WINE PICKS

A great wine, in my book, is a wine that has great characteristics at a price I can afford. Here are some recommendations for those of you who want to drink well without spending tomorrow's paycheck. (with a few exceptions -- sometimes you want that luxury bottle, right?)
Wild Horse 2009 Blaufrankisch, Paso Robles, $26
Those who love an adventure and appreciate a stout red wine should check out this oddball varietal. It's never going to become a household name, but personally, I loved this wine. It has a deep, tobacco-cherry richness that's nothing like a Syrah or a Cabernet. It's it's own Austrian self. The wine is the result of many years of careful experimentation by the creative winemakers at Wild Horse. http://www.wildhorsewinery.com/
De Loach 2009 Stubbs Vineyard Pinot Noir, Marin County, $40 
I'd heard of De Loach and had an idea that it was a quality label, but this week when I uncorked a bottle of the winery's first vintage of Marin County Pinot, I was utterly impressed. I had no idea how much personality a Pinot could have. I love that it's bright and light, but more packed with funk, fruit and flavor than most Pinots. If you're looking to impress and don't mind paying a bit more, this is a good pick. If you're doing a Pinot tasting, this is a great example from Marin County. www.deloachvineyards.com/
Domaine Rimbert Les Travers de Marceau Saint-Chenin 2009, $13.99
Every time I open a carefully made, aged and stored bottle of French red, I am reminded of everything that I love about French wine. I love that the grapes aren't over-ripe when harvested, and that French winemakers turn those grapes into fresh, oaked wine that reflects an entirely different flavor profile than the very same grapes produce here in California.
This wine is clean, dry, full, layered; and it doesn't cheat by adding sweetness, or other flavor-maskers. The wine is best the day it's uncorked as the oak is forward enough to invite identification: American? French? It's imported by K&L Wine Merchants. www.klwine.com/
Michel Rolland Clos de los Siete Argentina 2008, $14
This bold, silky blend from the Mendoza region of Argentina is everything I'm looking for in a wine. It's also a great reminder that not every great wine is made from a single varietal. This wine is made with Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah and even a touch of Petit Verdot. I can only imagine how many blends the winemaker tried before coming up with this gem.
Marchesi di Frescobaldi 2007 Nipozzano Reserva Chianti Rufina, $22
Among the many things I have learned as a wine writer is that it pays to be picky about your Chianti. I've tried so many bad versions that I couldn't wait to share details about this one. It's crisp and clean, with a long, fruity finish. It's exactly what you want to serve with your next Italian food masterpiece.
Estancia 2009 Paso Robles Zinfandel, $12.50Zinfandel is one of those kind of wines that has a vast range of personalities, from the deep, sweet reds that hail from Lodi to this lighter-bodied, punchy number from Keyes Canyon Ranches in Paso Robles. Personally, I prefer this lighter style that sports great tannins, minus the sweet backdrop.
Fat Monk 2009 Central Coast Pinot Noir, $15
Like my favorite winery in the region, Hahn Cellars, this winery "gets" it. Their Pinot Noir is made with the kind of care and finesse that the grape demands. It's light, fun and funky, with just the right balance of tannins to fruit. And it's at such a great price. http://www.villasanjuliette.com/
2008 Prazo de Roriz, $17
If you've yet to sip into the wines of Portugal, it's time. The tiny little country will never be able to out-produce massive wine regions, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in quality. This bold red is a great representation of the region; it's a blend of Touriga Nacional -- the grape used to make the region's famous Port wines -- as well as Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca. Think Cabernet Sauvignon, Portuguese style. This wine would be great with meat or Italian food, but if you want to go authentic, serve it with a plate of roasted goat; or maybe a simple melange of chicken and rice. http://www.quintaderoriz.com/. Imported by Premium Port Wines in San Francisco.

