Great (or at least palatable) wines for under $10

The problem with traveling to the California wine country every year is that I can’t afford half of what I taste! After a few days of drinking the best wines that Cali winemakers have to offer, the stuff I have been drinking at home just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore, so it always takes a few weeks for my palate to get back into line with my budget. Yet I find that every year my palate ratchets up a notch or two, so I have to work even harder to find wines that I can consider both “good” and “affordable.”

I always keep a couple of really nice bottles of wine in my cellar for special occasions, but most of what I drink comes in at the $15-$25 range, with anything over $40 being a “nice” bottle. That being said, December was a rough month as most of my hobby money was shifted over to Christmas gifts. So for December I went on a quest, patronizing only wines that cost less than $10. For the most part I was successful… I think I ended up going as high as $12. Below you’ll find the best of what I came up with. My favorite place in Lexington to shop is Shopper’s Village on Euclid. (Ironically, I’d never ever heard of SV until a winemaker in California mentioned it to me.) In Cincinnati I’m still partial to Trader Joe’s, although Jungle Jim’s has a really nice wine program as well.

At Trader Joe’s, give their 2005 Abrazo Del Toro Cariñena (Spain) a shot. At $6 ($8 for the Reserve) these wines exhibit lots of earth and dark fruit. They’re simple, but pleasant.

And here are my notes on the 2005 Mezza Corona Pinot Grigio (Italy) a nice white wine available at TJ’s for about $9, but also widely available in Lexington. “Very pleasant wine, and easily approachable for non wine-drinkers. Very unusual nose – I get citrus, mango and banana. Equally soft on the palate with the fruit coming through. The finish is pleasant and long – resembles a California Sauvignon Blanc. I’d serve this wine a touch warmer than most of my whites. The cold just mutes that fruit way too much.”

I was also impressed with the latest offerings from Aquinas and Smoking Loon, two inexpensive labels from the folks at Sebastiani. I’ve always been a big fan of Sebastiani wines, so when a friend held a blind Cabernet tasting where Aquinas beat out some very expensive bottles, I had to seek them out. Indeed, the Aquinas Cabs are consistently good. Sadly, I didn’t take notes on my last bottle of Aquinas, but here’s what I wrote about the 2005 Smoking Loon Syrah. “Pretty jammy upon opening, but balanced out nicely on the second day. For $8 (Shopper’s Village), a pretty solid everyday wine. Will have to try it again on pizza night.” Aquinas is tricky to find in Lex – The Village Vineyard on Harrodsburg Rd. occasionally carries it. You can also find it at Bigg’s Supermarkets in Cincinnati.

Another $8 Cabernet I was impressed with is a quirky little wine called Pizza Vino (USA/California). I actually picked up a bottle at a Columbus, Ohio gas station… intrigued by its claims to be a simple, everyday pizza wine. A name like that was a dare to try it. I fully expected to take one sip and dump the bottle, but instead was treated to a remarkably bold California Cabernet. I’m told Pizza Vino is widely distributed in the Columbus/Cincinnati/Northern KY area… or just go the the Speedway next to Port Columbus Airport.

Another favorite for the month was the 2005 Peachy Canyon Incredible Red (USA/California). ($12 at TJ’s) “I thought this one was pretty well balanced. Cedar and hints of chocolate on the nose, oak, toast, black raspberry and pepper on the palate, and a long finish that reminded me of a decent quality cigar. I’ll be buying this one again.”

I’ll leave off with a wine for the non-wine drinkers, or those who want wine but can’t drink alcohol. The Ariel Blanc (USA/California) $8 is a non-alcoholic wine made by J. Lohr. Most non-alcoholic wines are terrible, but this one is quite pleasant as J. Lohr uses a different method of extracting the alcohol from the wine. It resembles a Sauvignon Blanc, is slightly floral, and actually has notable complexity.

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