Napa Valley, Napa value

The return from Candyland never leaves me unmarked. Fresh back from Napa, I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the exchange – wine country for home, Calistoga to Conshohocken. For the initiated, it requires little explanation. The scale of the Valley is just plain grand, the colors invigorating and life simply more lively in the land of grapes.

Napa grapes

Nevertheless and up front, beyond the write-ups I’m preparing for my Examiner site, I bear fresh first impressions from my latest Northern Cali wine experience and a notice to travelers heading west: There are values to be plucked from the Valley floor.

Fall is an excellent time to visit Napa. Wine tourists and local residents seem to vibrate with vigor, stoked by the autumnal hues, sky blues and lavender dust in the wind.

Yet, just beneath the surface, there’s a low-simmering malaise, a lingering hangover from the sagging economy. Listen and you’ll pick up on it, subtly embedded in conversations with winemakers and tasting room employees. Discretionary cash deficits and flagging consumer perceptions have amounted to shaky sales year over year, overstock and painful mark-downs for producers. Top off with a challenging growing season or two – 2010 and the present vintage with its late rains – and the backroom handwringing makes a lot of sense.

The valley floor

A drive through the Valley confirms the trend. Banners hawking wine sales and the slightly camouflaged “case sale” are sure giveaways. I spotted this at Cosentino, for one, which went belly up last year and was subsequently purchased.

The good news is this means bolstered control for the consumer. All the more reason to be selective with your vacation dollars, especially when it comes to wine sampling. Some market-sensitive tasting rooms, like Flora Springs and The Hess Collection currently, offer two-for-one pricing on tastings. It’s not wholly uncommon to sidestep costs altogether through by-appointment visits (Smith-Madrone, Burgess), and retailers often serve up gratis sips.

Many wineries will convert their overstock in more discreet ways – namely via third party retail outlets. Valley explorers who have the luxury of time can lean on word of mouth and tasting notes before combing nearby stores like Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) or Calistoga’s Wine Garage for competitive pricing. At the latter, also producer of its own quality juice, I uncovered a cache of 2005 Petit Sirah from the dependable Madrigal Vineyards. Situated merely minutes away on Route 29, Madrigal would be unlikely to match the retailer’s price let alone its ’05 inventory.

Wine Garage Cab

For those with heightened self control and patience, multi-vineyard immersion can yield a wish list to keep in pocket while plundering the online e-tailer trove upon returning home. Sites like WTSO and Lot 18 release a stream of reduced price selections from the Valley and beyond.

Another option is the PA Chairman’s Selection program, currently offering marked down bottles of Bell, Bennett Lane, Beringer, Copain, Ehlers Estate, Gary Farrell, Husic, Merryvale and others.

The picking is prime in Napa. With perseverance and a smidge of research, the Cali-bound wine consumer can harvest vintage valuables without breaching the billfold.

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