Villa Maria 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, $12.99
If you have not yet added the grassy, grape-forward New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to your list of favorite wines, this is the spring-into-summer to do it. This particular wine, which comes from the Marlborough region, is like a Granny Smith apple in a a glass. It reminds me of a gorgeous spring day.
Antinori Santa Cristina 2010 Orvieto Classico Campgrande, $10
As the days turn sunny and warm, a crisp, fresh Italian white is exactly right. I love that it's made with grapes grown around Cortona, a tiny hilltop town where one of my daughters studied art. She broke her collarbone on an olive-picking on the very same picturesque slopes that these grapes are grown (she's fine, it's OK.) This wine is neither sweet nor acidic. It's quenching and clean, with a gorgeous pear-blossom nose. Serve it cool but not so cold that you quash the wine's personality. http://www.santacristina1946.it/
Greg Norman 2007 Limestone Coast Cabernet Merlot, $16
When I tried this wine, I had no idea about the cost. And I didn't know who Greg Norman was (he's apparently a rather well know golfer!) Since my focus is on less expensive wines, I wondered why it arrived in my inbox, why someone would send me such a gorgeous wine. Newsflash: This wine is just $16. This is what I call a "Wow!" wine. It's really full and balanced and so carefully made. If you find it at a 5-cent BevMo sale, let me know. I will stock up. The wine comes from grapes grown along the Limestone Coast of Australia. It has cherry and spice notes, but the distinct velvety character of the finest California wines. http://www.shark.com/
Franciscan Estate 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay, $18
Someone recently asked me why Chardonnay gets no ink. I couldn't give a good answer, but it made me think. I decided that the reason I fail to write about may of the Chardonnays that I taste is that something has has happened in the winemaking process that quashes its personality, reducing it to a just a varietal. After it's spent so much time in oak, it's just another Chard. This Napa Chardonnay, however, gives me hope. Yes, it has oak, but yes, it also delivers fruit and fresh aromas and such pretty aromas that you might think you are drinking a Sauvignon Blanc. Grab one of these before they sit on the shelf too long. And enjoy it with a bit of fish, something slightly buttery, or even a plate of carbonara dusted with Parmesan. http://www.franciscan.com/
Hogue 2008 Columbia Valley Red Table Wine, $12
If you see this wine on sale, buy several bottles and tuck them away to enjoy with everything from pot roast to pulled pork. If you love rich reds with lots of interesting back-notes, this Washington-state Hogue you want. I love the violet color and the spicy, licorce notes. it's a mix of Cab, Merlot and a stitch of Syrah. What I love is that it has a touch of earthiness and some tannins but it's entirely drinkable for those who are tentative red-wine drinkers. http://www.hoguecellars.com/

Wild Horse 2008 Central Coast Pinot Noir, $18
When you want to know that what's in the bottle is a solid example of the best wine that California has to offer, Wild Horse is a great pick. The winery does plenty of experimental varietals and has a number of less expensive labels, but the juice and the care that goes into every wine produced under the label is solid. This wine is bright, with medium-funk and lots of cherry notes. I also love the middle-of-the-road stance of the Wild Horse 2008 Central Coast Chardonnay. Yes, it's buttery, but not so lavish that you can't detect a little terroir, a little fruit in the nose and on the tongue. If you're serving it with cheese or seafood, your guests will be quite impressed. http://www.wildhorsewinery.com/

Amapola Creek 2006 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $65
No, this isn't an "affordable" wine, but if you are in the mood to celebrate and want to make sure that the cork you pull is worthy, this artfully made, perfectly balanced organic Cab is worth it. It's just gorgeous. The wine is made from grapes grown on the mountainsides in Sonoma; it's a perfect example of why Sonoma is one of the world's great wine regions. http://www.amapolacreek.com/


