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Second helping 

Are second-label wines second rate?

If you've ever heard wine-swilling folks refer to "second-label wines," you may have wondered just what the hell they were talking about. Were they referring to bottles that sport two labels instead of just one? OK, I know you don't think that, but the term could use some clarifying all the same. Let's say Winery X has lots of extra Chardonnay grapes that aren't quite good enough to go into its $30-a-bottle wine. Rather than sell those lesser grapes off to another producer, Winery X creates a secondary (or second-label) brand called "Y" that sells for only $10. This allows the winery's primary brand to maintain its quality standards, while providing an affordable alternative to Winery X fans who can't/won't pony up for the $30 bottle.

Second-label wines aren't always made from the winery's own grapes, but the idea is the same. While quality and rarity may be the buzzwords for a winery's top-tier brand, availability and value are the selling points of second-label wines.

There are some who say second-label vinos aren't worth drinking, but I say those chumps are missing out. Just because a wine isn't as good as Opus One, that doesn't make it Mad Dog 20/20. Some excellent wineries are producing delicious second-label wines -- and they're crafted by the same winemakers who make the hoity-toity stuff.

Not everyone can afford to fork over $120 for a bottle of Joseph Phelps Insignia (myself included), but we can still experience the winemaker's considerable talents by picking up a bottle of Pastiche for 12 bucks. And those who love Stag's Leap Cabernets can get a taste of the winery's fame by handing over just $10.99 for the its Hawk Crest brand. Some other quality second-label brands include Napa Ridge (Beringer), Avila (Laetitia), Reds (Laurel Glen), Amberhill (Raymond) and Bel Arbor (Fetzer).

Just check out the following selections and you'll see that second label wines deserve a second look.

Recommended

Avila 2000 Pinot Noir ($11) : It's tough to find a drinkable Pinot in the $10 range, but this one from Laetitia more than qualifies. Made in a light-bodied style, the wine has spicy berry aromas and fruity raspberry flavors. Just right with grilled salmon.

Pastiche 2000 Red Table Wine ($11.99) : Also from Joseph Phelps Vineyards, this spicy Rhone-style red has light raspberry aromas and berry/cherry flavors. Light-bodied, fruity and yummy.

Pastiche 2000 White Table Wine ($11.99) : This Rhone-style white from Joseph Phelps Vineyards has floral, tropical aromas and rich-but-refreshing flavors. A tasty match for spicy Chinese or Thai food.

Avila 2000 Chardonnay ($11) : Made by the folks at Laetitia in California's Central Coast region, this Chard is made only from the winery's estate-grown grapes. (That means they didn't buy any lower-grade grapes from other growers.) It smells like tropical fruit and tastes like green apple, with a touch of oak. Refreshing and balanced.

REDS 2000 Red Table Wine ($8.99) : Made by Laurel Glen winery, Reds is an easy-drinkin' blend of Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Carignan, Syrah and Petite Syrah. Soft and smooth with lots of fruit, this juicy wine is one of my favorite bargain reds.

Amberhill 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) : Made by Napa Valley's Raymond winery, the Amberhill Cabernet beat out a lot of super-pricey Cabs in a blind tasting at the San Francisco International Wine Competition a couple of years ago. It's smooth, fruity and medium-bodied, with spiced cherry and plum flavors. A great value. Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com.

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