Memorable wines on a meat-loaf budget

Look for these low-priced standouts
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

This time of year, I'm always a little bothered by that old chestnut "Life's too short to drink bad wine." It's clear that whoever coined the phrase probably hadn't just made a serious dent in the family finances thanks to holiday gift giving and entertaining. January is simply not a good time to be splurging on wine. Not that spending less on wine means you have to drink bad wine. But the fact is, the more austere your budget, the harder it is to drink very good wine.

Harder, yes; impossible, no. There does exist a whole universe of moderately priced but delicious wines that are easy to buy and effortless to drink. I call them Wednesday night meat-loaf wines. And, frankly, the world needs them. If every wine were a pricey purchase meant for a special occasion, the historic role of wine as an accompaniment to dinner every night would (sadly) be lost.

From a practical standpoint, then, the question is, How do you get the most bang for your buck? Are there strategies for finding wines with modest price tags that taste like they cost a lot more? Yes. And here are some effective ones.

1. Explore wine regions known for value. Currently, the best place on the globe for this is Australia. Because that country has a relatively sparse population, wine companies there are very savvy about producing good-value wines for export. At the same time, Australian winemakers are some of the most talented in the world, and there are dozens of regions well suited for growing grapes that can be turned into delicious, moderately priced wines. Four other good sources of top-notch, reasonable wines are New Zealand, Spain, southern Italy, and, closer to home, Washington State. As for Chile and Argentina, they both produce well-priced, delicious wines, but you may have to sort through a lot of inexpensive, bland-tasting stuff to find them.

2. Within famous wine-growing areas, consider lesser-known regions. A perfect example is the Mâconnais region in Burgundy, France. Mâcons ― as some of the wines are known ― cost $10 to $14 or so, while the really famous whites from renowned appellations like Puligny-Montrachet can range from $50 to $100. All are made from Chardonnay grapes.

3. Price shop. The best deals aren't necessarily at your local supermarket, the nearest warehouse-type retailer, or your favorite wine shop. On the other hand, the best price could be at any one of those places. Since most wines move through several middlemen and various distribution channels before they become available to us, wine pricing is complex. So check around before you buy. And if you find a wine you like at a good price, buy a whole case. Virtually every wine shop gives case discounts.

In the end, it's important to have realistic expectations. Wednesday night meat-loaf wines are just that. They're usually not tremendously complex, they probably won't inspire you to write a sonnet, and they're not big on finesse. But when these wines are good, they're very satisfying. They're comfort wines ― just what you need in January.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: McPherson Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Southeastern Australia), $8. A soft, mouth-filling wine with tasty black cherry, coffee bean, date, and plum flavors. Pairs well with almost any meat dish.

BEST IN THEIR CLASS

WHITES

Geyser Peak Chardonnay 1999 (Russian River Valley, CA), $16. Juicy and packed with apple fruit and vanilla.

Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc 2000 (North Coast, CA), $14. A crisp surge of green apple, grapefruit, and lemon.

Jepson Sauvignon Blanc 2000 (Mendocino), $11. Herbal and melony, with a nice fresh character.

Zaca Mesa Chardonnay 2000 (Santa Barbara County), $15. Fresh, citrusy, clean, and creamy.

REDS

Barwang "Regional Selection" Merlot 1998 (Coonawarra, Australia), $14. Richness and spice here, with notes of plum, black currant, and toast.

Bogle Petite Sirah 1999 (California), $10. Bold and gutsy, this is one big wine for a small price.

Trinchero Family Estates "Proprietor's Series" Zinfandel 1997 (Amador County, CA), $16. Ripe, rich, and full of berries, this is the kind of wine that ensures Zinfandel its cult following. Available through the winery: (800) 967-4663 or www.sutterhome.com.

Sunset's Wine Club