Bygone Bargains

These may not be available anymore, but...

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     Following are wines that merited "Better than  Bargain" status in the past.

     DISCLAIMER: The vintages reviewed below may not be on the shelves anymore and I can't guarantee that the current releases will be as good. But reputation still counts for something -- and who knows? You may find one of these lurking in a sale bin. 

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RED ROUNDUP IN COWBOY COUNTRY (September 6, 2002) On vacation in Wyoming, we entertained friends with a blind tasting of some favorite affordable reds, all purchased locally. We had a swell time, but the results would have been a lot better if the wines had been given a chance to survive by America's out-of-date, 3-tier distribution system. In this wine rodeo, your chances of roping a pristine bottle are pretty slim. For example:

In previous tastings, the Argentina version of Patrick Campbell’s 2000 Terra Rosa has pleased me mightily, and it was going for just $10.50 at a local shop in Cody, Wyoming. Unfortunately, this particular bottle is showing unexpectedly wimpy. Cooked flavors finger the culprit -- heat damage. Summer temps in the Big Horn Basin often rise about 90 and I’m told the warehouse trucks are not cooled, so it’s all too easy to visualize how this happened.

Same deal for Patrick’s $9.50 2000 Reds. Tasted at other times, it’s been dandy, but this bottle must have given up the ghost somewhere in its torture-trek to our table. Not much left but the alcohol.

I don’t detect heat damage on the usually-amazing 2000 Falesco Vitiano, but this one’s corked just enough to obliterate the flavors. Some folks profess to like it a little better, as the sheer size of the wine struggles against the TCA taint. I gnash my teeth. To think I paid $13 for this faded flower.

Finally, happily, wonderfully, *+Marietta Old Vine Red Lot 29 delivers all I was hoping for from the other duds, and then some. Either this fruit-bomb received gentler handling or you just can’t kill it. Berries galore and a lip-smacking finish, all for under $10. Yee-hah!

SHARPEN YOUR PENCILS, CALIFORNIA (August 15, 2002) Shell-shocked by prices for California Cabs, this soldier peeped out of his foxhole today -- and hallelujah, here come the French. The first of the 2000 Bordeaux vintage is landing at local stores, and while the heavy artillery is priced out of sight, there's value aplenty from the foot soldiers.

     Today's case in point is *+2000 Château Mirambeau-Papin. Comes on like a mini Cos D'Estournel, with coffee bean, cocoa and lots of cassis flavors. A trace of green bean intrudes with some airing, but if you drink this pup young, you won't notice. Lotta value here for $12.99.

HOT NIGHT, SPANISH WHITE (June 1, 2002) A sultry evening out on the patio provides a perfect showcase  for *+2000 Lagar de Cervera Albarino Rias Baixas. A passel of nice Albarinos have hit the market this spring, but this is the classiest I've tasted so far. The peachy aromas are sexy even outdoors in the breeze. Take a sip and it's quality quaffing, with flavors of honeydew melon, silky texture and a very nice finish. Decent acidity helps in the heat. Served with seafood pate, it seems even better.  

DECENT CAL CABS UNDER $12...(May 2, 2002) are getting scarcer than chickens with lips, but I'm sipping one now that's worth clucking about. *-2000 Dreyer Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon "Sonoma County" features flavors of very ripe red currants, gussied up in perceptible (but pardonable) oak. The texture is silky, the body's not bad and I'm not going to squawk about a little dill on the finish. Drank half a bottle last night and tonight the second half's just as good. If you like Silver Oak or St. Francis, see if you can find some of this for just $11.50.


ZIN LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS (March 6, 2002) Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen just released his first 100% Zinfandel and it's smiles all the way -- lush, juicy, fruit-charged and nicely affordable. *+1999 !ZaZin offers up pure black cherry and raspberry flavors, finishes well and betrays no heat from its 15% alcohol. I got it for under $16 locally, which is what I used to pay back when I used to consider California Zin a great value. Thanks for bringing back the good old days, Patrick.

JACKPOT! (March 2, 2002) I count myself lucky if I taste one compelling new bargain in a typical week, but this week ten appeared before me on very the same evening. All from Spain, all distributed on the East Coast by Tempranillo, Inc., and all just delicious:

*-Marques de Gelida NV Brut. Fruity and friendly, with a mild sort of mousse, this isn't the usual, bone-dry kind of Cava that makes you feel like you've sucked a lemon. Think of a well-bred Moscato with extra kick. Weighing in at 11.5% alcohol, this should be very pleasant summer fare and you can pour it at parties with nary at flinch for only $7.99. Excellent with marinated olives and other wine-challenging tapas.


*-1999 Vega Sindoa Chardonnay won't make you forget Marcassin, but it sure beats most California Chardonnays under $10. The French oak is frank but won't turn off seasoned Chard-junkies like my own Best Beloved. With air, things come into balance just fine and you're left with a Beringer taste-alike for about half the price. There seems to be plenty around for $8.99

*-2000 Martivilli Rueda Verdejo was compared by one taster to a good California Sauvignon Blanc minus the grass, and I think that's about right. Honeydew melon with a squirt of grapefruit and not a trace of veggie. Decent acidity, good viscosity, nice clean aftertaste. What's not to like for $5.99?

REDS (in rough order of seriousness):

*2000 Campo de Borja Borsao. Fragrant and juicy, this Garnacha-Tempranillo blend delivers a gush of fresh raspberry and plum flavors. Nice palate presence, finishes well and just $5.99! I first tasted this five months ago. It's not for the cellar, but should remain swell drinking for the remainder of the year.

*+Venta Mazzaron Tinta de Toro is shamelessly forward Tempranillo in a fun, drink-me-now style. Ripe red fruit, soft texture, good follow-through, start-to-finish yum. For $8.99, here's proof that once in a while life really can be a bowl of cherries.

*++1998 Partal Bullas. If you don't mind Silver Oak Cabs, this Tempranillo should float your boat fine. With cherry, chocolate and coconut notes, you can surely taste the American oak, but the result is so round and well-balanced, most folks won't mind a bit. The $14.99 price tag doesn't hurt either.

*+2000 ViZa Alarba Old Vines Grenache plays to those who go for super-ripe Zins or Amarones. You'll either dig the depth or complain that it's too pruney. Ultra-ripe and almost raisiny, it needs about half an hour in the glass to collect itself, but then the raspberries pop up and it's smiles all the way. For $7.99, you can afford to smile often.

**- -1998 Sierra Cantabria "Cuvée Especiale" gets my vote for STEAL OF THE EVENING. The pure, focused blackberry flavors really ring my chimes, plus there's plenty of depth and some structure for short-term (like maybe 3 years) cellaring. Gorgeous juice that can stave off your Cal Cab Jones for a phenomenally reasonable $9.99.

*-1999 Vega Sindoa Merlot suffers only in comparison to the above. With scads of soft, sweet fruit, the wine reveals a touch of weediness on the finish, but its so sanely priced at $8.99, who's gonna complain?

