Second City

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Bartenders and economists alike notice a drop in spending as holiday credit card bills arrive&emdash;a January hangover, if you will. Are you, too, resolving to tighten your budget as you work away at your bills? I’ve got a little secret for you: Consider the merits of second label wines, lower-priced brands from established wineries.

The only purpose to a second label, a Bordeaux merchant told me at a recent tasting, is to make the first wine better. Traditionally, a second label improves the main brand by providing a job for grapes that aren’t qualified for the first wine. You see, at harvest, the winery brings in different loads of grapes, ferments them and sizes up the resulting batches of wine. Only a few, like those going into a vineyard-designated wine, have job security. All the others have to go through some trial runs in the lab, and only some are hired on for the final blend.

The fit of the wine to the desired style is as important as objective quality. A taut wine with zingy acidity is a shoo-in for a high-energy waitress job, but hasn’t a chance when the employer is Hooters and looking for something on the full-bodied side.

When it is time to blend, age and bottle, the winery chooses the barrel lots that match the flagship brand. Then they take what’s left (or the best of what’s left) and blend it for the second label. Leftover wine not used in either brand usually is sold on the bulk market. Some wineries may even buy additional wine on the bulk market to fill out their second-label blend.

Second-label wines aren’t necessarily second-best. When done right, they perform their jobs with aplomb. In fact, workhorse second labels can taste even better upon release than the executive-in-training wines, which are shunted off to expensive French-oak-paneled offices and not expected to perform for a few years. Waiting to serve at a moment’s notice, quality second labels are increasingly finished with Stelvin screwcaps, ready to twist open on a Tuesday night. Their tannins are soft and their flavors are friendly for serving en masse at parties and weddings, or at casual tables  for two.

Elaine’s Picks: Seven Seconds Here are seven second-label wines that are first-rate:

• 2005 A by Acacia Chardonnay California
(Cost Plus World Market, Beverages & More, $10)
A longtime grower and vintner in the cool climate of Carneros, Acacia draws from beyond its fogbank estate for the second label, delivering great-value Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Made by: Acacia Winery, Napa Valley
Step up: 2005 Acacia Chardonnay Winery Lake Vineyard ($24)

• 2005 Riff Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie
(Beverages & More, $10)
Refreshing Riff PG undergoes the same sur lie maturation in stainless-steel tanks as the higher-end version from a single vineyard.
Made by: Alois Lageder, a fourth-generation winery in the village of Margrè in northwest Italy
Step up: 2003 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio Benefizium Porer Alto Adige ($17)

• 2003 Velo Red Wine Rogue Valley

(velocitycellars.com, $18)
Three vineyards grow to winemaker Gus Janeway’s specifications, but he’ll use only the best of those lots for his flagship red blend, Velocity. The leftovers go to the Velo blend, which is ripe and rich for instant gratification. Only 401 cases made.
Made by: Velocity Cellars, Meford, Ore.
Step up: 2003 Velocity Cellars Velocity Rogue Valley ($30)

• 2004 Post Scriptum de Chryseia Douro
(Corti Brothers, $24)
This mouth-filling dry red blend&emdash;40 percent Touriga Nacional, 40 percent Touriga Franca, 20 percent Tinta Roriz&emdash;is made from the same grapes used in Port.
Made by: A partnership between consulting winemaker Bruno Prats (Cos d’Estornel, Bordeaux) and Charles Symington (Port powerhouse Symington Family Estates)
Step up: 2003 Chryseia Douro DOC ($60)

• 2005 tangent Pinot Gris Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard
(Beyond Napa, Dolce Vino, $17)
Not really a second wine, they say, but a tangential project designed to showcase crisp, unoaked white wines from the owners’ vineyards in the Edna Valley. Suddenly, I love geometry.
Made by: Baileyana Vineyards, San Luis Obispo
Step up: 2004 Baileyana Grand Firepeak Cuve Pinot Noir Edna Valley ($38)

• 2004 Nelms Road Merlot Columbia Valley

(woodwardcanyon.com, $20)
This cuve of 76 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 percent Syrah is an affordable ambassador for what Washington does best: Bordeaux varietal blends.
Made by: Woodward Canyon, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
Step up: Woodward Canyon Merlot Columbia Valley ($40)

• 2006 Crios Torronts Salta
(Nugget Markets, Corti Brothers, Whole Foods Market, $14)
This fruity, floral white wine was grown in the Cafayate vineyards of Salta, Argentina, at elevations of 5,000 to 6,000 feet.
Made by: Veteran Argentine winemaker Susana Balbo, who devised the Crios brand for vineyards that were too young or otherwise not up to the standards of her more expensive eponymous brand. Nevertheless, she chose the word Crios, meaning offspring or children, with the intention to nurture these babies to their full potential.
Step up: 2004 Susana Balbo Malbec Mendoza ($29)

Wine Trivia Contest

>>  What whimsical second label, featuring a large bird on the bottle, was so successful after only three years on the market that the winery sold the brand for millions of dollars about a year ago?

E-mail your answer to wine@sacmag.com by Jan. 15. The winner will receive an insulated wine tote. Make sure to include your name, address and telephone number. The winner will be selected by random drawing from all the correct responses.

We’ve got a winner! In November, we asked:
Which African nation claims to be home to the world’s earliest viticulture? The correct answer: Egypt. The winner, Allison Rudig of Roseville, received a wine bottle coaster.