Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a little obsessed with wine. But I’m far from a lush—wine is meant to be breathed in, slowly savored, and enjoyed while relaxing. And I’m a collector too—I’m proud of my small but unique cellar of about 125 wines that come from California, Oregon, Washington State, Virginia, France’s Burgundy Region, and even Florida (who knew?).
But I, like my colleague Todd Stiefel, also would not call myself a connoisseur—just a fan of wine who loves to share her favorites with others. That means you won’t hear “hint of Japanese pear” or “layers of strawberry, cherry, and cranberry” (how can they tell all three fruit in one sip?!) from me, but you will hear basic descriptions like full or light bodied, dry or sweet, heavy or light tannins—which can be helpful in determining what you like. Basically, I think these wines are just plain good. But don’t take my word for it. Try them yourself.
#5: 2008 Alamos Chardonnay.
Yes, great Chardonnay doesn’t only come from California or Burgundy—this wine derives its grapes from the Mendoza region of Argentina, more famous for its Malbec (which I also highly recommend under the Alamos brand). It doesn’t have that heavy, oaky taste—rather, it’s very smooth to drink and pairs nicely with light dishes like fish or chicken. WineEnthusiast awarded the Alamos Chardonnay 88 points and named it a Top 100 Best Buy. Not bad for a wine that is available in almost any store for less than $10.
#4: 2009 Medlock Ames Sauvignon Blanc Alexander Valley.
Medlock Ames was just featured in FoodandWine magazine as an up-and-coming winery in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Do yourself a favor and snatch up their Sauvignon Blancs—I ordered half a case and got a discount so that it came out to about $22 a bottle. This might be a little out of your budget, but you won’t regret it. The alcohol in other Sauvignon Blancs can be very high—this is light, crisp, and perfect for the outdoors.
#3: 2006 Courtney Benham Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley.
The next time you go to a restaurant, don’t be like everyone else and order a bottle of Pinot Noir—pick a Zinfandel, and I promise you won’t regret it. Zinfandels are medium-bodied, so they go well with almost anything on a menu—it can hold its own against a juicy and flavorful rib eye, but it’s not overpowering to ruin your herb roast chicken. And I think Zins goes great with pasta dishes—dare I say, better than Chianti. I recommend the Courtney Benham Zinfandel—the Dry Creek Valley area produces great Zins—and I share a humorous story of my first experience drinking Zinfandel on my wine blog, WineforYour 20s.
#2: 2007 Patz and Hall Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.
Okay, if you are going to order Pinot at a restaurant—and I don’t blame you, it’s my favorite red too—go for anything from Patz and Hall. Sommeliers love it, so you’re bound to find it on multiple wine lists. Patz and Hall makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir only, so you know they’re committed to making the best. This Pinot is soft and easy to drink—very little tannins, but heavy on the fruit. Yes, it’s pricey at $42 a bottle, but that’s about average for good Pinot from California.
#1: 2003 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley.
It is so hard to find good Cabernet in your local grocery store, especially under $20. Trust me, I’ve looked. So expect to pay some money for good Cabernet—you know it’s good when you don’t make a pucker face because it’s too tannic. I recommend Etude Winery, well known in California for producing high quality Cabernet. I once did a tasting at their winery in Carneros and sampled four different Cabernets from different years—that’s how proud they are of their Cabs. This is a special occasion wine at about $80 a bottle—let it age for a few years, then bring it out for your anniversary or milestone birthday. The recommended drinking window from CellarTracker.com is 2007 to 2017, so you have plenty of time.
Honorable Mention: Black Box Merlot.
That’s right—I’m recommending a boxed wine. Don’t knock it! Boxed wines ensure that the wine stays fresh, so you can enjoy a glass in the evening without having to quickly finish an entire bottle. But skip the Franzias—Black Box is a respected brand with a range of solid wines. My favorite is the Merlot (yes, Merlot is back, folks) because it’s easy to drink and goes with anything.