*++2000 Tresantos Vinos de la Tierra is promisingly dark and fulfills expectations with big, deep cherry and blackcurrant fruit. This 100% Tempranillo is very close in appeal to the Sierra Cantabria, above -- close in price too at $11.99 -- and some may prefer its slightly more structured style.

CAB RELIEF. (January 29, 2002) Argentina's economy may be a mess, but their wine scene continues to thrill me. *-2000 Susannah Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon "Crios" offers up a passel of pleasures for a mere $11.99. The color's dark, concentration is pretty darned good and the ultra-ripe fruit is fairly complex, with flavors of cassis, prune and bitter chocolate. This is their bargain basement offering. Can't wait to taste the Reserve!

RED WINE BARGAIN OF THE YEAR 2001 (December 9, 2001) It's a shoo-in -- such a great bargain that I made up the award just because of this wine. With its rich flavors, plush texture and classy finish, **-2000 Falesco Vitiano is just what us sticker-shocked California Cab fans have been longing for. Made in the Umbria region of Italy from classic Bordeaux varietals (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon), it goes for under ten bucks (I got it for about $8!) and lots was produced, so go get yourself some. Worth a bit of a trip to find, but shouldn't take much effort if you're in a wine-friendly state.

DART TO THE HEART (October 31, 2001) Kurt Darting reliably scores with Riesling and the *+1998 Kurt Darting Forster Schepfenflug a.d. Wstr. Huxelrebe Auslese hits the bull's-eye for just under $16. Medium gold and laden with penetrating apricot and pineapple flavors, it's plenty sweet, but balanced so beautifully you can drink it just about anytime. We trotted it out as an aperitif, then polished off the bottle over a meal of vegetarian chili. Yes, chili! Worked great. Now if these Germans could just work a little on making the names easier to remember...

SPANISH STEAL #2 (October 14, 2001) Just when I thought I'd tasted the sexiest red that money can buy for under $6 (see below), along comes its beautiful sister.

     After tasting *2000 Bodegas Nekeas "Vega Sindoa" (Navarra), I could hardly believe I'd bought it for $5.71. It's got bee-oo-ti-ful red cherry flavors with nary a fault from attack to finish. You might mistake it for a very good California Cab, but the label says it's 70% Tempranillo and 30% Merlot. Another sensational Spanish selection from Jorge OrdoZez.

     Better than the Borja Borsao? I just can't make up my mind. But the nice thing about wine is that no one's going to mind if you fall in love with both. 

BEST RED I'VE TASTED ALL YEAR UNDER $6 (October 7, 2001) Yes, I said six, not sixteen! The price tag made me wonder if *+2000 Campo de Borja Borsao could be serious wine, but this Borsao is wow. Very aromatic, with loads of ripe red cherry flavors, nice palate presence and even a very good finish. Made from Garnacha and Tempranillo, it tastes as if there may have been some whole berry fermentation going on. Don't expect it to age, but if you want lots of fun in the year ahead, find yourself a case. 

HEINZ 57 (September 30, 2001) Unfamiliar grapes and blends can often give you more bang for the buck, and that's surely the case with *+1998 Antipodean Barossa. The label on this Australian tongue-twister is not awfully inviting, proudly informing you that you're purchasing 50% MourvPdre, 34% Touriga, 9% Grenache and 7% Shiraz.

     But just smile, pay the $12.99 and pretend you're getting a bargain Chateauneuf du Pape, because that's what it tastes like. With soft, yummy strawberry flavors shaded by mint, spice and bramble-fruit, it's thickly textured and finishes well. Drink now.

ARGENTINA COULDN'T BE KEENER (September 26, 2001)...when it comes to price/quality, delivering a Cab-Malbec blend for something like (gasp!) $7.99. The *--2000 Septima isn't for laying down, but right now it's a perfect weeknight quaff. Cherry-scented, soft on the palate with a spicy (and quite decent) finish.

TRY A VACQUEYRAS (August 31, 2001) This village on the Côtes-du-Rhône has only been an official appellation for about a decade and is not exactly famous. Even many wine-geeks don't know what they've stumbled on when they see a bottle. This works nicely for you in the case of *++1999 Domaine des Amourier Vacqueyras, a little-known bargain imported by Robert Kacher.

     If you like Gigondas or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this deep purple youngster's a shoo-in. Vacqueyras can be made from quite a few different grapes, but it's a good bet this one is mostly Grenache and Syrah. The cassis and blueberry flavors are focused and downright mouthwatering. There's depth to this baby too -- all for $15.99 if you shop hard.

WOW, I COULD HAVE HAD A SPÄTLESE. (August 12, 2001) I've been tasting through a fair amount of current-release German Riesling this summer. If you're put off by the jawbreaker labels, join the club and let me hand you my sneaky little secret. Just learn the names of a few reliable producers like Kurt Darting, Muller-Catoir, Willi Haag...or easier still, look on the back and see if Terry Theise imported it. Then consider your need. If dinner or aperitif, you generally can't go wrong with a sweetish-but-not-too-sweet Spätlese.

     Or, if you actually don't mind writing down 53-character names, do look out for *++1998 Willi Haag Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese. For around $16, you get an intensely aromatic wine, offering up a blast of minerals, shaded by pineapple and a little citrus.

WEIRDLY WONDERFUL (July 8, 2001) The South of Italy continues to pump out some of this summer's best values, as witnessed by an odd duck of a bottle we opened last night.

    It's *+1997 Marco Maci Salenti "Sire," imported by Heritage International, and the first weird thing you notice is the extra-tall, super-skinny bottle.

     Then you look for the vintage. Is there one at all? Hmm. Yes, here it is buried in the extra-fine print, way down in the nether regions of the back label.

     Now for the region -- not weird, but unknown to most Americans, Salento is way down in the heel of Italy's boot.

     Even the grape sends you scooting to reference books. Negroamare may be the sixth most plentiful grape in Italy, but it's not exactly a household word over here.

     But the wine itself is a real crowd-pleaser. Brimming with red cherry and earth flavors, it tastes rather like a fine, ripe Sangiovese. At $15.99, I like it a lot.

NEW LOIRE BARGAINS. (June 24, 2001) At a barbecue yesterday, we tasted a bunch of Loire beauties, including some that are winsomely findable and affordable:

*+Cuvée de la Chevalerie Saumur Brut (Non-Vintage). Here’s exhibit "A" in the case for Loire sparklers. It’s a little denser and fruitier than most Champagnes, but the acidity keeps it from cloying and it finishes pretty well too. For $10, you can’t go wrong. Chill and serve with just about anything you feel like eating.

