VinePair wine enthusiasts, we hear you! Readers have been telling 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 have 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’ve also let them choose one of their own wines to highlight.) Then, we’ve chosen 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, Anna-Christina Cabrales accepted our request to build an exceptional 12-bottle case from Wine.com. Cabrales is a New York City-based sommelier who until recently worked at Morrell Wine Bar & Café, serving as the restaurant’s general manager and wine director before it closed permanently as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cabrales says she has been “busier than ever” during the pandemic. She created a group called “Sommation,” which hosts Instagram Live demonstrations and discussions on the organization’s Instagram account, @sommation_live. Here, live chats range from cooking demonstrations, to open discussions about race in the hospitality industry. She’s been teaching for the Sommelier Society of America, is active as a mentor with Napa Valley Wine Academy, and works with Wine Unify, an organization that aims to bring wine education to underrepresented minority groups.

Though Cabrales worked in the corporate world for a short time, she always knew she wanted to work in hospitality. “In my family, we have a lot of chefs, and they were like, ‘well, you’re the first one in our family to go to a university. Can you try doing something different?’ I said, ‘OK.’ I didn’t know any better.” However, she couldn’t ignore her passion for the culinary arts, and she ended up following her dream of going to culinary school. “Somewhere in the process … the wine bug hit,” Cabrales says.

“There’s just something about wine,” she says. “It’s truly a beauty that evolves, it grows, it reveals itself. And I love that. Every time I pick up a bottle, I can always relate to a story.”

Anna-Christina Cabrales Sommelier
Credit: Instagram.com / Anna-Christina Cabrales

To make sure she’s always discovering new wines during the pandemic, Cabrales takes a hands-off approach, letting her friends, and the occasional sommelier, choose wines for her. “I want to learn something new, and my friends know what I like,” Cabrales says, adding that her friends often tease her for being “difficult.” However, Cabrales believes that wine should be a judgement-free zone. “If it tastes great and you like it, then great. Knowing what you like is half the battle, and just to gain more interest and love into this world is what I want.”

When picking wines, Cabrales looks for “pretty, elegant, balanced” bottles with “minerality and florality,” and she did the same for the 12 bottles below. Cabrales felt it extremely important to fill this case with wines she actually enjoys drinking. As her wine list at Morell contained at least 100 wines by the glass, Cabrales has had the chance to taste nearly every bottle on this list, and she stands by her choices. “These are all wines that I would drink myself,” she says. “If I’m preaching it, I need to be able to drink it. And I can say without a shadow of doubt, I would easily enjoy these bottles.”

Bisol Crede Prosecco Superiore 2017 ($22.99)

Bisol Crede Prosecco Superiore 2017 is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Bisol is an Italian winery which specializes in Prosecco. Made in the high hills of Valdobbiadene, Bisol offers Proseccos that are sustainable and rich in character. “In a saturated market where most consumers treat almost all Prosecco the same, I love that Bisol doesn’t forgo details in farming and does everything possible to produce a beautiful quality sparkling wine,” Cabrales says “First off, it’s a vintage Prosecco, already showing that Bisol pays attention to the conditions of each vintage versus creating something to formula. The aim is balance and showcasing the beauty of the fruit from its vineyards. This bottling is a blend of Prosecco (Glera), Veradiso, and Pino Bianco from the steep of Bisol’s vineyards in Valdobbiadene. These varietals perform well on these clay-laden soils which have a marine sandstone subsoil known as ‘crede’ (hence the name), which, even during the most arid of seasons, provides beautiful acidity, fruitiness, and florality. And for those Prosecco sticklers that are dying to know, the wine is balanced at 11.5 percent alcohol, RS [residual sugar] of 7.5 grams per liter and TA [total acidity] of 5.5 grams per liter. You could blend this into a Mimosa, but it should really be treated as a wine to be enjoyed on its own.”

Bodegas Naveran Brut Cava 2018 ($17.99)

Bodegas Naveran Brut Cava is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Naveran, a vineyard located 30 miles outside Barcelona, specializes in all things Cava. This well-balanced wine was grown in clay loam soil and fermented in stainless steel tanks. “Well-made Cava, especially by Michel Gillieron Parellada (yes, that’s their family’s grape), still remains — at least in my mind — a great secret for quality to value under $30. Can’t afford Champagne today? No problem!” Cabrales says. “Get to know great Cava! The history of this estate goes far back, to 1901. The estate has now expanded to 272 acres in Torrelavit, a sub-region within Penedes. All grapes are estate-grown and tended to meticulously. The wine is a blend of 50 percent Xarello, 30 percent Macabeo, and 20 percent Parellada — and to really achieve greater depth, the blend spends 18 months on lees post-fermentation. This is so easy to pair with nutty cheeses and fattier cuts of charcuterie, but I really enjoy this with seafood paella and langoustines. Hungry yet?”

