As much as we may preach the merits of frugality and value, it does feel nice to indulge a little from time to time. There’s a reason why people pay big bucks for a personal massage, or a great pair of shoes: The difference only becomes evident once you experience it for yourself. There’s no forgetting, once you’ve tried the best.

Such is the case for wine, too. There are just some, that are clearly a notch above. You don’t have to be a trained Sommelier, a collector, or even have visited Napa Valley to recognize this when you taste it. You feel it at a visceral level. You catch yourself smiling, without really knowing why!

This subject is a timely one, as the holidays are upon us; so often we find ourselves searching for a quick, easy gift that manages to still feel, really special. Need something for your boss? Or maybe something to take to a holiday dinner party? Perhaps you’re planning a quiet night in with your loved ones. You can almost never go wrong with a bottle of premium wine.

And before you assume these wines are out of your price range, they’re actually quite reasonable for what they deliver. Everything listed below is under $50, in some cases, below $30.

Great wine starts in the vineyard - Image from Washington Wine Institute

First. What makes a great wine, great?

Grapes, just harvested at Baer Winery

There are many aspects to making a wine, but any wine maker will tell you, it always starts in the vineyards. Some locations just produce better fruit than others: They benefit from better sun exposure, better water drainage, or maybe the grapevines themselves are just naturally superior.

How the wine maker makes his or her wine, is the second-most important factor in the process. Their handling of the wine, from harvesting to bottling, will determine the character and quality of a wine. This includes hand-picking, slow fermenting, oak aging, careful blending of wines, and bottle-aging too. This type of labor doesn’t typically happen in the production of value-oriented wines.

The winemaking process is quite complicated. But to put it more simply, think of wine, as a luxury car. You can feel the quality from top to bottom. From the stitching on the leather seats, to the real-wood trim, you get a sense that a lot of care and time went into making this. It’s all about better quality materials, more care, and more labor.

Featured Winery #1: Baer Cellars

Located in Woodinville, Washington, Baer was founded in 2000 by Lance Baer. After working for some of the area’s best wineries, Lance decided to create his own line of fine wines. The winery gets its grapes from 16 acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley, some of the best in the region (Stillwater Vineyard) and produces only 40K bottles of wine a year (that’s small for a winery). There’s a definite emphasis on quality over quantity here. The aim is to make French Bordeaux-style and Burgundy-style wines, often with lots of barrel aging (almost 2 years). The wines consistently collect awards from top experts and magazines (see below).

Baer Winery's Erica Orr, Lisa Baer and Les Baer
Guardian Cellars' Jennifer and Jerry Riener

Featured Winery #2: Guardian Cellars

Another Woodinville-based family operation, Guardian gets its name from owner and winemaker, Jerry Riener, who also happens to be a Seattle cop. While studying at the police academy, he did side jobs at local wineries and fell in love with the craft. Together Jerry and his wife, Jennifer run the operation. Like Baer winery, Guardian sources its grapes from the best growers around Washington state to create big, bold French-style reds with lots of oak aging. Jerry has a personal policy of aging all of his reds in barrel for at least one year, but up to two, before bottling. You can imagine how much power and structure these wines must have! With tongue-in-cheek names like Gun Metal, Alibi and the Informant, the wines are pretty serious stuff, while not taking themselves too seriously: Much like Jerry himself!

The Wines

Baer Arctos Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 – $39.99
90 points, Wine Enthusiast

Locate/Buy Arctos at PA Fine Wine, Good Spirits Stores >>

Predominantly made from the “King” of all grapes, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, with a touch of Petit Verdot (for color and aroma) and Merlot (for smoothness). This is a big wine, with 22 months in French Oak barrels and a whopping 15% alcohol by volume.

Why it’s amazing
From the first sip, the main vibe here is “dark” – black plum, black currant, black olive tapenade, all very classic Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon descriptors. A depth of rich black plum and cherry, lifted by pretty violet. It is punctuated with herbaceous licorice, bay leaf, and savory cigar box. Seamless and silky on the palate, with fine tannins.

How to enjoy Arctos
A wine this dark and brooding would be great with duck confit and blueberry balsamic. All of those dark berry flavors are a perfect parallel to the blueberry, and of course, the oak smokiness partners with the crispy duck skin. Balsamic and rich umami flavors abound in both the wine and the duck confit. Pure heaven!

Baer Star Merlot Columbia Valley 2014 – $34.99
91 Points Wine Spectator

Locate/Buy Star at PA Fine Wine, Good Spirits Stores >>

Merlot is known for its rich, smooth and silky feel, and this wine doesn’t disappoint. There’s a touch of Cabernet Franc in here to add some complexity and a characteristic herbal quality.

Why it’s amazing
The word “savory” comes to mind with the first sip of Star. Fresh cherry and raspberry are tempered with notes of cocoa, cola, and a bite of clove. This wine is medium bodied with plush tannins. Delicate, fresh and firm red fruit character from the Merlot blends nicely with the floral and savory herb notes from the more structured Cabernet Franc.