*+1999 Pascal Reverdy Sancerre "Cuvée Les Coftes." It’s got the floral aromas of Sauvignon Blanc at its best, with pear and gooseberry flavors, and a long finish. Acid levels won’t punish your ulcers but give it enough bite to make for fine summer drinking. Super with salad, squid, octopus, shrimp, lobster or lighter varieties of fish. This bottle cost all of $16.06, so forgive me if I cheat a little and call it a Better than Bargain

*1999 Patient Cottat Pouilly Fumé "Domaine des Berthiers." Although I find it not quite the equal of the Reverdy Sancerre, some folks I know might like it more. The fruit flavors are shaded by honey notes and the texture is a bit more slippery. Just a tad simpler and shorter, but a little showier. A veritable bargain at $15.99.

CALIFORNIA CUTIES. (June 10, 2001) Maybe it's time I stopped grousing about the high cost of California wines. Napa Valley pricing may be mostly unreal, but I've run into some nice surprises elsewhere:

The best news this week comes from *+1999 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel. Even alongside the much more expensive **1998 Turley Pringle Vineyard Zin, this Seghesio stuff needs no apologies. It's straight-down-the-middle Sonoma Zin, brimming with brambly blackberry flavors, possessed of a nice thick texture and finishing well. At $13.99, you can't miss.

It's a been a long time since any wine from Chalone rowed my boat, but their sister label is another story. *1999 Echelon Central Coast Pinot Noir delivers lots of ultra-ripe red cherry fruit for just $12.99. It gets a little kinky on the finish, with some beet-like flavors, but all in all it works well. Drink soon. This wine is all about young fruit.

I've been stung so many times by expensive California Merlot, that I don't often try lower price levels. But *1999 Trellis Sonoma County Merlot was practically forced on me by a trusted retailer and whaddya know? It's a go. Ripe, juicy, currant-packed wine that's well-priced at $15.99. Don't expect it to age, but you'll be happy in the months ahead. (Second time tasted with the same results.)

YES, BARGAINS FROM PENNSYLVANIA. (June 3, 2001) I sometimes forget that America's East Coast producers are no strangers to quality and value. With California prices over the moon, these discoveries are sweeter still:

*-1999 Chaddsford Pennsylvania "Proprietors Reserve Red." There aren't too many hybrid grapes that do it for me, but when Chambourcin is handled well, it works. This one's a big winner for $10.99—medium ruby and light-bodied, with lots of soft, ripe raspberry fruit and hints of cinnamon toast on the finish. This and subsequent reds we tasted were happily lacking in the sharp bell pepper notes that often mark East coast reds. Drink now while the young fruit is strutting its stuff. At the price, you can do so often.

*-1999 Chaddsford Pennsylvania Cabernet/Chambourcin. If you're cocking at eyebrow at the blend, well, so did I. At first sip, I'm tempted to wonder if the more structured Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are simply covering up the juicy Chambourcin. But then the wine opens and tada—this too is a charmer. Flavors veer over to cherries and strawberries. At a slightly higher $14.99, it's still a value.

AND THE SOUTH ROCKS ON. (May 13, 2001) South of France, that is. The '98s and '99s continue to roll into my local stores and it's tough to make mistakes with these juicy vintages. If you like well-stuffed reds, you don't have to spend much for a mighty fine evening with:

*-1999 Domaine les Grands Bois Côtes du Rhône. Importer Weygandt-Metzler rarely hits a clinker -- just look for the name on the back of the bottle and prepare to feel smart. This selection will set you back a mere $9.99 and for that you get a deep ruby wine with delicious, ripe cherry flavors, some mint and no veggies. Fine back-porch drinking with burgers or barbecue.

Better still is *+1998 Patrick Le Sec Pic Saint Loup "Tonneaux." This is a negotiante blend, but don't let the lack of pedigree daunt you. For only $10.99, you're buying a purple palate-stainer that would be decent value at twice the price. It's thick and satisfying on the palate, offering up pools of pomegranate and strawberry, shaded by mint and a hint of toast.

POTENT PORT FOR A PITTANCE. (February 27, 2001) I must credit fellow wine wonk Mark Squires for putting me onto an incredible buy in Late Bottled Vintage Port. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular category of wine -- well, think of it as a kinder, gentler version of Vintage Port. Anyhow, **1994 Rozés LBV Port is pretty darned close to a fine vintage Port for a jaw-dropping $10 -- repeat, $10 -- per bottle. Yes, the producer is not among the superstars, but for a mere two fins you can afford to be a sport and chance it. You will discover a deep purple youngster, loaded with black cherry and cassis flavor. Takes about an hour to open, so you may even want to decant.

SEASON'S BEST BUY IN PINOT NOIR? (February 24, 2001) *1999 Steven Ross Central Coast Pinot Noir is medium ruby with lots of seductive red cherry flavors -- and absolutely none of the cola and vegetal notes can be so annoying in Central Coast Pinot. At $15 a bottle, it may not be Burgundy, but I'm thinking of buying a case.

DON'T GET TRIPPED UP BY THE APPELLATION. (February 17, 2001) All you need to know is that it's somewhere on the Rhône and a deal. *+1998 Domaine de la Charbonnerie hails from Vacqueyras (pronounced Va-KAY-rahs), a Rhône appellation that only became official in 1990. But like so many other better-known 1998 Rhônes, it's big, hearty, meaty delight. Could easily hold its own against higher-priced Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For $15.99, you'll have very a nice evening indeed.

BEST $7.99 RED I'VE TASTED THIS YEAR. (February 17, 2001) Perhaps it won't surprise you to hear that it's from the Languedoc. But you may be surprised at how much quality $7.99 can buy in these days of wineflation. *-1999 Domaine de la Brune Coteaux de Languedoc is a purple-hued, raspberry-scented cutie. It's mostly Syrah, but the pure fruit flavors that may remind you a little of young Pinot Noir. Seems a little dilute on the finish, but otherwise satisfies mightily. Doesn't fade, either. I left a half-consumed bottle in the fridge for two days and came back to find it delightful. That's a good sign.

RHÔNE TO PHONE HOME ABOUT. (February 4, 2001) Here's one more 1998 Côtes du Rhône to add to your list of big black bargains. *+1998 Denis Alary Cairanne "La Font d'Estèvenas" delivers a load of juicy blackberry flavors, heavily laced with pepper, Provencal herb and mint. Imported by Weygandt-Metzler it drinks well now and I have to guess it will hold up for at least 5 more years. At $16, what have you got to lose?

WELL, I'LL BE...(January 22, 2001) I've been critical of BV in the past for underperforming its heritage. Maybe things are turning around. *+1997 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley is a terrific buy. Dark ruby with pleasing aromas of black cherry and acceptable levels of dusty tannin. At just $14.99, it's what the not-as-good $65 Caymus Napa should cost.

MERLOT OF THE YEAR? (December 10, 2000) Every vintage of Falesco Merlot has been on my "Better than Bargains" list since the superb 1997. The great news is that **-1999 Falesco Merlot may be their best yet -- and it's still a mere $14.99. To get dark, concentrated Merlot of this quality from California or Pomerol, you'd have to pay $50 or more. It's got lots chocolatey fruit and a very good finish. The oak is a little too prominent now, but should fall into balance with  a year or two more in the cellar. (Yes, this $14.99 wine really could use some cellaring!)


