Wine: 'Stealth labels' offer some real steals

By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 1:28 PM

Ever hear of Rubus winery? That's because it doesn't exist. Rubus is a label created last year by Winchester-based importer-distributor Fran Kysela to sell surplus wine he'd been able to buy from contacts in California. Under the new label, he sells a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon for $20, plus a Russian River chardonnay and a Lodi zinfandel for about $13.

"Given the economy, the opportunity existed to source excess wine that can no longer be sold at $50 to $150 a bottle," Kysela told me in an e-mail. "This excess will not remain forever, but is a good one-time opportunity for the consumer."

Cameron Hughes is another name that has been turning up on wine labels, first at Costco and increasingly at other retail stores. Hughes is a broker who buys surplus wine from high-end wineries and sells them under his name at a steep discount. Although the wineries typically are not selling off their best juice, these bottles can be very good values for the price.

Steve Long, proprietor of Out of Site Wines in Vienna, calls them "stealth labels" and says they offer surprising value. "They have a non-disclosure agreement, but this is probably a $75 cabernet," Long says of the Rubus $20 offering.

Kysela, Hughes and others are following the age-old tradition of the negociant, who buys wines from growers and bottles them under a house label. We've come to associate quality with estate-produced rather than negociant wines, but today's economy is challenging that thinking.

If you are willing to spend $20 or more on a bottle of wine, now is an exciting time to visit your specialty wine retailer. Through personal connections with distributors, importers and winemakers, stores can search out deals created by the poor economy as excess supply and depressed demand create downward pressure on prices.

Wines that have been sold primarily or exclusively to restaurants are sometimes showing up at retail as restaurants cut back on their purchases. Cakebread's cabernets and the high-end chardonnays from Chateau Montelena and Calera are examples of that trend. Some rare wines once sold primarily via mailing lists - Silver Oak, Turley and Pax, for example - now are more widely available.

When Paul Tilch of Silesia Liquors in Fort Washington tasted the Cameron Hughes Lot 115 Chardonnay from Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, he thought the wine bore "an eerie familiarity" to a popular bottling from Sonoma Cutrer that he sells for several dollars more. With non-disclosure agreements, such identifications might depend on the intuition of the retailer and a nod or wink from a sales rep.

"Wineries have had to get creative, work a little harder and adjust margins, just like everybody else," Tilch says. "Adapting to the market is nothing new."

Some retailers have been able to take advantage of the economy to create their own labels. Phil Bernstein of MacArthur Beverages in the District said he will soon be selling a cabernet sauvignon custom-blended for the store by Napa vintner Sean Larkin from surplus fruit. Larkin's wines typically sell for $60, but the store blend - a mere 50 cases - will retail for $30.

Bernstein said the slow economy has helped keep prices steady on imported wines despite exchange rate fluctuations. He pointed to champagne and German Riesling as two categories where bargain hunters should thrive this holiday season.

"Many wines are undervalued for their quality," Bernstein says. "The superb 2009 vintage of German Riesling is just hitting the market, and prices have remained very stable."

So visit a specialty wine retailer with an open mind for unfamiliar labels and unexpected bargains. And when those retailers say, "This tastes just like . . .," they might be on to something.

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