Scarpetta Timido Brut Rosé ($19.99)

Scarpetta Timido Brut Rosé is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Located in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy, Scarpetta pays homage to the Italian lifestyle. This sparkling rosé is made with old vine Pinot Nero grapes sourced from the foothills of the Friulian Dolomites. “Produced by Bobby Stucky MS, this wine is designed to be almost more ‘gulpable’ than Prosecco,” Cabrales says. “I like to say I’m serving ‘pretty pink’ as it’s this gorgeous light pink color. The wine is made of 100 percent Pinot Nero, but I love their description: ‘If we could, we would call this a lovely Prosecco Rosé, but for now let’s call it delicious’ which it absolutely is. The mousse is so gentle in the mouth, and you’re immediately delighted by red berries, creaminess, and a light salinic finish. I could easily greet friends with a glass of this upon their arrival and know that it will set such a fun mood.”

Caves Sao Joao Sao Joao Rosé Bruto 2019 ($19.99)

Caves Sao Joao is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Located in Dao, Portugal, Caves Sao Joao has been family-owned and operated for almost 100 years. This smooth yet acidic sparkling rosé was aged in steel vats. “This can get confusing, as there are a few brands here that over time have become ubiquitous: Frei Joao from Bairrada, Porta dos Cavaliers from the Dao, and what we’re featuring now — Caves S. Joao, which highlights Bairrada and Dao. They’re all great, by the way, so give them a try. The estate is known for its still wines, but I think its sparkling wines are absolutely delicious. The grapes grow on clay limestone soils and coupled with cool breezes, provide such an ideal situation for the preservation of fruit and acidity of the local varietals found in this blend. The wine is made of 40 percent Baga (one of my faves!), 40 percent Touriga Nacional, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It appears deep pink in hue, round in texture and is incredibly energetic. The Baga provides all the bright red fruit characteristics; Touriga Nacional adds rose petal tones, and the Cabernet Sauvignon adds a little more depth and a touch of herbaceousness. Pass me a bowl of cheesy arancinis, a glass or three of this, and I’m a happy camper.”

Ninth Island Sparkling ($24.99)

Ninth Island Sparkling is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Ninth Island Winery in Tasmania, Australia, produces grapes in the Pipers River Region. This wine was fermented twice and aged for over a year before its release. “Don’t sleep on Tasmania! The region is producing rivaling Chardonnay and other Champagne varietals! Unlike Champagne, the soil type here is basalt-derived and features ferrosol (volcanic) soils, also known as kranzozems, resulting in fruit that is bright, precise, and delicate. This sparkling is a non-vintage blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier from very old vines made in classic Champenoise méthode. A great wine to explore and get you thinking about the potential of other sparkling regions.”

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2016 ($34.99)

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Schramsberg Vineyard, located in the North Coast of California, is known for being the first winery to use Chardonnay in American sparkling wine. This Blanc de Blancs is made with Chardonnay grapes and was malolactic- and barrel-fermented for added complexity. “Hands down, one of my top domestic sparkling producers that grow and source great fruit. The style is always crisp and fresh. While the Chardonnay clearly identifies as bright, New World fruit, they add batches of malolactic- and barrel- fermented juice to add depth of toasted almonds, hazelnut brioche, green apple to frame the tones of bright ripe lemons, fresh ginger, and white stone. An absolute treat to enjoy now, but I think those that decide to put a few bottles or even a case away will be thoroughly rewarded.”

Von Winning Spatburgunder Rosé 2019 ($19.99)

Von Winning Rosé is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Von Winning winery, located in Pfalz, Germany, is best known for its Rieslings. This rosé is made from Pinot Noir and is barrel- fermented. “Not every rosé has to come from Provence. Try Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Germany or Blauburgunder in Austria. Located in the Pfalz, the Von Winning winery (formerly known as the Dr. Deinhard Estate) is known for such brilliant Rieslings, but also creates a very tasty rosé. The Spatburgunder is grown on 25-year-old vines on a mixture of sandstone, limestone, loess, and clay. The fruit in this rosé is lush and ripe — ripe strawberries, watermelon, sour cherries, blood orange, and brine with some savory qualities.”

