Corkscrew - Stooping to conquer

California is making cheaper wine better

One of the most deliciously earth-moving experiences in wine life is finding a so-damn-good-I-wanna-guzzle-it-all-day-long bottle of wine. It's even better if you don't have to raid the couch-cushion change to afford it. Before, these elusive wines emerged from countries outside the United States, but we're finally figuring out how to do cheap in these parts. The glut of grapes is helping, as are fearlessly creative winemakers and less expensive winemaking techniques. But maybe wineries just aren't as concerned with the fancy appellations anymore, listing the generic "California" instead. Blending juice from various places around the state — what the "California" appellation means — really separates the fearless from the fearful, as does sourcing fruit from lesser-known places. What consumers gain from this gumption is good wine for a reasonable price. And we're finally making it stateside.

Most winemakers say great wine begins with quality raw material. The best wine is a mixture of 90 percent plump, ripe grapes, and 10 percent everything else, like technique or oak barrels. Think of an apple pie. If the apples are too tart, it doesn't matter how much cinnamon or butter you add, the pie will still end up inedible — and tasting nothing like apples. So when you taste wine, it should really taste 90 percent like fruit and 10 percent other stuff like oak or butter. If the scale tips, the wine starts a-suckin'.

And that precariously delicate balance is happening in less expensive California wines. You don't need expensive grapes, high-powered consultants and celebrity winemakers — only raw talent and the patience to hunt for quality ingredients no one else has discovered. Then, there's the creativity to produce an elixir people will buy. World, I think we've figured it out — let's guzzle.

Recommended wines

Tin Roof 2002 Syrah-Cabernet California. Image Image Image Image Image . $10. From the folks at Murphy Goode comes a fantastic second label, value-priced wine. A dark fruit bomb goes off with blackberry, cherry and blueberry. A touch of black pepper finishes it off.

Bonterra 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast. Image Image Image Image Image . $13. Fruit forward, uncomplicated and full of red raspberries. Easy to cozy up with.

Cline 2001 Syrah California. Image Image Image Image Image . $9. Full-bodied and slaps you with black pepper, tobacco and dark cherry. Then it gives you a deep massage. Not a wine for the faint of heart.

Chumeia Vineyards 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon California. Image Image Image Image Image . $12. A cool wine that matures in the glass. From black cherry and plum to maple syrup and roses. Try it with food and watch it have some fun.

Wente 2003 Riesling Arroyo Seco Monterey. Image Image Image Image Image . $10. Elegant, slightly sweet honey soothes a tart lime and red apple experience. Thick with flavor and pleasure.

Wente 2002 Chardonnay San Francisco Bay Livermore Valley. Image Image Image Image Image . $12 Honeysuckle, oak, butter and lemon mix together like a hot toddy. Well-balanced acidity great with or without food.

Camelot 2001 Merlot California. Image Image Image Image Image . $7. A simple, sultry, oaky, cherry-driven Merlot with some kick to it. So cheap, I wanna hug it.

Tamas Estates 2003 Pinot Grigio Monterey County. Image Image Image Image Image . $12. This winery in Livermore Valley California is coming up with some cool Italian gems. Its Pinot Grigio is soft and supple with bright, zesty lime on the tongue. Refreshing acidic finish makes it perfect for sipping on a warm day.

Three Thieves 2003 Zinfandel California. Image Image Image Image Image . $11 (one liter). One of the first wineries to test the premium jug-wine waters, these guys are having fun. Blackberry jammy, smoky, spicy and quite drinkable.