One of the hottest wineries to emerge from Washington over the past few years has been Secret Squirrel. The appeal of its playful label—which prominently features a squirrel dressed for an Eyes Wide Shut–themed party—is obvious. Less well known is why the juice inside the bottle is so outstanding, especially with pricing in the $20 range. As it happens, all the Secret Squirrel wines are made by the team behind Walla Walla–based Corliss Estates and sister winery Tranche Cellars, with much of the fruit sourced from the same vineyards that provide fruit for the $50–$100 mothership labels. For those of us seeking value in our wine-drinking endeavors, sussing out these “second,” or “alternate,” labels from Washington’s leading wineries is an excellent strategy.
The alt-label notion has its roots in Bordeaux, where there is evidence from as early as the late 1800s that some of the finer châteaus were producing a “second wine,” which allowed winemakers to be more selective about which barrels made the top-tier wine. In Washington, one of the earliest wineries to adopt the idea was Walla Walla stalwart Pepper Bridge Winery, when it launched Amavi Cellars in 2001. Eric McKibben, a partner in both labels, recalls that “people loved the Pepper Bridge wines but couldn’t pick up the price tag, and asked if we could make a less expensive wine.” That was part of the impetus behind Amavi, whose Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $30 (compared to Pepper Bridge Cab, $60). McKibben and his partners also used Amavi to explore varietals (such as Syrah and Sémillon) that didn’t fit under the Cab- and Merlot-focused Pepper Bridge label.
More recently, alternate labels have emerged for other reasons. Trey Busch, co-owner and winemaker at Sleight of Hand Cellars (Walla Walla), tapped into his deep connections across the Washington winemaking scene to launch Renegade Wine Company in 2009, recognizing that the Great Recession would lead to opportunities, as wineries with cash-flow challenges looked to unload well-made finished wine and unfinished juice for well below typical market price. The 2016 vintage saw Andrew Will Winery jump into the alt-label game, launching a single wine under the Involuntary Commitment label ($20). Director of operations Will Camarda says the winery has maxed out how much it can process for the Andrew Will label in its Vashon Island facility. “[Involuntary Commitment] is a great wine at a price point that is more accessible to a wider audience,” he says.
That is the hoped-for fringe benefit of many second labels: That these more accessibly priced bottles will serve as gateway wines for the flagship labels, through which we consumers will pass as our careers advance and our incomes rise. Maybe it’s true, maybe we’ll all be tech millionaires someday. But in the meantime, we can continue to enjoy filet mignon at hamburger prices.
Paul's Alt-Label Picks
2018 Renegade Wine Company Rosé ($12)
This Syrah-driven rosé has moved to the top of the value rosé list for many Washington wine lovers, winning the Best Rosé category of this magazine’s annual wine awards multiple times. The new bottling keeps the same formula, offering brisk acidity to match fleshy pink fruit. This is mouthwatering and built for summertime.
Pairs With: A cobb salad with double lardons.
2017 Corvidae Wine Company Mirth Chardonnay ($12)
Corvidae is an alt label for Wapato-based Owen Roe winery, and Mirth is winemaker David O’Reilly’s wonderful, fruit-driven, value Chardonnay. Many $15 Chards are oak-chipped into oblivion; this one instead charms with its unfussy apple and peach fruit.
Pairs With: Seared scallops with a blood orange beurre blanc.
2016 Amavi Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)
This Cab (which also includes small amounts of Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) comes from six different vineyards across the Walla Walla Valley, which speaks to winemaker Jean-François Pellet’s deep roots in the valley. While it possesses some of the structure (robust tannin, in particular) that is the calling card of Pepper Bridge Cab, Amavi’s Cabernet also contains loads of delicious up-front fruit, all black currant and black plum goodness.
Pairs With: A beef brisket sandwich, with pan drippings for dipping.
2016 Les Trouvés Red ($20)
Les Trouvés is a second label for Woodinville-based Avennia, and winemaker Chris Peterson blends some Avennia-vinified fruit with juice purchased from select partners. This Rhône blend—56 percent Grenache, 29 percent Syrah, 15 percent Mourvèdre—is a fine introduction to Peterson’s house style, which is insistently elegant and does not shy from the non-fruit side of red wine. Notes both savory and mineral abound, beautifully complementing a core of red berry fruit.
Pairs With: Robustly flavored sockeye salmon, pan-seared and served atop wilted pea vines.
2015 Parabellum Alluvio ($55)
Parabellum wines are the closest things we have to the classic “second wines” of Bordeaux. Paul McBride, owner of Woodinville’s Force Majeure winery, notes that “when it comes time to blend, we blend for the optimal quality for our flagship estate wines.” Those flagship wines top out at $100, whereas with Parabellum, we get what McBride calls “a terroir-driven wine, impeccably made for about half the cost of the flagship lineup.” A blend of 54 percent Cabernet Franc, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Merlot and 6 percent Petit Verdot, this wine conveys the twinned power and grace that make Washington wine lovers so excited about Red Mountain.
Pairs With: Oxtails braised in red wine and a pile of fresh herbs.