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When Big Isn't Bad

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The wine blogosphere was all atwitter last week over a published report revealing three large wine companies — E&J Gallo, Constellation and The Wine Group — produce more than half of all the wine consumed in the United States.

Considering America drinks more wine — by volume and by value — than any other nation in the world, the big three couldn't possibly quench the national thirst with nifty handcrafted wines made in an idyllic small vineyard in the heart of wine country.

A whole bunch of it comes from vast vineyards that are farmed for volume, news that's not really news but rather a fact of life that is rarely discussed by those who worship at the altar of new French oak barrels and trendy cult cabernets.

Hello, most of America — indeed, most of the world — drinks inexpensive wine produced in industrial facilities bulging with enormous stainless steel tanks and all of the tricks of modern winemaking, so your wine will taste somewhat like the more expensive juice when it's really not.

This is a problem? I think not. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy those special bottles with their unique personalities and interesting narratives as much as the next wine geek. But sometimes a wine is just an adult beverage (meaning merely that it contains alcohol) that you would prefer over beer or a distilled spirit. It usually doesn't have to be any more than that, though more discerning consumers might like it to have a pleasant taste.

Consider the typical family that might enjoy a bottle of wine on the table with dinner each night. If the average price of wine they drank was $30, their annual budget for wine would come to $10,950, a number that would be difficult for many families to swallow. So make that average cost $20 per bottle, but the $7,300 tab would still be difficult to swallow for many.

That's why the majority of wine consumed in the U.S. costs $10 or less. That's what the average person is willing to pay, or what he or she can afford on a daily basis.

So are we a nation of rubes, drinking cheap swill because we don't know any better, unwilling to pay the price for a decent bottle of wine? No, we aren't. We are no different than the inhabitants of such wine-savvy nations as France, Italy and Spain.

Should you happen to vacation in Paris at some point, you will notice that it's almost impossible to find a classified-growth Bordeaux or a Burgundy cru in most bistros and brasseries. What you will find are the much less expensive wines of the Loire Valley, the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc. Out in the countryside, it's even more difficult to find top-notch Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Travel to Italy, and you will meet people in small villages who still take jugs to the back door of their favorite local wineries, filling them with inexpensive wine that failed to make the cut so it was never bottled.

Spaniards are notorious for their fondness for Rioja "crianza," which is the cheapest Rioja you can buy; and also inexpensive wines from La Mancha, Jumilla and Navarra.

It is hardly a crime against the culture to find beauty in a wine made for the masses, and with that in mind I give you a winning wine from the recent Winemaker Challenge in San Diego. A panel of three winemakers evaluated cabernet sauvignons priced at $10 or less and awarded a Platinum medal to the non-vintage Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($6.99).

They all agreed, it didn't stand a chance in the championships against the 2009 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain ($110), which was voted Best of Class Cabernet Sauvignon, but they all found it to be delicious and a winemaking achievement within its price class. I imagine it was produced in enormous volume; perhaps millions of cases.

But if you can buy cheap and good, that seems to me a winning combination, no matter what the cognoscenti think.

BEST VALUE

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Marco Felluga 2011 Pinot Grigio 'Mongris,' Collio, Italy ($18) — Pinot grigio from Friuli in northern Italy, and in particular the subzone of Collio, has its own personality that sets it apart from other wines made from the same grape in other parts of Italy and the world.

Part of that difference is textural. Pinot grigio from the Collio has body and texture, which is quite different from the light pinot grigio produced elsewhere. Mongris from Marco Felluga shows a floral note on the nose, with aromas of apple and green citrus on the palate, and a hint of smokiness, despite the fact it hasn't spent so much as a single day in an oak barrel. This vintage has the heft to stand up to the strong flavors of grilled fish and steamed shellfish. Rating: 92.

TASTING NOTES

Russiz Superiore 2011 Sauvignon, Collio, Italy ($24) — One of my greatest disappointments when traveling through northern Italy, principally Alto Adige and Friuli, is that so few of their outstanding sauvignons make it to the United States. Both areas are famous for pinot grigio, and that's where the demand is.

Russiz Superiore is the happy exception, and its sauvignon is consistently delicious, as good as most sauvignon-based wines from Bordeaux and the highly acclaimed sauvignon blancs of France's Loire Valley. This vintage of Russiz Superiore is exceptional, exhibiting notes of grapefruit and white peach, with exquisite balance and a persistent, lingering finish. Rating: 94.

La Rochelle 2010 Pinot Meunier, Four Sisters Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($38) — Winemaker Tom Stutz, after a long and distinguished career at Mirassou, is beginning to hit on all cylinders at La Rochelle, the winery he opened with Steve Mirassou shortly after E&J Gallo purchased the Mirassou label.

Stutz enjoys working with quirky grapes, so it's no surprise that he has embraced pinot meunier, a red grape typically used in sparkling wine production (you may remember Mirassou once made sparkling wine). The '09 La Rochelle Pinot Meunier was superb, but this latest vintage is perhaps even better. It is lightly colored but intensely flavored, with aromas of plum and raspberry, supported by firm acidity.

While anything but overly oaked, it does indeed show hints of spice from its time spent in French and American barrels. This is a wine that will improve in the cellar over the next five to seven years, but it will deliver immediate pleasure if that's what the occasion calls for. Rating: 94.

Calera 2009 Pinot Noir, Reed Vineyard, Mt. Harlan ($52) — Typical of Calera, the 2009 Reed is light in color but long on potential. Much like Gary Farrell at Alysian, Josh Jensen at Calera eschews the conventional model for New World pinot and makes wines with an eye toward the future. He's not afraid to release a pinot with a bit of bite on the finish, and that presence of tannin so many winemakers fear makes the Calera wines stellar in the cellar. The Reed exhibits earthy minerality and notes of black cherry and strawberry, flavors that will grow more persistent and complex as the wine ages. Lay this wine down for at least another three to five years. Rating: 93.

Marco Felluga 2010 Molamatta, Collio, Italy ($23) — Friuli's Collio zone, in the foothills of the Alps, is home to a number of white grape varieties with which most American consumers are unfamiliar. Wines like Molamatta could well change that.

From the renowned Marco Felluga production team, Molamatta is a blend of tocai friulano, ribolla gialla and pinot bianco, three grapes that are common in the region.

The pinot bianco is fermented in oak barrels, much like a white Burgundy, and thus lends a toasty, smoky nuance to the finished wine. The other two are fermented in stainless steel tanks, preserving their freshness and aromatics.

The aromas range from familiar stone fruits to exotic tropical fragrances, giving the wine the essence of sweetness though fermented to dryness. It finishes with a subtle note of baking spice. Beautiful, and very, very different. Rating: 92.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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