BLUE LIGHT SPECIAL. (November 5, 2000) I reviewed *1997 Taft Street Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County below and pronounced it a fine buy at $12.50. Now I'm seeing it for $9.99. If you love California Cab and hate to pay more than $10 -- this is the only ten-buck-Cal-Cab I've tasted this year that's worth bothering with. Ask your local wine merchant if it's available. 

HONORARY BARGAIN (October 14, 2000) Okay, I'm cheating. Can't help it. My cut-off for "Better than Bargains" is $15.99, but for a buck or two more, this is a Brunello in all but name. In fact, *++1998 Livio Sassetti Pertimali Rosso di Montalcino could put quite a few full-fledged Brunello di Montalcinos to shame. Deep dark ruby with ample structure, it gives you the dried cherry flavors you expect in a good Sangiovese, then throws in walnuts, cedar and other goodies too. I wouldn't be surprised if it aged well for five years or more, but I'm drinking mine young. I can't help it.

GET TO KNOW ALSACE (August 22, 2000) Like whites? You just gotta love Alsace.

     Year in, year out, it's your easiest white wine bet in the whole wide world. The labels are easy to read, the wines aren't hard to understand and the region's best producers are fairly easy to find. And even if you're saying "yes, yes, I know" to all the above, here's one that maybe you haven't yet tried, for an easy $11.50...

     *1998 Albert Mann Pinot Auxerrois. Light gold. Brimming with pineapple and lychee flavors. Fairly soft as Alsace whites go, but crisp enough to marry well with seafood, salad or whatever. Not the most complex juice in the world, but offers a lot of fruit for your money. Drink it over the next 6 months while it's still young and lively.

CÔTES DU RHÔNE TO MOAN FOR (August 22, 2000) "Côtes du Rhône" is usually a safe answer for someone seeking affordable reds. But I'm getting the feeling it's going to be downright irresistible over the coming months, as the 1998 vintage hits the shelves.

    In particular, as the name suggests, *+1998 Henri De Lanzac "Clos de L'Hermitage" Côtes du Rhône could pass for a much more expensive wine. Deep purple, grapey and peppery, it doesn't have bacon-fat nuances, but otherwise the flavors are classic Northern Rhône. Seems to me like it will age well, too. Just about $16.

CHECK OUT THIS CHINON (August 10, 2000) Red wines from the Loire just keep getting better -- and better still, the prices don't yet have a Bordeaux accent. Among current offerings, I especially like *+1996 Vignoble Gasnier Chinon "Cuvée Prestige." It's a dark, silky-textured wine with pretty floral aromas.

     You can taste some herbal flavors that remind you this is Cabernet Franc. But after some airing, these are overwhelmed by cassis and strawberry. The wine holds up well through the course of an evening, it's got reasonable depth and a sound finish. What's not to like? Good stuff any Bordeaux-lover should enjoy, at a Loire price.

1999 BURGUNDY TEASER. (August 8, 2000) I keep hearing that 1999 will be a great year for red Burgundy. Is it true? Maybe so, if the wine I tasted tonight is any indication.

     It's only a generic blend, but the *+1999 Daniel Rion Bourgogne could outdo many Pinot Noirs with fancier labels. The color is a fairly dark ruby. Pour a glass and immediately you can smell tell-tale Burgundy notes of raspberry, minerals and sweat. Takes a good hour to open -- and it's actually better the second night, no mean feat for any Pinot. Best of all, at under $16, you can enjoy this just for fun.

YOU WANT CHEAP? (August 7, 2000) Usually, if you want to drink well, ten bucks a bottle is as good as it gets. But every once in a while, a genuine five-bucks-plus bargain hits the market.

     A whole bunch of these rarities have just hit local stores -- about six different good wines from France, all under $6, all imported by our friend Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections. Please understand, the earth is unlikely to move when you drink them, but you'll have a good time with some very nice juice for an amazingly small amount of cash.

     My personal favorite of the lot is 1998 Domaine Des Pomarèdes Vin Pays D'OC Merlot $5.49. The ripe, juicy fruit is this wine is so forward and raspberry-tinged, you'd scarcely know it's Merlot. It develops well for about an hour, then gradually starts to fade.

     I wouldn't cellar this wine for more than 6 months, and if you open a bottle, you'd be well advised to finish it off the same evening. But these are minor quibbles for a serious $6 Merlot!

ANOTHER BARBERA BARGAIN. (July 27, 2000) If you're looking for great deals in red wine and you haven't been trying the 1998 Barberas from Italy, rectify the mistake now -- by trying *+1998 Rivetti Barbera d'Asti La Spinetta "Ca' di Pian."

     It's deep purple and packed with juicy blueberry and currant flavors. Thick in texture, with acidity that makes it refreshing even on warm summer evenings. There was a time when you could buy Zinfandel as good as this for under sixteen bucks. Those days may be gone, but I'm happy with the alternative.

'99 IS MIGHTY FINE (July 19, 2000) for one of my favorite bargain reds. Just uncorked my first bottle of *+1999 La Carraia Sangiovese and ain't gonna find a sexier sweetheart this year for just $10.99.

      Bargain Sangiovese can be overly acidic, tannic and shallow, but this stuff is deep ruby, with ripe red cherry aromas and lots of soft fruit flavors in every sexy slurp.

     This is yet another example of how Italy is hitting the sweet spot these days for folks who love red wine but don't want to take out a home equity loan. If this is any indication of the 1999 vintage in Umbria, I can hardly wait for the flashier cuvées to hit the market.

PINK PASSION. (July 16, 2000) If you're looking for something tasty, stylish and cool for summer drinking, don't scorn rosé. Wine newbies often avoid it because it reminds them of White Zin, but that just means there's more for you at affordable prices. Lately I've liked:

*1997 Frederic Lornet "Arbois" Red Jura Wine. The label says red but the color says pink. It's a very light strawberry hue, with nice aromas and raspberry-leather flavors that remind me of Grenache and Bandol Rosé. However, the grape is Plousard -- a big, thin-skinned grape that apparently doesn't have much pigment. According to Jancis Robinson's handy Guide to Wine Grapes, this means they can leave the wine on skins for a week, and it still turns out pink. At $12-$13, it's a good deal as well as a nice departure from the expected.

*1999 Saintsbury Vin Gris of Pinot Noir Carneros. I used to love the Etude Vin Gris de Pinot Noir made by Tony Soter. Can't find it anymore, but this wine is nearly as good. Has a lovely Pinot Noir perfume and delicious strawberry flavors. Low in acidity, so I'd recommend chilling before serving. Don't remember the exact price, but it's under $15.99.

