Much sound and fury have been expended recently by respondents on Eric Asimov’s blog “The Pour” — (look at the posts for Jan. 9 & 11) — about whence come the world’s best cheap wines, the consensus being that Spain, Italy and France (Argentina, Chile and Australia receive little credit) produce the best, the most authentic cheap wines and that California, basically, sucks. 05_wrangler_red_label_th.jpg
The idea seems to be that those picturesque European countries are filled with homey, little mom-and-pop wineries where the wines, made from ancient vines nurtured with love and craft passed down through family generations, not only epitomize the acme of terroir but the empyrean of dignity, nobility, honor and sincerity, while in California multinational corporations pump out millions of gallons of anonymous swill and unload it, via dazzling marketing campaigns and goofy critter labels, on an unsuspecting public. 05gewurzlabelsmall.jpg
That’s hardly fair.

I mean, if you have never sat down in some countryside cafe in France or Italy to a carafe of the locally-made vino rosso de la casa or the vin rouge de la maison, took a sip and said, “Whoa, man, I can’t drink this shit,” then you’ve been lucky indeed. Ever try to work your way through a tasting of Muscadet? Soave? Valpolicella? Never had a Cotes-du-Rhone that attacked your tongue like sandpaper? Never had a Rioja that tasted like shellac? Never had a $15 Bordeaux in which oak and tannin held a party but didn’t put fruit on their dance-cards?
Good wine and great wine; bad wine and decent wine; bland, innocuous, serviceable and forgettable wine: Friends, they’re made everywhere.

It’s true that California has not always set the best example, and indeed some of the blame must rest on the largest producers, with their “Founder’s Estate” cheapies that have nothing to do with the winery’s founder or his estate or their “Proprietor’s Reserve” wines that call into question the ludicrous term “reserve” because they make 500,000 cases and the “proprietor” is CEO of a bi-continental conglomerate. Yes, we’re familiar with all these factors, and the quality of a great deal of this wine — bland, innocuous, serviceable and forgettable, as I mentioned above — won’t turn soft-drink-and-iced-tea-guzzling Americans into a nation of thoughtful, considerate wine-drinkers. Perhaps — and here the dark, cynical pessimist in me erupts like Grendel from his loathsome lair — nothing will. campermerlot.jpg
But let’s shake those lurid shadows from our shoulders. I taste tons of $5 to $15 wines from California, and much of it is, sadly and predictably, B.I.S. & F., but how bad can life be when we have cheap wines from Rosenblum, Foppiano, Cline, Bonny Doon, Castle Rock and Bogle to choose from?

To whet your thirst, here are six cheapies from California I tasted and reviewed recently that should satisfy just about any palate: Happy Camper Merlot 2004, California, about $9 (I know, the package is way high-concept slick); Lockwood Chardonnay 2004, Monterey, about $10-$12; Hook & Ladder Gewurztraminer 2005, Russian River Valley, about $12; Shannon Ridge Wrangler Red 2005, Lake County, about $14 (a limited production blend of cabernet franc, syrah and barbera and Worth a Search); Bennett Family Reserve Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley, about $15; Hess Collection Artezin 2004, California, about $15 (94% zinfandel, 6% petite sirah).

And, to take the opposite tack, here’s a link to the “Refrigerator Door Wines” page on my website — — where yesterday I posted reviews of a dozen wines — five from Argentina, four from France, two from Italy and one from Spain — priced from about $7 to $15. Enjoy.