Lots of local winemakers at the top of their game, who are making prestige wine at prestige prices, are also producing more affordable wines on what?s known as a second, or sister, label.

Think of it as a friendly way in, akin to ordering a few things off the menu at a top restaurant rather than the seven-course meal. It?s the scrimmage before the match, the EP before the LP, the everyday bottle not the one for Saturday night.

It could be a blend of different vineyards, appellations or vintages rather than a single vineyard designation, or maybe a lesser known varietal that?s more affordable for them to play with. Or, these second-label wines may be aged for less time in less oak, another way to keep costs low.

The savings ultimately get passed on to you. That means it?s never been a better time to love drinking wine, especially once you know your options.

Here are some local ones worth knowing.


Napa architectural gem Darioush Estate has been earning rave reviews for its fine juice over the years, ripe, fruit-forward cabernets made in the classic Napa mold. Its Signature Cab is the finest of the fine, made from cooler climate estate vineyards in southern Napa Valley and atop Mount Veeder, where the grapes hang peacefully, taking on elements of earth and spice. But Darioush also offers Caravan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), another estate-grown wine with approachable fruit, a soft, round mid-palate and lingering, spicy finish. 257-2345, www.darioush.com.


The Duckhorn estate-grown merlot is a fine example of the estate?s best Rector Creek, Stout, Monitor Ledge and Patzimaro vineyards? fruit, aged entirely in new oak, with smatterings of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc blended in for good measure. But the classic Napa Valley winery also produces a lower-priced red, one worthy of its heritage. The 2007 Decoy Napa Valley Red ($30) is a blend of 43 percent cabernet sauvignon, 43 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc and 4 percent petit verdot aged not entirely in new oak. (866) 367-9945, www.duckhornvineyards.com.


Made from estate grapes, the 2006 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is Spottswoode?s awesome good-to-know secret. Its second line of wines is typically blended from the various lots of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that don?t make it into the elegantly elite Spottswoode bottlings. But they?re still exceptionally good ? farmed from the family?s organic vineyards, though often from younger vines. Winemaker and vineyard manager Jennifer Williams doesn?t age the Lindenhurst for as long as she?ll age the Spottswoode, so the wines tend to be fruitier. But they?re still made with finesse, to be enjoyed early and often. 963-0134, www.spottswoode.com.


Winemaker Andy Smith, who has his own highly regarded Sonoma County pinot noir brand, DuMol, crafts Larkmead?s finest bottlings, from its ?Firebelle? blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other Bordeaux varietals to its top-of-the-line LMV Salon, a very limited release, cab-driven bottling. The 2005 cab/syrah blend made under the Meadowlark Cellars? label is also made by Smith from 100 percent Larkmead estate-grown fruit, with 73 percent cabernet and 27 percent syrah, aged in new American oak ($35). 942-0167, www.larkmead.com.


Pinot producers Adam and Dianna Lee of Siduri began Novy (Dianna?s family name) as a way to make things other than pinot noir, notably syrah, zinfandel and grenache. The wines are as divine as one would expect from this highly sought-after producer. They?re still mostly small-production wines from very fine vineyards (Susan?s, Carlisle, Rosella?s, Keefer and more) and are priced to overcome any resistance to temptation, usually around $20. 578-3882, www.novyfamilywines.com.


Opus One, the esteemed Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon partnership originally conceived by Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, quietly also makes a wine called Overture, sold only in the tasting room and officially non-vintage. It typically is priced somewhere between $40 and $80, easily less than half the going rate for anything with the name Opus One and yet, still astoundingly delicious. Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 7900 St. Helena Highway, 944-9442, www.opusonewinery.com.


James MacPhail works with some amazing Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley vineyards to source fruit for his delicious MacPhail Family wines ? the 500 or so-case Pratt Vineyard being a favorite. But a little-known secret is that MacPhail?s also the winemaker behind Sequana Vineyards, a new pinot noir project developed by the lofty, Napa Valley-based, cabernet-focused Hess Collection, for which MacPhail was specifically tapped. The 2007 Sarmento Vineyard Pinot Noir ($32) from Santa Lucia Highlands is a particularly good deal for an impressive wine, made from sustainably farmed grapes in small, open-topped tanks. No phone, www.sequanavineyards.com.


Slingshot is a brother-sister team project in the still wild, almost untouched Pope Valley region of the Napa Valley. James and Caroline Stewart?s parents, Michael and Anne, own a pricier Napa-based brand named Stewart Cellars, for whom winemaker Paul Hobbs consults. The family also owns Juliana Vineyard, from which the younger Stewarts have sourced for their great new, incredibly priced Slingshot Wines. Currently out are a 2006 Slingshot Cabernet ($20-$23) and 2008 Slingshot Sauvignon Blanc ($14-$16). The winemaker is Steve Test. Both wines are insanely good ? juicy, just enough fruit, and not too much oak or other distractions, ultimately very drinkable. What?s more, they?re kindly priced, particularly given their Napa pedigree. 501-8378, www.slingshotwines.com.

Tous Ensemble

As one of the preeminent syrah producers in America, Wells Guthrie?s Copain vineyard-designated wines can be hard to find and pricy for everyday drinking. But a new line of non-vineyard designated wines were unveiled earlier this year, with 2007 the first vintage. Tous Ensemble, or ?All Together,? are blends from some of the best vineyards Copain works with in particular appellations, all of them organically farmed. Try the Tous Ensemble Mendocino County Syrah ($20) first. 836-8822, www.copainwines.com.

Turn 4

Randy Lynch, owner of Bennett Lane Winery in Calistoga, has just launched Turn 4, a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($19.99) named for the most exciting turn on the Nascar track. Lynch is also owner of Lynch Racing, a Nascar West racing team. Winemaker Rob Hunter sources grapes from vineyards near Bennett Lane using neutral oak to keep the wine at its very affordable price. The result is a quaffer, with velvety tannins, bright cherry and black fruit and a nice finish. 942-6684, www.bennettlane.com.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com or visit wineabout.pressdemocrat.com.