STILL A SUPER BARGAIN. (July 4, 2000) I first tasted *+1996 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon "Agrelo Vineyards" more than a year ago -- and recommended it here as a super bargain. Last week I read a rave of this wine by old friend Pierre Rovani, which got me wondering if it could still be on the market.

     Well, it is! It's going locally for about $15.99, which makes it one of the best buys in Cab today. And, as usual, Pierre knows a good thing when he tastes it. In fact, it seems even better with another year of bottle age.

     I benchmarked it alongside the outstanding **1997 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Ric Forman's wine is a classic -- with thick texture, lovely concentration, lots of pure and focused cassis flavor. Tannins are ample but supple. The finish is good, but could be longer.

     By comparison, the Catena features tart cherry and plum flavors. It's a tad more acidic and rustic. But all in all, quality is pretty darned close to the Napa Valley wine. And it's easy to forgive a few rough manners when you're paying about $30 less.

SCORE ONE MORE FOR OZ. (June 17, 2000) Ten bucks for an excellent Oz Shiraz used to be no big deal, but now I'm mighty happy when it happens. *1999 Paringa Shiraz "Individual Vineyard" has the weird kind of name you expect from Australia these days -- but remember it well! It's dark ruby, with aromas of blackstrap molasses and fresh, raw grapes. Give it a chance to air in the glass and it gets more civilized. This stuff is yummy! Worth buying a few for summer consumption and maybe one more just to see how it ages.

WHAT A KICK! (May 21, 2000) Remember how affordable California Zinfandel used to be? If you love the fruity flavors of Zin, but wince at the recent prices, here's a suggestion -- try Australian Grenache. It's juicy, meaty, goes well with food, and right now it's often less expensive than Zin for comparable quality.

     In particular, *Boots Grenache Barossa Valley "Size 98" offers quite a kick for $15.99. Medium ruby, it didn't impress me at first -- but over a couple of hours, it swells to something more impressive. Big strawberry flavors with a twist of black pepper in the background and a darned decent finish too.

     Plus, it seems immune to oxidation. I drank half the bottle, stuffed the cork back in the bottle and lost it in the fridge for five days. When I came across it again, I assumed it was spent -- but no! Better than ever.

BARBERA BEATS BOUTIQUE CAB. (May 6, 2000) Yum. The last vintage was luscious enough, but *+1998 Parusso Barbera D'Alba "Ornati" may be even better.

     Just for fun, we matched it up against a newcomer Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, the *1997 Spelletich. Nothing the matter with this stuff -- it's got intense flavors of cherry kirsch and jammy cassis, medium body and disappoints only on the finish. The winemaking seems to be decent; perhaps some crop-thinning might add oomph to subsequent vintages.

     But the Parusso pleases even more. It goes toe to toe with the Spelletich when it comes to delivering up-front flavor, and offers a little more complexity on the mid-palate. Finishes better too. At under $16 (about half the price of the Cabernet), this Barbera is a no-brainer.

BARGAIN BURGUNDY. (April 30, 2000) If you crave the grace of real Burgundy, but don't want to float a home equity loan, try *+1997 Domaine Robert Chevillon Bourgogne.

     Here’s a wine that’s both lovely tasting and light on its feet -- with flavors darting here and there just like good Burgundy is supposed to do. You taste strawberry, cherry and rhubarb, with some autumn-leaf and earthy aromas to keep things interesting.

     Ninety-seven Burgundy has been billed as a "drinkers vintage," meaning that it drinks well now, but probably isn’t for the ages. And that’s just fine for this pretty little generic Burg. At $15 a bottle, you could take home a case and make it your house pour over the next 6 months.

MONTELENA'S NEW MYSTERY WINE. (April 5, 2000) I'm pretty sure it's from Chateau Montelena. The label has a picture of the castle and a Calistoga address.

     In any case, *1997 Silverado Cellars Napa Valley Red Table Wine is very tasty stuff for just $12.50. Dark ruby, it's bursting with various berry flavors. The texture is fairly serious -- and it even delivers a pretty good finish.

     I just wish I knew what's in it. Grenache? Zinfandel? Syrah? Petite Sirah? Maybe even Cabernet? Maybe all the above and then some? Who knows, but I do know it's fun. Give it a quaff.

BEST CAL CAB FOR $12.50? (March 12, 2000)  Lo and behold, here’s a drink-me-now winner for a mere $12.50! *1997 Taft Street Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County is a juicy, ready-to-rip, good-time wine that begs to be quaffed and enjoyed. Plenty of delicious black cherry flavors in every sip, it’s ripe without being over the top and survives an overnight stay in the fridge without losing a beat. Comes up a little short, but hey, what do you want for the money? This gets my nod for a case-buy, provided you drink it up over the next couple of years.

AND ANOTHER ITALIAN! (February 26, 2000) This will be the last for a while, I promise. But the value just happens to be terrific for *1998 Parusso Dolcetto D’Alba "Pianni Noce." Last month I thumped the drum for a Dolcetto from Luigi Scavino. This is almost as good, and costs even less. Dark, more tannic than the Scavino, but still pretty juicy on the palate. Round cherry flavors that remind me of village Burgundy when it’s in a good mood.

     I had it with chicken. I expect it will also be very happy with fish and meatless dishes. If you want lovely red stuff for not a lot of money, don’t be stubborn. Do a Dolcetto!

CAB FOR A CASE BUY. (February 7, 2000) If wine consumers gave awards for quality at a sane price, Chris Bilbro of Marietta should be wearing a chest-full of medals. Truth be told, you can hardly go wrong buying any of his bottlings, but today I wish to single out *+1997 Marietta Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma.

     For about $16, California Cab just doesn’t get any better. In fact, I could name a few that sell for $50 that are worse. This is dark, structured stuff with a lot of honest depth to it. I squirreled a half-done bottle away in the fridge for three days, pulled it out, and it was still drinking beautifully.

     I opened my last 1991 Marietta Cab last year; it was going strong. If you’re looking for a case buy, this one’s a no-brainer.

GET USED TO SAYING "CHATEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE" (February 3, 2000)...if you want to drink well for reasonable money in the year ahead. That’s my prediction, anyhow, after tasting *+1998 Jean-Pierre Boisson Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Elisabeth Chambellan Vielles Vignes.

     This is the first ‘98 CNDP I’ve tasted and it pleases mightily. The wine delivers a lot of ripe cherry and raspberry flavors, shaded by roasted herbs. With airing, the fruit flavors broaden and sweeten, as the sage and rosemary fall back.

     To be sure, it’s a little dilute on the finish -- and the wine is so sediment-free, I have to wonder if it’s been over-processed. But for just about $16, I’m not complaining.

     Bring on the rest of the '98s, please. I can't wait!

TIME FOR DOLCETTO. (January 30, 2000) It’s hard to find something not to like about Dolcetto D'Alba these days. It’s red, it’s fruity, it's friendly to food. You can drink it with chicken, fish, steak or whatever. The vintages now on the market are very nice indeed. Best of all, prices are still fairly sane.