Tania et Vincent Carême Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc 2019 ($15.99)

Tania et Vincent Careme Terre Brulee Chenin Blanc is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Terre Brûlée is a fairly new winery in the Cape winelands, founded in 2013 by Vincent Carême of Domaine Vincent Carême in the Loire Valley. This Chenin Blanc was grown in granite soil in a Mediterranean climate, giving the wine a light, buttery feel. The Carême family, originally from Vouvray, France, took their winemaking practices down to South Africa, and is making quality wines down there, Cabrales says. “I think it’s really cool when you have winemakers explore different parts of the world, and adapting to that space. And I very much find that they create amazing, elegant expressions. I just love how they’re not afraid to also show an elegant or opulent side of Chenin Blanc. They know how to express the grape from vintage to vintage. And I tend to pair this, again, with the langoustine-type dishes or a lighter style of risotto. For this one in particular: Seafood squid ink pasta.”

Domaine de la Pépière La Pepie Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2019 ($16.99)

Domaine de la Pepie Muscadet is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Domaine de la Pépière, located in Maisdon-sur-Sèvre, France, takes a minimalist and biodynamic approach to winemaking. This Muscadet was grown in dry, granite-based soil, allowing for early ripening. “Muscadet, otherwise known as Melon de Bourgogne, is always of such great value and an ace in any sommelier’s pocket if a guest doesn’t want to spend too much. This varietal oftentimes tries to mimic Chardonnay from Chablis, providing high acidity and minerality, but you have to search for a producer who can give you complexity and depth. Domaine de la Pépière is one of the premier estates in Muscadet that delivers. This winery is all about minimal intervention in the vineyards and even in the winemaking process. You always get fruit that is transparent, delicious, and energetic. Pair with anything shellfish or a dish you’d normally squeeze a ton of lemons on, and this is the wine you’ll want to enjoy with it.”

Domaine de la Janasse Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2019 ($19.99)

Domaine de la Janasse is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Founded by Aimé Sabon in 1973, Domaine de la Janasse is a family-owned winery based in Courthézon, France. “One of my favorite Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers that makes wines enjoyable in their youth and exceptionally rewarding with age,” Cabrales says. “The Sabon family makes this CDR Blanc from a plot right outside of La Crau in CDP, with Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Viognier, and Roussanne on sandy soils and fermented and aged in tanks with some battonage. This is one incredibly seductive wine, with a price tag that I do not understand whatsoever. Stock up on a few bottles of this to enjoy during the summer to go along with anything that grows in your garden, and later on, enjoy with all the roasted and caramelized tones during the Thanksgiving/holiday season.”

Jaboulet Côtes du Rhône Parallèle 45 Rouge 2017 (13.99)

Jaboulet Cotes du Rhone is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Owned by the Frey family since 2006, Jaboulet practices organic and sustainable farming. This well-balanced wine is a blend of predominantly Syrah and Grenache grapes. “Another amazing value for a wine that for quite some time wasn’t always favored. Since Caroline Frey took over Paul Jaboulet in 2006, all of the vineyards have been converted to biodynamics, and the fruit is really coming around. This includes their CDR, which has improved tremendously, but I suppose it’s an uphill battle to create believers again. Till then, this is a rocking steal, and I’m happy to support well-made wine, no matter the cost.”

Turley Juvenile Zinfandel 2018 ($27.99)

Turley Juvenile Zinfandel is one of the 12 best wines from Wine.com

Turley Wine Cellars is a Paso Robles-based winery making 47 different wines using grapes from 50 different vineyards. The winery is best known for its Petite Syrahs and Zinfandels. Though most of Turley’s wines are single-vineyard, this Zinfandel is composed of grapes from 18 different vineyards all across California. “I think we all need to forget our scary moments with white Zinfandel and realize the beauty behind what real Zinfandel can do. Coming from young vines from 29 different vineyards within California, ‘Juvenile’ is a vibrant and spicy, fruit-forward, luscious wine packed with the power of Paso Robles. Given a slight decant and served at cellar temperature, pair with anything you’ve been grilling, from vegetables to various game meats.”

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