RedTree Pinot Noir, $7
The rule of thumb is that you can get plenty of nice, drinkable varietals on the cheap, but if you take that approach to Pinot Noir, you will end up with wine that is so bad it isn't even worth turning into vinegar. I've experienced the truth behind that rule, so I'm always wary of a budget-priced Pinot. That's why I was really surprised at this screw-top ftrom Cecchetti Wine Company. It's light, cherry-forward and quite drinkable. Find it at K & L Wine Merchants stores. http://www.redtreewine.com/




Ruffino Riserva Ducale 2006 Chianti Classico, $23
This isn't exactly a budget wine, but since it was such a revelation to me, I had to share details. I find most Chiantis to be kind of bland, watery, lacking an kind of real personality. This one, however, made me rethink my longstanding ho-hum attitude toward the varietal. It's bold and has those berry-spice notes that I love, yet it has a clean, palate-cleansing acidity. If you're cooking up a special Italian meal, this would be a great splurge. The wine comes from Tuscany and is bottled in Rutherford. http://www.ruffino.com/




Clos Du Bois Pinot Grigio, $12
If you're looking for a bright, clean, mineral-forward wine to serve with something herby and light, this is a really great pick. Unlike so may Pinot Grigios that are so green that they lean towards sour, this one has perfect balance. http://www.closdubois.com/  



Colby Red 2009 Red Blend, $13
If there's one thing I love more than a bold, fruity red wine, it's a great wine that benefits a great cause. This wine was inspired by an 8-year-old who endured two open-heart surgeries. His dad made this wine in his honor -- and to benefit others with heart problems. A portion of the price for each bottle goes to heart research. www.mercurynews.com/food-wine/
Simi 2009 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc, $14
I tried this beautiful wine with a bit of smoked duck, and it was absolutely fantastic. It's crisp and herbacious, and delivers that pretty nose of a well-made Sauvignon Blanc. This one reminded me of lemon blossoms. The citrusy flavors in the wine go really well with salty foods, so it's a great appetizer wine. The wine is made from fruit grown in two different locations in Sonoma. http://www.simiwinery.com/
Alamos 2009 Torrontes, $10
This little jewl from Argentina is a peachy-floral powerhouse of a white. It's one of those that you want to sip slowly, because the aromas are so gorgeous. It's not oaked at all, which is why it's so crisp, acidic, and a great all-around white. It's easy to see why Torrontes is Argentina's most popular white.
Earthquake 2008 Zinfandel, $22
The hot, flat terrain of Central California's Lodi appellation may well produce a lot of super-hot Zins that are too alcoholic to enjoy, but this Zin gets a thumbs-up. It's not sweet or jammy -- more fruity with a touch of funk. Yes, it has a funny name and a label to go with, but don't let that scare you away. What's inside will please. http://www.lodivineyards.com/

Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Pinot Noir, $18
I like Blackstone wines overall, but find them to be slightly boring. In most cases, they present a classic varietal, sans personality. But this reserve Pinot really steps out. It delivers cherry-cranberry-herb flavors. If you're looking for a wine to go with turkey, this would be perfect.

Luigi Bosca 2007 Malbec Reserva, $18
It often amazes me how many different kinds of aromas and flavors you can get out of a simple handful of grapes. This wine is a perfect example of that: Pepper, coffee, strawberries. How does that happen? I've seen every step of the process and yet it's still a mystery. This wine comes from Mendoza, Argentina, my newest favorite wine region. http://www.luigibosca.com.ar/

Chateau Montelena 2008 Chardonnay, $50
This wine kind of confuses me. If I didn't read the bottle, I'd guess I was drinking a grassy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It's super citrusy -- it's like drinking a glass of lemon-grapefruit juice without the pulp and sugar. I like it, but if you were thinking you wanted a Chardonnay, this isn't it. It's very expensive, but so interesting -- and getting great reviews -- I had to include it. http://www.montelena.com/