     This evening I’m sipping *+1998 Luigi Scavino Azelia Dolcetto d’Alba "Bricco Dell’Oriolo." It’s medium ruby with beautiful aromas of ripe red cherries and cranberries. Supple and downright juicy on the palate, with a very decent finish. What a mouthwatering wine for just $13.99! Won’t replace great Burgundy, but I repeat, what’s not to like?

     In the dark night of wine price inflation, here’s a flickering candle, if not a beacon. Enjoy it before it gutters out.

MAJESTIC MACON. It’s probably too late to find any more *+1996 Guillemot-Michel Macon-Clesé "Quintaine" on the shelves, but I’ll certainly be looking for the next vintage. Finally, here’s a French Chardonnay that can give Valette Macon-Chaintres Jeunes Vignes a run for its money. Aromas of mineral and lemon, excellent body and darned nice length. It was $12.99 at release. I’m hoping the new ones won’t be much more expensive.

TURKEY-WINE BARGAIN. (November 20, 1999) Turkey feasts can be tough on wines. The big challenge is not just to match  the bird, but to overcome the stuffing and cranberry relish. Champagne works well, but if you want a red, try this unimpeachable bargain....

     You can still pick up *1997 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Paso Robles "Incredible Red" Bin 107 for about thirteen bucks -- and you’ll never regret it. This stuff is fun. Ripe, juicy strawberries and cherries galore. Finishes well, but thins out a little. Not for cellaring. Drink it now and enjoy.

BARBERIC BARGAIN (November 12, 1999) If only the winery were allowed to call this stuff Merlot, they’d sell a ton of it. It’s dark, full-bodied, brimming with fruit and doesn’t have any rough edges. The only problem is that it’s, uh...


     What? Yeah, Barbera. Why does this grape get no respect? Do people think maybe Conan made it?

    Anyhow, *1997 Parusso Barbera D’Alba "Ornati" is a real crowd-pleaser. So young and sassy, it’s almost purple. Flavors tend toward loganberry. Nice, supple mouthfeel. And affordable. Decant, serve it to your Merlot-loving guests and lie.

IF YOU THOUGHT OZ WAS ALL ABOUT SHIRAZ (October 24, 1999) So did I not so long ago. But if you want to nab today's truly fine values in dry Australian reds, you just gotta try the Grenache. I keep tasting terrific ones for under $16 bucks! This week it was *1997 Yalumba Grenache Oxford Landing "Limited Release." Medium ruby color. Powerful, young, grapey aromas. Essence of strawberries with a touch of raspberry Chambord. There’s plenty of fruit on the palate too, seasoned with white pepper. Thick texture. Probably won’t age well, but drink now and enjoy. At $13.99, you can’t go wrong.

WINNER AND STILL CHAMPEEN. (September 19, 1999) If you’re paying more than $11.99 for terrific Sangiovese, you may be forking out too much. Why? For the second vintage in a row, I was smitten by the very reasonably priced *+La Carraia Sangiovese Umbria. This time the year is 1998 and it may be even better than the super ‘97. What a gorgeous glass of cherry jam! Good acidity, but maybe a little lower than you may get in a Chianti -- and for me, that doesn’t hurt. Am I waxing too enthusiastic to compare it to Bon Pasteur? Maybe, but you get the picture. This may be the red wine bargain of the year. Don’t miss it!

FINALLY A WINNING CHARD FROM THE FOOTHILLS. (September 19, 1999) Up until now I wasn’t awfully enthusiastic about Chardonnay from California’s Sierra Foothills -- although there are plenty of other wines from this off-the-overpriced-path locale that ring my chimes. But at last, here’s a Chablis-style Chard that makes the cut. It’s 1997 Stevenot Chardonnay. Steely, flinty juice with just enough oak to please my spouse. Could be non-malo -- certainly has noticeable acidity. Good match to seafood. Costs under a ten-spot, so you can afford to give it a whirl.

SPAIN IS COMING ON STRONG. (August 29, 1999) If you seek serious red wine these days for under $10, prepare to kiss a lot of frogs. But you can certainly better your odds by scouting out the new wave of wines from Spain.

     It used to be that most Spanish reds were overly oaky, too tannic, not fruity enough, or all three. That’s changing and it’s great news for bargain-hunters. First, because Spain is a huge wine-producer, with ample capacity to supply thirsty American palates. Second, because Spain’s most famous red-wine grape, Tempranillo, can produce wines of tremendous class and subtlety. If you love good Cabernet Sauvignon, give it a try.

     Last night, I tried *1996 Hermanos Lurton Tempranillo Crianza. Seems earthy right out of the bottle, but that blows off rapidly, revealing lots of juicy red raspberry flavor. There’s some grit on the finish, but I’ll forgive that for just $8.99. Drank a couple of glasses, came back two days later -- and it hadn't flinched. Maybe even better! It's got the character of a good Ribera del Duero red for about half the price. Yum.

LODI DOES IT AGAIN. (July 28, 1999) I’ve whined about this before, but it’s getting so hard to find good Zinfandel for under $15. However, a couple of months ago, I tasted a winner from Lodi.

     And now Lodi does it again. The *1997 Ravenswood Zinfandel Lodi is the kind of bargain that first won me over to Zinfandel in the good ol’ days. It’s deep ruby, with a rich, thick texture. Positively wallops you with red raspberry and plum jam, plus a hint of metal on the finish. Drink now and have a ball for $14.99.

LESS OAK! TASTES GREAT! (July 22, 1999) It ain’t what you might expect from California Chardonnay...but it sure is high class juice for just $9.99. I’m talking about *1997 Travis Monterey Chardonnay, a yummy new cuvée from Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections. The attack is crisp, the flavors lean toward apple and melon, and the finish is quite satisfying. There’s no heat from the 14.6% alcohol and very little oak apparent. I would guess the wine is non-malolactic. Best California Chard I've tasted this year for under $10. Kind of reminds me of Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch on a slightly smaller scale.

GIMME SAMUR. (July 21, 1999) I do like Cabernet Franc a lot. But mostly I find that red wines from the Loire are just too vegetal for my taste. (Or the affordable ones are, anyway. Once the price climbs over $20, I’d rather be drinking Bordeaux.)


     Ta da! I have tasted a Loire red I actually like for the price. It’s 1997 Domaine de Touche Noir Samur-Champigny made by Thierry Templai. This stuff plays up the fruit in Cab Franc -- with lots of sweet strawberry and plum jam flavors. It’s got a nice, thick texture too. On the finish you get a hint of licorice and a twist of herbs, but the last is bearable. Nice stuff for under $16! I’d buy more.

THE UN-CHARDONNAY. (July 10, 1999) Fair warning. Phylis hated this. But I liked it a lot with my pan-fried trout. If you don’t mind a white with some bite, try a bottle of *1997 Domine des Godons Sancerre.

