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Originally published February 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 1, 2009 at 6:46 AM

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Wine Adviser

Good wine at a good price, that's the standard of value in these tough times

In tough times, even the grandest of wines is getting caught in the cost crunch, but plenty of wineries are finding the ways to offer both good wine and good value. Washington state's Milbrandt Vineyards, which has the advantage of growing its own grapes, is one such winery.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Milbrandt Vineyards 2006 Traditions Merlot; $15

This outstanding blend offers smooth berry and cherry fruits, spice, tobacco, licorice and smoke, folded into a lush and chocolaty finish.

Just a few weeks ago, I came across a startling offer. A young Burgundy was being advertised for the jaw-dropping price of $8,500. Granted, this was the Romanée Conti from the Domaine Romanée Conti — by general acclaim the greatest Burgundy in the world. To acquire a single bottle, you often must purchase a mixed case of DRC wines (recent case price online was $55,288); the limited opportunities to do so are doled out to gravy-train riders around the globe.

In this instance the vintage happened to be 2005, which the punditerati have declared the vintage of the century (out of six so far). Still, the price seemed incredible. So I trotted down to a local retailer to confirm what I had read. Could any standard 750 ml-size bottle of young wine possibly be sold at such a price in these distressed times? Oh, yes, my retailer friend assured me. In fact, he said, he'd sold the same wine a few months ago for considerably more than $8,500. And even that was considered a bargain, because the wine had gone at auction for more than $15,000 a bottle — plus buyer's commission, of course.

I report this cautionary tale not to discourage you from grubbing up every bottle of bargain DRC you can find, but more in the spirit of misery loves company. We're all looking for wine bargains, and even the mightiest prices have fallen!

Many perfectly fine Washington wines are gathering dust on shelves and in warehouses because consumers consider the price too high. Winemakers are rarely trying to gouge anyone; most little boutiques are simply scraping by. The wine cost this much to make, the argument goes, and to keep the business afloat it must sell for a bit more. My response is always the same. Yes, but . . . The consumer doesn't care what your costs are. The consumer looks around at all the wines and buys the one that appears to offer comparable quality for less dough.

A big part of the cost of wine is the price paid to grape growers. Prestige vineyards charge premium prices, and the wineries follow suit. But if the grower is making the wines, and happens to be a grower with a lot of really good fruit, wouldn't that result in considerable savings?

Brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt planted their first grapes in 1997, and now farm almost 1,600 acres, mostly red grapes in the Wahluke Slope. More than 40 wineries purchase Milbrandt grapes, but some of the best blocks are reserved for their own Milbrandt Vineyards label.

"We can get our grapes turned into wine for less money than smaller producers that buy on the open market," Butch says. "Another advantage is we have lots to choose from, up to 15 different blocks of any given varietal, to come up with the best possible flavor profile."

Milbrandt's winemaker is Gordy Hill, a well-traveled veteran of the Washington wine scene (previously winemaker at Northstar). Two tiers of wines are offered: the Estates wines (previously labeled Legacy) are priced between $20 and $25; several are sold only at the spiffy new tasting room opened last spring in the North Prosser Business Park.

More widely available are the Traditions wines, priced at $13 for the whites and $15 for the reds.

These wines are among a small number of truly compelling Washington red wines priced at $15 or less. If splurge today means going for that $15 bottle, these are the wines to reach for.

Among the current Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions releases are a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, dense and dark, ripe and compact, with layers of black fruits, black smoke, black tea and black olives. The 2006 Syrah includes a bit of grenache and petite sirah as well; it's solid and generous, laced with vanilla/tobacco flavors. There is also a fresh, clean, citrusy 2007 Pinot Gris.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries — the Essential Guide." He is also Pacific Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Contact him at paulgwine@me.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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