Antigal Uno 2008 Malbec, $16
If you're looking for a wine to go with a meal that includes berries, or just a touch of sweetness, this is a good pick. It's pretty stout, with slightly green tanins, but the finish is so pretty. It fills your mouth with blueberries and blackberries. The wine, which is in a pretty bottle with a metal #1 affixed to the bottle, comes from a winery located in the foothills of the Andes, in Mendoza, Argentina. The cork on this tells me it could hold for a year or two, so buy two. Drink one now, save the other for next Christmas! http://www.bodegaantigal.com/

Chateau Souverain 2007 Cabernet, $12
This elegant, smooth wine from Napa's Alexander Valley is one of the reasons why California wines are so highly regarded. It's oaked, yes, but you can still taste the layers of flavor you get from taking the time and care to crush, press and ferment at exactly the right moments. http://www.souverain.com/

Godwin 2004 Sonoma Valley Merlot, $35
I'd never heard of this wine, and even though it's a bit pricey for this particular page, it's a lovely wine. It's shockingly rich for a Merlot, and has a distinctive fruit-herb-earth flavors. It's a great pick for a celebration. www.

CC: 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon "I will not drink bad wine," $19 
Most of the time, I advise people to stay away from wines with funny labels, since the wine inside the bottle rarely delivers as much entertainment as the bottle itself. But there are exceptions. Last week, I was shocked to taste the wine inside this funny bottle -- with "I will not drink bad wine" written up and down every inch of the label. So funny. The white wine was ho-hum, but the red is well worth it.

Columbia Crest 2007 Reserve Merlot, $22
Columbia Crest is a solid company that makes great wine -- good wines that are inexpensive enough for me to load up when I have a red wine crowd coming to the house. What I didn't know until a few weeks ago is that the Washington State vineyard produces a range of wines, including some standout wines in special, gold-painted bottles that are termed "reserve." This wine features layers of chocolate and blueberries, with just a dash of buttery tannins. It's not huge; I wouldn't serve it with red wine. But I'd certainly serve it with fall flavors such as stuffing and turkey. www.columbia-crest.com.




2010 Marlborough Cupcake Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, $12
This is a gorgeous little wine that is perfect in so many ways. I love the sunny yellow and purple label. It looks so festive. But even better is the wine inside the bottle. It's sparkly and bright, with juicy lemon-lime aromas. It kind of wakes up your palate, but in a good way. It has a nice acid kick, but not so much that it goes sour when you don't eat it with food. For everyday, this would be great alongside fish, chicken or veggie dishes of every ilk. For Thanksgiving, it would go just as well with hors d'oeuvres as with the turkey himself. http://www.cupcakevineyards.com/


Ruta 22 2009 Malbec, $13
Ruta 22 2009 Malbec from Patagonia, Argentina; a kicky wine with an appealing freshness that reminds me of grapestems. I love the deep color and the backdrop of blueberries. Because of its soft tannins and velvety fruit, this would be a perfect wine for the Thanksgiving table. It's $13. http://www.ruta22wine.com/

Prazo de Roriz 2007, $17 
IT'S NOT EASY to find, but if you can track down a bottle of this Portuguese table wine, you will be in for a serious treat. Two weeks ago, as I sat in the tasting room at this rustic, artisan winery and tasted this wine, I was bowled over by how much flavor, color and richness can be had for such a small price. The wine, made in small batches from the area's signature grape, Touriga Nacionale, comes from deep in the Douro Valley. The winery, acquired by the Symington Family just two years ago, also makes port and a handful of other reds in various price ranges. This wine gets my vote because I can actually afford to drink it -- it's just $17 a bottle. If you do find it, buy several bottles. You'll be glad you did. http://www.premiumport.com/


Sledgehammer 2007 Zinfandel, $15 It did not sound at all promising, but I bucked up one day last week and pulled the cork on this a bottle of Zinfandel. As I sipped through a first glass, then poured up a second, I had to admit that the wine behind this funny name is pretty solid. It has plenty of fruit, a decent amount of oak and none of that musty, yukky aromas that are often the downside of inexpensive wines. At $15, this is a great weekend wine to enjoy with a pot of beans, a plate of jambalaya, or even a thick slice of pizza. Personally, I had to make do with the leftovers from my column on the best frozen pizza... The wine is made from grapes grown along California's Northern coast.  http://www.sledgehammerwines.com/