     This is not the most complicated Sauvignon Blanc in the world, but it’s brimming with steely, palate-cleansing fruit. Lots of grapefruit on the attack and a nice note of honeydew on the finish.

     Phylis can’t abide acid, but I found it crisp and palate-cleansing. I kept it a week in the fridge, pouring out a glass now and then. Didn’t seem to fade much if any. Nice juice for $12.49!

THINK PINK. (July 5, 1999) The *1998 Domaine de Fondreche Cotes du Ventoux is the best bargain rose I’ve tasted all year and a perfect summer quaffer. Scented with peaches and strawberries, it satisfies even when chilled down to 45 degrees (or lower). Never gets cloying and simply begs you to try another swallow. At $7.99, you can afford to!

WORTHY HOUSE POUR. (July 1, 1999) I liked the D’Arenberg "Custodian" Grenache so much that I tried a lower-priced wine from this Australian producer. And 1996 D’Arenberg Red Ochre is another winner, this time for just $9.99. A blend of Grenache and Syrah, it’s peppery as all get-out, with lots of raspberry flavor underneath. At 13.9% alcohol, it’s thick, satisfying and seems built to drink young.

INSTEAD OF BERINGER... (June 22, 1999) Last I checked, Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was selling for around $24. I guess they're getting it, but pardon me if I drop out. It's a free market, guys -- and I just tasted a wine that sings pretty much the same song at the old-time price.

     *+1996 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon "Agrelo Vineyards" is another red marvel from Mendoza, Argentina. It's deep ruby and positively oozing with the flavors that I liked in Beringer KV. Toast, licorice, cassis. Nice thick texture. Decent finish. At $14.99, it won't unseat 1997 Terra Rosa as my favorite South American bargain -- but it's way cheaper than Beringer and very nice for a change.

THE BEST SOUTH AMERICAN RED I've tasted this year is from... California? (June 16, 1999) In a manner of speaking.

     For years now, winemaker Patrick Campbell has been working small miracles with his ten-buck Cabernet Sauvignon, Terra Rosa. It used to be made from California fruit, but grape prices have forced him to become a flying winemaker.

     Now he typically produces two separate bottlings each year -- one from Chile and one from Argentina. The wine is vinified at the site, shipped north immediately after it's stable and goes through barrel treatment in Sonoma. Sounds complicated, but the results speak for themselves.

     His *1997 Terra Rosa from Mendoza, Argentina has just hit the stores near me. And I'm here to tell you that the man has found some spectacular fruit. It's the best Terra Rosa I've tasted in several years -- and it just may be the best $10.99 Cab on the current market, period.

     Sniff the glass and you get a lovely hit of currant, blueberry and raspberry aromas. Take a sip and you'll love the brambly fruit. It's got thickness, depth, and all for under eleven bucks!

     I remember speaking with Patrick about this vintage over a year ago, and he seemed mighty pleased at the time. (Click here to see that article.) Now I know what he was grinning about.

GAWJUSS GRENACHE! (June 8, 1999) If you don't mind wine that's ripe, lush and open, you won't have any trouble sucking down a glass of *1996 d'Arenberg Grenache McLaren Vale"The Custodian."

     This Ozzie doesn't try to fool you with a European accent -- just explodes with raspberry and pomegranate flavors, shaded by a hint of pepper. At just under $16, it sneaks into Better than Bargain status.

     NOTE to the marketing mavens at d'Arenberg: nice wine, but find a new name! When I was in grade school, "custodian" was PC-speak for "janitor" and I can't help think of industrial-strength cleansers when I look at the label.

COO-OOL DEAL. (June 3, 1999) Temperature can transform a wine. The first time I tried *1997 St. Hallet Gamekeeper's Reserve (Barossa) I could taste something here, but the wine seemed flabby and hot. Summer's here, however, and the wine had been sitting on my counter for hours, so I checked the temperature in the glass. 74 degrees Fahrenheit. It was, literally, hot.

     The next night, I chilled the bottle down to cellar temp. And voila -- the fruit comes out to play! Lots of strawberry and raspberry flavors. Thick texture. Good juice! The label says it's a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Touriga.

     At $10.49, this wine is a deal, but do remember to cool it. At about 60 degrees, it sings.

QUALITY QUAFFER. (May 23, 1999) It's white and French and that's about all I can tell you for sure -- except it's good. 1997 Chateau Le Roquebrun is from the Languedoc region, very pale, and has graceful, delicate flavors of pear and white peaches. No obtrusive oak, good acidity and very refreshing. I might wish for a little more intensity, but for $12.49 I can't complain. Nice choice for a hot summer night.

KILLER ZIN AT AN OLD TIME PRICE. (May 19, 1999) There's so much Zin out there. Some of it very good. But much of the good stuff, alas, has marched beyond the 20-buck border. So doesn't it feel good to pay just $13.49 for *1997 Vigil Zinfandel Mohr-Fry Ranch "Lodi Old Vines"?

     You bet it does! One glass of this and you feel like you robbed the raspberry patch. Medium to deep ruby, it announces its brambly essence as soon as you lift the glass to your shnozz. Thick, fruity and powerful on the palate. Weighs in at 15.1% alcohol, but there's nothing pruney about it. Reminds me of one of De Loach's single vineyard Zins. A smashing good buy for summer barbecues.

YOU LIKE YOUNG? (May 9, 1999) How about a 1998 California Sauvignon Blanc? On our recent visit to the Sierra Foothills, I fell in love with the rushed-to-bottle *1998 Boeger El Dorado Sauvignon Blanc.

     Warning to those who like mannerly, melon-scented SBs -- this ain't your ticket! But if you like grass and gooseberries, go for it fast. Loaded with citrus, grassy as a spring meadow, with a fairly long finish. A terrific, palate-cleansing aperitif and salad wine. And at $12.30, a terrific buy! Youthful fruit is what makes this wine special, so drink it within the next 6 to 12 months.

A GRAPE CALLED MONICA. (May 4, 1999) Italy's lesser-known regions are a consistent winner for value these days. And here's one that just about anyone can afford. Last night I opened 1996 Argiolas "Perdera" (Isola dei Nuraghi).

    It's from Sardinia. And I'd say it's Sangiovese from the taste of it -- but apparently it isn't. The grape, believe it or not, is called Monica (no wonder they don't name it on the label).

     In any case, it does a swell impression of a good Chianti for only $8.99. Medium to deep ruby, with sweet cherry aromas. Light bodied, but very flavorful. Rustic tannins that surrender to the fruit with some airing. Lovely match both to my portobello mushrooms topped with mozzarella and to my yellowfin tuna main course. 

     Yes, it's a shade lighter than *1997 La Carraia Sangiovese (below), but also a few bucks cheaper. You'll have a good time for your money.

POOR MAN’S PAHLMEYER. (May 1, 1999) I love the fresh-baked-bread-and-papaya flavors of Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, but the latest release is going for $60 a bottle. Hey guys, this is Chardonnay and even wine geeks aren’t totally brain dead.

