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Picks of the litter

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Sharper than a serpent's tooth, the bills of January come slicing home, reminding us of our misplaced generosity toward uncle Alfred and cousin Allison. Stunning credit card totals could inspire a country song entitled "I've got the MasterCard, Visa and Diner's Club Blues." It's time to resolve to drink well, but frugally, for the foreseeable future.

Here's my cue to say that bargains abound and drinking well on a budget has never been easier--right? Oh, what misery exists in the guise of a bottle of wine. Many so called "fighting varietals" barely raise their fists. Drab, dull "why bother?" wines are rampant. Like fast food, they are devoid of personality; "Charmin-ized" with no rough edges, and no character, either. These wines are fairly easy to judge because so little is going on.

I tried a keyboard full of bargain wines--88 bottles priced at $11 and under. When a wine did stand out, the pleasure was somehow doubled as it floated above a sea of detritus. Recurring adjectives in my notes were "harmless, neutral, a washout, commercial, dilute, clumsy, marginal, negligible, ordinary, tart, mean" and, most damning of all, "a nonentity."

In many cases, these wines are the result of grape selection that is not terribly selective. Fermentation and aging are often delivered by means of old barrels or large industrial vats. It's not that people don't try to make a good wine--who purposely sets out to make a bad one?--but the parameters are defined by the price tag. There is often little imagination employed or risk taken in these "everyday" wines. Yet through it all, good to very good wines do emerge. Don't look for 90+ scores on these puppies. Yet, a $6 wine that delivers an 87 score and flattering notes is quite the happy exception. It's the 2001 Andes Peak Malbec. A wine I've never seen before, it has beautiful fruit and Bordeaux-like elegance. The malbec grape, of Bordeaux descent, makes extraordinarily interesting, not overpriced (yet) wines from Argentina. Other examples from Dolium (83 points) and Santa Julia Vineyards (82 points) showed promise as well.

Large California producers provided value. Not every wine from McManis Winery is a winner, but they have a terrific batting average. The 2003 California Syrah (87 points; $10) spreads a paintbrush of gorgeous fruit. It's substantive, fruity and fine. The 2003 McManis California Merlot (86 points; $10) is a fat, fetching briery style. It's a six-shooter full of flavor. Folie a Deux , the winery founded by two psychiatric clinicians, has two new releases under the subtitle Menage a Trois! The 2003 white blend of chardonnay, muscat canelli and chenin blanc is a tropical fruit basket; a juicy, perky sipper (84 points; $11). The red 2002 Menage a Trois (85 points; $11) is a gentle medley of zinfandel, merlot and cabernet. Very ripe, pleasant and easy to like.

Many an untrendy wine falls into this price point. Because riesling, negroamaro, some syrahs and many wines using grape blends do not automatically command high prices, some terrific values accompany the not-so-star-powered grapes. Montemaro's 2001 Negroamaro (85 points; $7.25) from southern Italy's Salento region is a stylish, medium-bodied red with direct, dry berry flavors and a developing, fascinating palate. Here's a wine that will continue to improve through 2007. It's a perfect cellar selection for the limited budget. Rosemount's 2003 Riesling (85 points; $10) is a brilliant, tingly, remarkably fresh interpretation of the grape. It's totally versatile and engaging. While in Australia, Lindemans 2002 Reserve Shiraz (85 points; $11) is a brambly, earthy red that still manages a bright fruit vitality with roundness and appeal.

Another excellent find is Georges Duboeuf's 2003 Saint-Veran (85 points; $11). The harmonious, subtle lemon and stone fruit qualities are admirable; clean, balanced chardonnay with enough complexity and flavor interest to stand out. Duboeuf's 2003 Macon-Villages (84 points; $9) is almost as good, but a bit more austere with a leaner mouth texture. The perennially popular Lindemans 2003 Bin 65 Chardonnay (84 points; $8) charms with its apricot, peach and squeaky clean persona. Neutral in flavor, it is nonetheless easy to understand and well crafted. 2002 Redwood Creek California Chardonnay (84 points; $8) with its tangy, lemony accented quality is a sauvignon blanc-styled chardonnay--nifty and alive. So is the 2003 Mirassou Central Coast Chardonnay (86 points; $11). Grassy, brisk bouquet and flavor with "sweet" fruit and an excellent finish. Its vibrancy is a blueprint for reasonably priced chardonnay.

The Stephen Vincent 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (84 points; $11) is a nervous, concentrated wine that drinks with a sippable ease and just a touch of residual sugar. The velvety, inviting fruit of Stephen Vincent 2002 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (84 points; $11) makes for delicate, flavorful, unmistakable pinot pleasure. A pleasant surprise is the 2002 Columbia Crest Two Vines Cabernet Sauvignon (85 points; $6.65). Scents of caramel, licorice and round supple flavors make for a substantial red with a long, savory aftertaste.

