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.
Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, a St. Louis-based CSW certified sommelier and wine consultant has been working in the restaurant industry since 2004, when she started as a waitress. She has since moved on up in the wine world and says she plans to expand her knowledge even further by taking the CMS Advanced Exam in the fall of 2021, although “it has been difficult to focus on studying these last several months for a multitude of reasons,” she says.
Blackwell-Calvert has chosen 12 bottles from Bottlerocket, an NYC-based wine shop that ships to 43 states. Bottlerocket’s website includes a unique online navigation system that allows users to pick wines based on price, food pairings, and special occasions.
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Like most who work in the hospitality industry, Blackwell-Calvert’s role has changed amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “My day-to-day in the wine industry looks drastically different than, say, one year ago,” she says. The Missouri-based somm left the restaurant floor just before the start of the pandemic to pursue work as an independent consultant. Since she can’t work with clients in person, she says, “I’ve been keeping busy conducting virtual tastings via Zoom and social media, while maintaining wine lists for restaurant clients.”
The $250 Case Challenge was a breeze for Blackwell-Calvert, who feels that high prices don’t always equate to high- quality wines. “My first and foremost philosophy when it comes to wine is that it has to taste good,” she says. “A wine doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive to be considered good — but it does have to be delicious.” Blackwell-Calvert feels that her experience as a wine buyer for restaurants helped to prepare her for this challenge, as she says the job taught her how to seek out great values.
When choosing the wines for this case, Blackwell-Calvert asked herself, “If all 12 of these wines were open for a get-together, would everyone find a wine to drink and enjoy?” She went with crowd-pleasing options including crushable white wines and a California Cab — plus an unexpected bottle or two.
Though Blackwell-Calvert would happily drink any wine on this list, her favorites include “a sparkling wine from England, a wine from a Black-owned producer and basketball star, and a bottling from Tenuta delle Terre Nere.” Read on for the full breakdown of Blackwell-Calvert’s $250 case.
Chapel Down ‘Vintage Reserve’ Brut NV, Tenterden, England ($56)
Chapel Down Winery, based in southeast England, is a leader in fine wines — from traditional-method bubbles to Albariño and orange wine. English sparkling wines are quickly becoming a serious contender in the bubbles category. The country has been gaining momentum as an up-and-coming region, but production is still considered low, so many of the labels are considered hard to find and tend to fall in the premium price category.
I am a bubbles fanatic, and Chapel Down can compete with some of my favorites from France. Southern England shares a similar cool climate and chalky soil type as that of the famed Champagne, so naturally, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier are blended for Vintage Reserve. This dry sparkler is the perfect aperitif to begin a quiet evening in, or to toast with by the backyard fire pit. Aromas of dried lemon peel, fresh yellow apple, and wild strawberry fill the glass. The flavors reflect the aromas layered with a biscuit dough finish. The beading is long and elegant served in a flute. However, I suggest enjoying it in a white wine glass and pairing with potato chips and fried chicken.
Etienne Dupont ‘Cidre Bouché’ NV, Normandy, France ($16)
A small, family-owned estate, the Dupont Estate exhibits a high level of care and quality control in fermenting apples. The orchards cover 30 hectares in the Pays d’Auge, a sub-region in the heart of Normandy specializing in Calvados and cider. This hilly area, known for its apples and pears, consists of marl and limestone, soils common for grape production.
“Cidre Bouché,” or “cider under cork,” is a naturally sparkling cider, produced using the traditional methods of Normandy. Dupont uses a variety of both bittersweet and acidic apples to create a balanced beverage with a brisk tartness and natural sweetness. The cider rests on its lees to add complexity as it ages. Pork and apple are a classic combination, so pair with an herbed tenderloin or chop. It will also lend itself nicely with an earthy cheese.
Tenuta delle Terre Nere 2019, Etna Bianco, Sicily ($25)
This is the one wine that is non-negotiable for me! Sicilian wines continue to grow in popularity. However, I find the quality and likability of Terre Nere’s wines to be unmatched — especially in their cru expressions. Terre Nere currently produces two white wines and a plethora of reds that are highly sought after in the sommelier community. The Etna Bianco, especially, is a crowd-pleaser at a fantastic price. Importer Marc de Grazia is the face behind Terre Nere’s success. His wines showcase the finesse of Mt. Etna and the allure of Sicily.