     For the same money, I can get 4 bottles (that’s right, f-o-u-r) of *1997 Jory Central Coast Chardonnay "El Nino" (Unfiltered). Now this wine is a deal. You get plenty of yeasty, bready, fruity yum for just $14.99. I’ll grant you it doesn’t have the depth and finish of Pahlmeyer, but it sure isn’t four times worse. Hit the spot dead-center as we sat on our back porch last night, listened to the birds and watched the sun set.

WHOOPS. (April 27, 1999) Today I called to see if I could get more of **1997 Sierra Vista Syrah Herbert Vineyard, which I had found locally for the unbelievable price of $10. It seemed too good to be true -- and it was. The retailer had made a mistake and I regret I must move this wine off the Better than Bargains page. Sorry! (It's still a good value at the $17 real price, by the way.)

VALETTE, ENCORE. (April 20, 199) They done it again.

     Tonight my Chardonnay-loving wife and I opened a bottle of *+1997 Domaine Valette Macon-Chaintres Jeunes Vignes ($12.49). Previous vintages of the Vielles Vignes have smitten us, but it's almost doubled in price since the '94 vintage.

     So this year, we decided to see what the young vines could offer. Dialogue ensued as follows...

ME: What do you taste...apples?
PHYLIS: Pears.
ME: Okay, I'll give you that, pears. And minerals.
PHYLIS: What are minerals?
ME: Like sucking a stone.
ME: Oh, all right. Steel and Flint. Ya know?
PHYLIS: Yes, that's it.
ME: Any other comments for the record?
PHYLIS: Can we get more?

     Good finish, too. And decent structure. I'm going to see about getting half a case. This time I'll try to age a few bottles. (Phylis usually gets to them first.)

NAPA VALLEY...VALUE? (April 19, 1999) Are Napa Valley producers obsessed with making high-profit trophy wines? Maybe so. Have they forgotten how to make good Cab at reasonable prices? Not quite yet! For $11.99, you can still buy 1995 Innisfree Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It's medium to dark ruby, with a pleasing blackcurrant aroma, and plenty of Cabernet flavor on the palate. Made by Joseph Phelps from their own estate grapes. Doesn't have the power and complexity of Phelps' $75 Insignia, but the flavors do share a family resemblance. And for $75, you can buy a half case of Innisfree and order yourself a Pizza with the change.

BLIND, CHEAP & ROWDY. (April 15, 1999) A bunch of local wine buddies decided to celebrate tax day with a blow-out tasting of  wines for $12.99 or less. Some of us cheated, but click here to check out my notes (in the Tasting Notes section) all the same. You may make some discoveries.

LET THIS GINI OUT OF THE BOTTLE! (April 11, 1999) If Italian whites leave you bored, I can only agree -- most of the time. But *1997 Gini Soave Classico "La Frosca" is well worth drinking, especially with seafood. Attacks crisply and follows up with refreshing citrus and melon flavors. Bathes the palate with a full, lush texture. Second time tasted, with consistent notes. Nice alternative to Sauvignon Blanc at just $12.99.

THE UN-CHIANTI. (April 9, 1999) The Umbria region of Italy is red hot these days...and *1997 La Carraia Sangiovese (Umbria) is red, ripe and bee-oo-tiful! Deep ruby, with delicious red cherry aromas, moderate oak and lots of thick, rich body. What's the story? Is it the '97 vintage? Does Sangiovese get riper when it's grown south of Tuscany? Or is it simply that no-name wines are better bargains? Whatever, you'd be very hard-pressed  to find a Chianti of equal value. Just $10, though I'm told prices may soon rise to $12 (still a bargain).

IF IT'S FRENCH YOU WANT... (April 5, 1999) Great vintages are a great time to bottom-fish and *1996 Maison Ambroise Bourgogne "Pinot Noir" proves it for the 1996 Burgundy vintage. You won’t find better Pinot Noir at the price today. Rolls across your palate with racy cherry flavors, seasoned with well-balanced oak. Plus all the gamy character you want to remind you this is real live Burgundy. You fear it may fade but it only swells with swirling and airing. A Robert Kacher selection. Gorgeous glass of red for $13.99.

     Want white tonight? Go for 1996 Laroche Chardonnay Pays D’Oc "Grand Cuvee." Very pale, with aromas of wet rocks, vanilla and earth. Country French Chardonnay that thinks it’s White Burgundy -- and only $12.99.

FOR A FEW DOLLARS LESS. (March 19, 1999) World-class Cab for $11.99? If you don't mind some wood, try *1996 St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon. Brimming with ripe, plummy flavors. Lots of toasty oak, but it works -- the effect is chocolatey, with no whiskey-barrel flavors. And you'll never get a cork-tainted bottle, because every St. Francis wine is finished with an easy-to-extract SupremeCorq.

MERLOT FROM ITALY? (March 18, 1999) You bet. The Italian producer Falesco makes such a delicious high-end Merlot ("Montiano") that I had high hopes for the new release of their basic *1997 Falesco Merlot Umbria. Turns out it is very good -- but give it some air!

     The first time I tasted it, two nights ago, it seemed way tannic, with some dried cherry flavors. My guests and I had a few glasses anyway, whereupon I put the bottle in the fridge. By the next night the wine had opened and was much more generous, yielding up the chocolate and berry flavors I was expecting. The texture had also thickened some.

     This wine won't make me forget the terrific Adastra -- but it's also almost half the price and good value for what it is. You may want to buy some now and sock it away for six months to a year. Can't hurt.

CAB QPR CHAMP. (March 16, 1999) QPR is wine geek talk for "quality/price ratio." I verified tonight that the belt still belongs to *+1996 Quintana Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the new "third wine" from Patrick Campbell, made with Laurel Glen estate grapes blended with purchased North Coast fruit. At $14.99, it's priced a notch below his Laurel Glen ($35) and Counterpoint (over $20).

     After one taste you'll sit up and take closer notice. It’s not quite as concentrated as big daddy Laurel Glen, but I wonder if it may get even higher scores from folks who adore forward fruit. The color is dark ruby, the aromas are rich and fruity...and the flavors leave you thinking about comparisons with Chateau Pichon-Baron.

     Yes, of course, I’m serious. Cassis, blueberry, a whole lot of lead-pencil, and a longer finish than you dare hope for this year in a $15 California Cab. All this, and a meaty under-note that matches perfectly with rare steak.

CHARDONNAY FROM WHERE? (March 15, 1999) The bite of an excellent Macon...lemon and minerals galore...with just enough well-restrained oak to offer a kiss of creme brulee on the finish. Kind of reminds me of Domaine Valette, but this baby is from Portugal.

     It's 1997 Sabe Chardonnay "Entre Serra" Vinho Regional Beiras and it only cost $9.99 at full retail. Beautifully balanced character that should satisfy my flab-averse friends, yet the flavors are so full that even my wife Phylis ("make mine California Chard") gave it the thumbs up.

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