Tikal Amorio 2008 Malbec, $25
This wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina is a bit of a budget stretch, but it makes the cut because everything about it is tops. I love the sensuous shape of the bottle, and the deep, dark purple hue of the wine. It has a soft, plush feel on your tongue, and a slight sweetness from the French oak. I tried serving this with meat, but ended up saving the wine to enjoy after the meal. The wine is imported by vine connections.
Huntington Wine Cellars, $14
You already know that I'm a huge fan of Hahn Family Wines because they're so dependably drinkable at great prices. But today Hahn has given me yet one more reason to applaud. Or pour. Huntingon California, a new wine label that was developed by Gaby and Nicolaus Hahn specifically to support efforts to preserve the environment and wildlife preserves in Kenya. The label on these wines features artwork by Gaby herself. As much as I love to support good causes, I have to admit that I'd have a hard time with these if I did not love, love, love the wines themselves. After checking out the winery's Petite Sirah, Cabernet and Merlot, I can tell you that someone is doing some smooth talking in terms of sourcing the family's grapes. These wines are standout -- every one. At $14, they're a bargain.
2008 Susana Balbo Malbec, $19
Malbec is one of those wine varietals that kind of gets lost in the mix. Most people know about Cabernets and Merlots, and are often familiar with Chiantis and Zinfandels. But like Petite Sirah, Malbec is what I'd call a sleeper wine. Not all Malbecs are wonderful, but this particular one from the Mendoza region of Argentina is absolutely stellar. It's inky and rich and reminds me of blackberries. It's aged in French oak, which may be why it has such gorgeous, velvety tannins. It's about $19 per bottle, not bad for a special-occasion wine. If you find it on sale, stock up. The wines are sealed with top-notch clear cork, so they'll age well.  http://www.dominiodelplata.com.ar/ or http://www.vineconnections.com/
2008 Arnaldo-Caprai Grecante Grechetto, $18
If what you are craving is a crisp Granny Smith in a glass, then this is the wine for you. It has a bright, fun quality that is especially refreshing for summer. I tried it with appetizers and it was a hit. It also works well with a salad topped with chicken or fish. The wine is made from Grechetto grapes which are exclusive to the Umbrian region in Italy. www.snooth.com/wine/amaldo-caprai-grecante-grechetto-dei-colli-martani-grechetto-2006/
2006 Nippozzano Riserva Chianti Rufina, $19 
For years, I thought that I did not like Chianti. Most of the Chianti's I tried sucked my tongue so dry that I couldn't taste a thing. The only flavor I could register was sour.
But last week, I opened this bottle and poured up a bright, fruity Chianti that changed my opinion of the varietal. It's much softer, slightly sweeter and in my estimation a whole lot more enjoyable. It retains the integrity of a light Chianti and it is still a great match for all dishes Italian. But it's kind enough to my tongue that I can also enjoy a glass before I sit down to dinner. Find it at K & L Wine Merchants stores in the Bay Area.

Frederic Mabileau Racines 2007 Borgueil,
Joel Taluau Vielles Vignes 2006 St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil (both $20.)
If you like red wines, especially Cabernets and Tempranillos, here are a pair of terrific French wines you need to try. They are both made of 100 percent Cabernet Franc, and present  incredibly complex, regional flavor profiles. Find them at K & L Wine Merchants.

