all times.”
Along with its built-in romance, Brown says she chose the bottle for its high quality-to-price ratio. “This Brut reserve is an extraordinary value, with fruit sourced from the top vineyards, representing many different terroirs: A blend of 40 percent Pinot Meunier, followed by equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the generous amount of reserve wine to round it out,” she says. It’s also “a great selection to ring in the New Year, or enjoy on a regular Thursday night after a long week.”
When it comes to pairings, Brown says, this bottling is built for food. “With fall approaching, I would pair this with hearty fall soups like butternut squash, Peruvian ceviche, decadent lobster ravioli, and, of course, fried chicken. I enjoyed this bottle recently with Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich. Divine.”
A family-owned wine importer, Broadbent Selections — currently run by Bartholomew Broadbent — has been importing quality wines for the past four decades. This Grüner Vetliner was grown in Niederösterreich, the only region in Austria where this grape is grown on limestone. “For his Broadbent label wines, Bartholomew [Broadbent] has partnered with family-owned wineries around the globe to produce wines with a sense of place. This refreshing Grüner is produced in collaboration with Markus Huber, one of the top producers in Niederösterreich, Austria,” Brown says.
“The grapes are harvested early to produce a light, lean swiggable wine. Delicate, fresh green apple aromas, with flavors of lemon, lime, and peaches. A great match for the ideal wine for fresh seafood. Grüner works well with challenging food pairings. Items such as asparagus, artichokes, sprouts, and kale are aided by its herbaceous and white pepper notes.” Best of all, Brown notes, this is a one-liter bottle, making it ideal for sharing.
This white Burgundy from Domaine Jean-Marc Brocard offers a great bang-for-your-buck value, Brown says, adding that the winery has been certified organic for over 15 years, meaning its vineyards are free of pesticides and herbicides.
“White Burgundies are among the best white wines in the world and often some of the most expensive white wines anywhere. But as you can see, I was still able to pick up a stellar bottle for my case and not break the bank. The wine is a standard-bearer and a reminder of the majesty of Chardonnay, all under $25.”
She also chose this wine because it’s a crowd pleaser: “A straight down-the-middle Chardonnay, and appeals to many people, it’s a go-to selection for me when building a wine program,” Brown says. It also makes a great pairing with a number of dishes, like “seafood, hard alpine cheeses, onion soup, ramen, snow crabs drenched in butter, simple pork that allows the true flavors of this noble grape to shine. And, of course, fried chicken.”
Located in Sonoma County and founded by Italian immigrant John Vincini and his wife Cathy, Trecini Winery achieves ratings similar to wines at much higher price points. “Trecini is a unique boutique winery that produces high-quality wines at modest prices,” Brown says.
“The wine is cool-fermented and reveals a delicate, aromatic wine: A blend of Sauvignon Blanc markers such as citrus, dried tropical flavors, and dried herbs,” she says. This wine makes an ideal pairing for seafood dishes such as shrimp scampi and buttery Maryland crabs.
Brown notes that well-established brands like Vietti are ideal places to look when seeking out deals. “A great way to find values is to hitch a ride with a legacy producer that never releases a bad wine, no matter the price point,” she says. Another pearl of wisdom: “Don’t fear sweet wines. It’s a balance game with acidity, and this one hits the mark. The wine has a pale straw, autumn light color. On the palate it’s delightfully frizzante (not quite bubbly) and fun. Vietti is intense with aromas that jump out the glass to greet you. Peaches and apricots, rose petals, and soft ginger. It’s delicious and delicate.”
This is another crowd-pleasing option, Brown says: “Pair with friends you’ve not seen in a long time, Korean BBQ, Thai, Jamaican jerk chicken, almond desserts, or creamy blue cheese, to name a few. As a side note, never let anyone shame you for loving Moscato. Drink what you like.”
Founded in 1983, Barnard Griffin Winery was one of the pioneering wineries in Washington wine country. This rosé is made from 100 percent Sangiovese and is “crisp, juicy, and dry, with more structure than you might expect. A gorgeous blend of wild raspberries and strawberries, underripe cherries, and a bit of tangerine,” Brown says.
Brown calls this wine “a rosé built for food,” and she’s not afraid to take risks when it comes to her pairing choices. “Enjoy with flash-seared tuna, tiger prawns with Chinese five-spice, charcuterie boards, or, hey, a ham and pineapple pizza, if you’re into such things. I am.”
Wild Hog is a family-owned winery situated in the hills between Fort Ross and Cazadero in Sonoma. The winery practices organic and vegan farming. “The estate exists off the grid, with operations being powered by solar and hydro power,” says Brown.
“Wild Hog tastes like the wilds of west Sonoma Coast: wild berries, and foraged mushrooms. Bright black cherries and rich dark fruit, finished off with Sonoma Coast vibrancy.”
Founded in 1953 by ambassador to Italy James D. Zellerbach, Hanzell Vineyards is situated in the foothills of the Mayacaymas mountain range in Sonoma Valley.
“Zellerbach planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at a time when there were only a few hundred acres planted. Some 60 years later, Hanzell has become a benchmark of domestic Pinot Noir,” Brown says.
This wine can be enjoyed now or stored for another few years. “I especially appreciate their gentle touch with oak, using only 15 percent new oak and 85 percent neutral or previously used barrels. The wine shows complexity, freshness, and structure. Mediterranean pomegranates, ripe cherries, sweet tobacco, red currants, and silky, sexy finish. The wine is always consistent.”
R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Winery was founded in 1877 by Rafael Lopez de Heredia and has been family-owned for four generations. “These legendary wines represent the best of Spain,” Brown says. “They echo time-honored traditions in the winemaking process passed down from generation to generation. Heredia’s wines are only released after extensive oak, then bottle aging, a period of five to 10 years after harvest. With much of society focused on instant gratification, they force us to wait, to slow down, to savor a profile that only comes with time.”
Another great food wine, this blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano grapes goes with “everything from artisan pizza, to roasted duck, minestrone soup, grilled octopus, and paella — I’m hungry.”
Dating back to the 1490s in the southern Rhône, Château de Saint Cosme proclaims itself the oldest winery in the region. “Fourteen generations later, the château is a benchmark wine of the region, located just north of Gigondas,” says Brown.
A blend of 50 percent Syrah, 20 percent Grenache, 15 percent Carignan, 10 percent Mourvedre, and a touch of Clairette, Brown calls this wine “one of the most full-bodied wines out of the case.” On the palate, this selection is filled with dark fruit, black olives, and a bit of spice. Brown suggests enjoying it with “BBQ, lamb with mushrooms, corner-store calzones, steak frites, and Covid-induced distant learning.”
Located in Barsac, a commune in the appellation of Sauternes, Château Guiraud is a winery focusing on biodiversity and environmentally friendly wines. “Sweet wine is going to have its moment again, and I am here to help that along,” Brown says. “These wines were enjoyed by the czars of Russia and kings of France for a reason. Sweet wines are not just for dessert. A sweet or off-dry wine with dim sum or Korean BBQ? Magic.”
For the final pick in her case, Brown chose “the always pleasing yet still noble Merlot.” Another family-owned operation, Seaton Family Vineyards has been producing wines in Dry Creek Valley, Calif. — a region Brown says is overlooked for its values — for three generations. “The Seaton family makes wine, but at [their] core, they are grape growers. We must support them, or we have nothing.”
With over four years of aging in the bottle, “the wine is probably in its sweet spot and will pair great with fall and winter fare.”