The Etna Bianco drinks like a young Burgundy: fresh apple fruit, a nerve of minerality, and a mellow texture. The wine has a round, medium body, fresh acidity, and a lingering ashiness reminiscent of the extreme volcanic soil on Mt. Etna’s northern slope where these organic grapes are produced. This delicate wine is a field blend of old-vine indigenous varieties: Carricante, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Minnella. Free from oak aging, the expression of the fruit exceeds my expectations for a white wine at this price. Pasta adorned with shellfish would be a perfect pairing.
Sant’Or Roditis Nature 2017, Achaia, Greece ($18)
Fan of a crisp, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc? This wine is for you! My first experience with the wines of Sant’Or was the amphora-aged orange wine of the rare grape Santameriana. Here, Sant’Or’s Roditis Nature is produced both organically and biodynamically from the indigenous white grape Roditis in an angular style to showcase the grape’s minerality. Grower Panagiotis Dimitropoulos believes in a minimalist approach to winemaking. The Roditis juice is aged in stainless steel for six months, and is then bottled unfined and unfiltered to best display terroir.
Aromas of lemon pith, verbena, and honeysuckle fill the glass and linger on the palate. The wine is dry, but the fresh fruit flavors linger. For pairing suggestions, try chèvre, a winter salad, or feta-topped dolmas. Greek wines have long been a favorite of mine for their versatility with food, much like wines from Italy.
Wade Cellars ‘Three by Wade’ Blanc 2019, Clarksburg, Calif. ($23)
NBA superstar Dwayne Wade brings his A game to the vineyards of California. After enjoying the wineries of Napa Valley, the celebrated athlete developed a passion for great food and wine while off the court. In 2014, friend and winemaker Jayson Pahlmeyer invited Dwayne to harvest and ignited Dwayne’s vision of a winery.
Now with Pahlmeyer’s guidance, Wade has harnessed the refreshing acidity of Chenin Blanc and the aromatic florals of Viognier to produce a versatile white wine with plenty of character. Ripe golden apple, honeydew, and peony jump from the glass and onto the palate. The texture is voluptuous, and the orchard and citrus notes merrily linger long after each sip. Though a wonderful, thirst quenching white blend, Three by Wade Blanc will be a lovely companion to hearty winter dishes like chicken and dumplings or beef stroganoff.
Mi Terruño ‘Uvas’ Chardonnay 2019, Mendoza, Argentina ($12)
In Argentina, a country dominated by Malbec, Chardonnay is making noticeable strides — from La Rioja in the north to Patagonia in the south. Maria Eugenia Baigorria and her brother Gabriel are at the helm of Mi Terruño Winery in the Maipú sub-region of Mendoza. Mi Terruño translates to “my terroir,” the focus of the Baigorria family.
Uvas’ Chardonnay is an unoaked expression, allowing the fruit character to shine through, showcasing ripe orchard, stone, and tropical fruits. The finish focuses on peach and mango. The Valle de Uco’s cool nights help to retain the Chardonnay’s vibrancy. This wine is balanced and truly doesn’t need food to be enjoyed. I consider Uvas a “cocktail” wine that is best enjoyed over a fun conversation with friends.
Domaine Joseph Cattin Riesling 2018, Alsace, France ($16)
Joseph Cattin was a pioneer of Alsace, helping to battle the destructive louse phylloxera in the late 1800s. The family-owned domaine continues to make wines with quality and soil expression in mind, producing a range of wines from Cremant d’Alsace to a variety of grand crus. All four of Alsace’s noble varietals — Muscat, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer — are found in Joseph Cattin’s portfolio.
Cattin’s Riesling displays typical aromatics for the region: candied lemon and lime, nectarine, and honeysuckle. The rich wine finishes dry, but the bold fruit on the palate is fresh and ripe, with a spine of minerality for support. Alsatian Riesling is a great partner to Germanic dishes and all things spicy. For the holidays, an assortment of ham and cured meats will put a smile on a Riesling drinker’s face.
