Playing Second Fiddle

I’m happy to splurge for wines with steeper price tags if I’m having guests over for dinner or it’s a special occasion. But the majority of my wine buying habit falls into the “Tuesday night” category: bottles that are ready to drink at $20 or under.

Luckily, that category is constantly expanding. Famed European wine regions have long embraced the idea of second-tier designations—Rosso di Montalcino to Brunello, Montefalco Rosso to Sagrantino, Ipirnia to Aglianico’s Taurasi.

But more and more, I’m looking to California, where some of my favorite producers are releasing their own versions of table wine to round out their portfolios. Steve Matthiasson, who was just named Winemaker of the Year by San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne, recently released his second vintage of Tendu, a one-liter crown-capped bottle of a zippy Vermentino-Cortese-Arneis blend, meant for immediate gratification at only $19. Meanwhile Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. fame offers a red table wine under the moniker Sherman & Hooker Shebang!. A majority of the fruit came from vines with at least 90 years of age, but the bottle barely breaks the $10 tag.

One of my favorite second labels comes from the team behind Sonoma’s Peay Vineyards. Brothers Andy and Nick Peay and winemaker Vanessa Wong release a Pinot Noir and a rosé under the label Cep—the latter has become my go-to summertime bottle.

Sometimes second is indeed the best.