Finally, three American reds of punch and power, perfect for the pastas of winter. A stylish blend of zinfandel, cabernet and syrah makes Francis Coppola's 2003 Rosso (85 points; $11) a dark and penetrating blended red. Pure, persistent flavors are rewarding, and this wine will also improve for a year to 18 months. Cline Cellars 2002 "Five Reds" (84 points; $11) has earthy, dark berry flavors with solid fruit and depth. The 2000 Villa Mount Eden Old Vines Zinfandel (84 points; $11) is spicy, "salty," jammy and robust. A roustabout, unsubtle winning style for "the works" pizzas.

Wines listed below are those that scored 83 points or higher. These wines soothe the savage taste bud and the sagging wallet as well.

Reds
82-83 points: 2004 Falling Star Cabernet Sauvignon (Argentina) $6. A simple, attractive village wine-carafe style. Can improve.
83: 2002 Pepperwood Grove California Syrah $11
83: 2001 Snoqualmie, Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $ 11
83: 2002 Dolium, Mendoza Malbec $10
83: 2002 Cline Cellars, California Syrah $11
84: 2002 Stephen Vincent, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir $11
84: 2000 Villa Mt. Eden, "Old Vines," California Zinfandel $11
84: 2002 Cline Cellars, "Five Reds," California $11
85: 2002 Folie A Deux, Menage a Trois Red $11
85: 2002 Lindemans Reserve, South Australian Shiraz $10
85: 2002 Columbia Crest, Two Vines, Cabernet Sauvignon $6.65
85: 2003 Francis Coppola Rosso $ 11
85: 2001 Montmaro, Negroamaro $ 7.25
86: 2003 McManis, California Merlot $10
87: 2003 McManis, California Syrah $10
87: 2001 Andes Peak, Mendoza Malbec $6

Whites
83: 2003 The Little Penguin, Chardonnay $7
I previously enjoyed this in a blind tasting this past September. Better than its big competitor, Yellow Tail.

83: 2003 Hogue, Columbia Valley Gewurztraminer $9
A perfect Sunday afternoon quaff.

83: 2003 Beringer, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc $11
Tangy, tart and bright. Needs food.

83: 2003 Hugel, Gentil $11
Alsatian blend called "Edelzwicker" in the old days. Flinty, crisp and balanced.

84: 2002 Stephen Vincent, Lake County Sauvignon Blanc $11
84: 2003 Lindemans, Bin 65 Chardonnay $8
84: 2002 Redwood Creek, California Chardonnay $8
84: 2003 Georges Duboeuf, Macon: Villages $9
84: 2003 Folie A Deux, Menage a Trois White $11
85: 2003 Georges Duboeuf, Saint Veran $11
85: 2003 Rosemount Riesling $10
86: 2003 Mirassou, Central Coast Chardonnay $11

Have you heard?
Some wines are being topped with screw caps these days as opposed to traditional cork. The fear of "cork taint" from the chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) is the reasoning. Some "experts" say as high as 5 percent of bottles are affected. Include the occasional failure of a cork to seal properly, thus rendering a wine that smells and tastes oxidized, and the scurry is on for shifting to alternative closures.

Wine writer Jancis Robinson has stated that all the fuss about spoilage "has begun to take away a lot of my fun ... I'm beginning to think that some of this TCA 'contamination' has perhaps added to the pleasure I found in a wine." I couldn't agree more. When I open a bottle and smell a wine with the odor of bad sherry, old socks and wet basement, then I know I've got a bad bottle on my hands. But I think, subliminally, so many people have now heard about cork taint that they are actually looking for something wrong! The entire thing becomes mildly perverted.

Cork advocates feel that the airtight seals will not allow a wine to age and improve properly, thus creating "Peter Pan" wines. Others feel that the rubber or metal seals will add their own off flavors to a wine over a period of time. Thus the jury is truly out as to what is best.

Imagine, then, the ruminations of one Alwyn Corban, winemaker and owner of Ngtarawa Wines of New Zealand: "We decided to follow the trend and consumer demands (italics mine) by introducing the Stelvin closures, better known as screw caps." The press release, which included Mr. Corban's quote, goes on to proclaim that Ngtarawa is "joining the craze that has taken the U.S. market to new heights!"

I don't know about you, but nobody I know has been "demanding" screw caps. In fact, many of you have expressed just the opposite and shy away from any wines that are sealed in this manner. I think it's time to cool the rhetoric and allow the future of wine sealants to sort its way out. The only demand I know of is for better wines inside each bottle, and the sealant for most of us remains a secondary consideration.

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