Albert Bichot ‘Vieilles Vignes de Pinot Noir’ Bourgogne 2018, Burgundy, France ($21)
Following a long family heritage in Burgundy — Bernard Bichot settled in Monthélie in 1831 — Maison Albert Bichot continues to be a major leader in consistency and quality in the region. Albert Bichot set the family business’s roots in Beaune in 1912. Currently, the maison totals six estates spanning Burgundy, including the famed Domaine Long-Depaquit. Though a challenge, Bichot is determined to convert to organic viticulture within its holdings.
The single-varietal “Vieilles Vignes de Pinot Noir” comes from 25- to 30-year-old vines from both the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. Primary aromas and flavors of Bing cherry, hibiscus, and mushroom dominate the nose and palate. The finish is rustic and long, with subtle and silky tannins. This red is best served with grilled salmon or roasted duck with sautéed wild mushrooms.
Bevi ‘Principino’ Langhe Nebbiolo 2016, Piedmont, Italy ($19)
Traditionally required to age for an extended amount of time, the “B’s” of Piedmont [Barolo and Barbaresco] are typically expensive and austere in their youth. Here, we have Bevi’s “Principino” or Little Prince — an affordable expression of the Nebbiolo grape that is ready to drink and delightful on the palate. Nebbiolo, named after the fog (nebbia) of Piedmont, is the king of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Nebbiolo fruit is sourced throughout the region to create a junior version of the regional headliners. This juicy wine is packed with fresh red fruits like black cherry and cranberry, with dried herbs and rose petals. The common tar note found in Barolo and Barbaresco is more subdued in this fruitier-styled wine. Principino is a great accompaniment to pizza and fast-food burgers for those who want to avoid cooking. For the more adventurous, braised short ribs or roasted root vegetables are a fantastic match.
Casal do Ramilo ‘Jackpot’ Red Blend 2017, Lisboa, Portugal ($11)
Portugal is thriving in the value category, producing a variety of quality wines for those on a budget. Portuguese wines are unfortunately underrepresented in retail stores and wine lists across the country, but those in the know steadily take advantage of the country’s consistently affordable pricing. Look for rich whites made from Encruzado, and robust, dry red blends from the heart of the Douro Valley. Quinta do Casal do Ramilo is a family-owned estate spanning four generations in Portugal, cared for by Pedro and Nuno Ramilo.
A nod to one of Europe’s oldest operating casinos, The Casino of Estoril, “Jackpot” is a blend of Aragonez (Tempranillo) and the indigenous Castelão. The hilly Lizandro River valley along Portugal’s coast leaves way for the Atlantic breezes to cool the grapes, generating a microclimate that produces juicy, ripe grapes with ample acidity. The wine is dry, and the plump blackberry flavors are supported by a hint of dried orange zest and violet. The tannins are silky and smooth. Enjoy with seared beef tenderloin or eggplant parmigiana.
Corvidae Wine Company ‘Lenore’ Syrah 2017, Columbia Valley, Wash. ($18)
Washington State is on my radar for the next region to watch. After a couple trips to Columbia Valley, I’ve found myself to be a believer in the quality of the region and an advocate for its wines. Corvidae Wine Company is the second label for David O’Reilly’s Owen Roe. Corvidae is named after a family of birds that includes crows and ravens, while Lenore pays tribute to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” The grapes in this bottle were sourced from some of the best sites in the Columbia Valley: Outlook, Elerding, Red Willow, Union Gap.
Lenore is an archetype for Washington State Syrah: full-bodied with intense berry, black fruits, oak-influenced vanilla, and layers of smoky black pepper. The tannins are chewy — perfect for the person who likes to enjoy young Cabernet Sauvignon. There is still plenty of refreshing acidity behind the spice to balance the profile. I love Syrah with barbecue and fajitas, but lamb kefta would elevate this wine to another level.
Matthew Fritz Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, North Coast, Calif. ($15)
Napa Valley vintner Matthew Bonanno delivers an approachable example of California Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a vineyard where Alexander Valley, Russian River, and Chalk Hill meet. Bonanno uses his savvy to apprehend contracts for premium fruit cared for without the use of chemicals, and to produce wines with outstanding character and finesse that over-deliver for their price tag.
This Cab is licorice-forward, with blackberry, plum, and cassis on the nose and palate. The herb and baking spice notes develop a pleasant dried aroma. The tannins have a grippy texture that will relax with a little more time in bottle. Pair with a seared ribeye or pot roast for a great experience.