Campo Viejo 2006 Crianza, $10
This is a totally solid pick for those who love a velvety, blueberry-forward red with plenty of backbone. This a great Spanish table wine to serve with tapas. See the recipes page for a spicy topping for toasted baguettes. http://www.campoviejo.com/

Copa Del Rey Merlot, $12
If you love red wine and enjoy tasting all of the different personalities it takes on, you will want to pick up a bottle of Copa Del Rey's Merlot, a rich, full Chilean version of a California favorite.  I love the gorgeous berry-forward flavor of this wine -- especially for the price. The wine comes from the Maipo Valley and is now operated by Hahn. www.hahnfamilywines.com/
Hahn Family Wines, $12-$50
For more than a year, I've been wishing and wanting to write about the incredible wines of Monterey County. The wines there have a personality all their own. Not every winery makes the very best wine, but one winery that you can always depend on is Hahn, the mothership of what is becoming a giant family of wineries. I consider Hahn SLH wines among the best reds you can get from the region. Since their aromas and flavors differ depending on which vineyard and varietal you're talking about, I want to throw down a challenge: Pick a price point, then get yourself to a wine market and pick out a bottle of Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, then one from Hahn's lineup. Pour them up side-by-side and notice the differences. One isn't better than another. Just different. Enjoy. For more info on Hahn wines, go to http://www.hahnfamilywines.com/  
Forest Glen Tehachapi Clone Pinot Grigio, $11
Every time I taste a Forest Glen wine, I am surprised. Behind their cheesy label; a generic washout of wine country that claims the wines are "The Best of Taste," are some decent, more-than-drinkable wines. This crisp but fruity Pinot Grigio from kern County is a great wine pick, one I'd hope to find on sale so I could stock up for summer. Since this one is so crisp, it works really well with salads topped with avocado, with anything shellfish, and with slightly creamy pasta salads. Tip: You may want to wander over to BevMo during the 5 cent sale and pick up a few bottles of this. http://www.forestglenwinery.com/

Yellow Tail Reserve 2008, $12
For years I have marveled at the seeming success of Yellow Tail wines, wines that in my opinion taste no better than Two-buck, but cost three to four times as much. Time after time I have tasted Yellow Tail at parties and wondered exactly how they stay in the wine business. Then last week, i opened a box containing bottles of the company's Yellow Tail Reserve wines. Reserve Yellow Tail -- who knew there was such a thing. Curious, I opened and tasted. I was more than impressed. I pulled out the paperwork and discovered that these reserve wines are only $12. Buy now, buy large and enjoy. But don't keep them too long, as the composite style corks tell me that these aren't meant to be reserved for later. Varietals in the reserve line include Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet. All from Southern Australia, and all highly drinkable. Go to http://www.discoveryellowtail.com/
Masi Campofiorin 2006, $15
Straight out of the bottle, this wine was off, odd, and resinous. But after decanting and breathing, it settled into a velvety soft cherry-forward red; interesting if not perfect. The deep, dark purple-colored wine is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, and is made by dual fermentation, which involves drying 25 percent of the grapes for six weeks before the fermentation process. Masi, imported by Folio Wine Partners, has been owned and operated by the Masi family for six generations. To order online, go to http://www.wine.com/V6/Masi-Campofiorin-Rosso-del-Veronese and type in Masi. http://www.cellartracker.com/

Masi Masianco 2009 Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, $14
If you are a little tentative about super-crisp, uber-dry pinot grigios, you may want to check out this one from the Friuli Venezia region of Italy. It's sweeter than many, with more body and prettier aromas, likely because of the 25 percent Verduzzo. It's more like a Sauvignon Blanc than a Pinot Grigio, but I like it. Drink it cool but not right out of the fridge. Find it at select stores or online at http://www.lisasliquorbarn.com/.
Cellar #8 Pinot Grigio, $12
A pineapple-forward white with incredibly juicy aromas. http://www.cellarno8.com/
Bogle Cabernet Sauvignon, $8
Spicy, full flavored and worth it. http://www.boglewinery.com/
Dona Paula Los Cardos 2008 Malbec, $10
This is a full, gorgeous wine that is so full of personality. It's from the Mendoza region of Argentina. A really fine pick. http://www.donapaula.com/