How to enjoy Star
A wine like this has many layers of flavor, from fruity to savory, to herbal: All of which would go nicely with roasted meat or vegetable dishes. Anything that marries well with herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme, would partner well with this wine. First thought would be a pot roast, but an oven-roasted chicken or turkey wouldn’t be too shabby either.

Baer Ursa 2014 – $42.99
91 points Wine Enthusiast
90 points Wine Spectator

Locate/Buy Ursa at PA Fine Wine, Good Spirits Stores >>

Ursa is the flagship of the winery – Lance Baer founded Baer winery with the Ursa blend, back in 2000. It is equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Franc with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. And, another big hitter, at 14.5% alcohol.

Why it’s amazing
The aromas of Ursa are brooding, with notes of oak-barrel spice, coffee, blackberry, green pepper and dried herb. The flavors are bright and fresh, light on their feet, showing a fine sense of elegance and detail. (from wine reviewer, Sean Sullivan)

How to enjoy Ursa
Bold reds are typically tannic, and tannic wines are best matched with strong proteins. All of the flavors mentioned above would be a perfect complement to a grilled Angus steak with tangy rosemary butter, but of course, if you’re not into meats, a grilled Portobello with shaved Grana Padana and thyme could do the trick.

Guardian Chalk Line 2016 – $26.99

Locate/Buy Chalk Line at PA Fine Wine, Good Spirits Stores >>

This red blend is 42% Cabernet, 28% Syrah, 28% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol makes this a big, rich and age-worthy wine. Although good now, this vintage can stay in the cellar for years and only get better. 

Why it’s amazing:
Right from the beginning this wine screams out wild blackberry and plum jam. These dark fruit notes are soon joined by the sweet notes of vanilla latte and roasted coffee along with some black pepper spice. The mouth-feel is dense, lengthy and generous.

How to best enjoy Chalk Line:
Because there are so many different layers of complexity in this wine, from berries to vanilla to pepper… you’d want a dish that is also layered in a similar way. The first thing that comes to mind for me, is Greek Moussaka, a lasagna-like casserole that has exotic spices like allspice and cinnamon, often made with a game meat like lamb. A sweet and savory dish like that, would take this wine to another level altogether.

Guardian Gun Metal 2015 – $39.99

Locate/Buy Gun Metal at PA Fine Wine, Good Spirits Stores >>

A blend of 48% Cabernet, 48% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot from Columbia Valley, Gun Metal was aged 20 months on 65% new French oak. With that much time in barrel, you can expect lots of oak, spice and earthy notes in the glass. 14.5% alcohol makes for a heavy wine.

Why it’s amazing:
This wine features notes of black cherry, vanilla bean, cedar, black olive, licorice and a hint of leather. A very unique stack of fruit and spice flavors and sensations in one glass.

How to best enjoy Gun Metal:
With a wine this funky, I’d focus in on the interesting secondary notes of olives, licorice and leather. I’m thinking umami/savory deliciousness, with a dish that features sausages and black olives. I’d make a simple pasta ragu using tomato, sweet Italian sausage and olives, and top with Parmagiano/Reggiano.

Guardian The Informant 2015 – $29.99

Locate/Buy The Informant at PA Fine Wine, Good Spirits Stores >>

This is classic Syrah wine, with a little oomph. It’s a blend of 97% Syrah with 3% Viognier, a white grape often added in for a little floral fragrance. This velvety and lush wine was aged 18 months on French oak. With only 350 cases (4,200 bottles) this is a very limited production wine and worth seeking out.

Why it’s awesome:
This is one serious wine with tons of weight in the mouth. It’s thick and unctuous. Chock full of notes of blueberry, white pepper and tar (yes, tar). Given enough time in the bottle, that tar character will mellow out and start to take shape as wet earth and meaty notes (think lamb or goat meat). That’s one FUNKY wine.

How to best enjoy the Informant:
Another funky wine calls for a funky partner at the table. Think grilled game meats, with a bit more of a powerful flavor: Goat, lamb, venison, duck, organ meats, liver, etc. I’d personally pair this up with some grilled Lamb chops and mint. The mint may seem counterintuitive, but strangely it’s a great flavor with red wines, particularly, Syrah.

Some Luxuries are Within Reach!

Now that you’ve spent some time learning about these premium wines, they’re not so intimidating, now are they? Nor are they as expensive, or out of reach as one would assume. At Deschere’s we try as best as possible to make it easy and fun to everyone to embrace wine. We hope you’ll reach out to us with any questions, and of course, give some of these great wines a try now. 

Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Wine Pairing Can Be Cool!

No, like, really cool. Just as much as I love watching the seasons change, I also enjoy the range of moods and flavors that seem to go along with seasonal wine choices, too. Wine doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and you certainly don’t have to follow anyone’s rules. Just chill up a bottle or two and follow your instincts.

That being said, I hope these suggestions will bring you tons of pleasure this season, and feel free to reach out to me to share your thoughts and ideas, too!

– Marc Supsic, DWS
The Rebel Sommelier / Wine Living
More great wine & food tips on Marc’s YouTube channel