Paul Giamou / Istock; illustration by Serge Bloch

Shopping for a wine-lover's gift? Here are some of our judges' favorite bottles from the Sunset International Wine Competition

GOLD MEDALISTS FOR $15 OR LESS

Consider this your best-buy list.

  • Bogle 2010 Petite Sirah (California; $11). Spot-on, with brassy blueberries and blackberries, spice, and substantial tannins.
  • Chalone 2010 Chardonnay (Monterey County; $13). This has it all: ideally ripe apple, citrus, and green melon; a streak of minerality; and a hint of caramel.
  • Fog Head 2010 Highland Series Reserve Chardonnay (Monterey; $15). Tropical fruit and a touch of lemon oil give this bright wine lots of personality with a crispy side.
  • Four Vines 2010 “Naked” Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County; $12). A basketful of fresh peaches, with a touch of butteriness and keen balance.
  • Hahn 2010 “GSM” Grenache 62%, Syrah 34%, Mourvèdre 4% (Central Coast; $14). Juicy cherry flavors, pepper and spice notes, and solid structure.
  • J. Lohr 2010 “South Ridge” Syrah (Paso Robles; $15). Supple and long; juicy boysenberries and cassis kissed by chocolate and vanilla.
  • Milbrandt 2011 “Traditions” Pinot Gris (Columbia Valley; $13). Pretty white-blossom nose with pear, stone fruit, and citrus.
  • Wente 2010 “Southern Hills” Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay; $15). Effusive cassis aromas, blackberry and blueberry flavors, and a velvety mouth-feel.
 Serving up a round of tastings at the competition

BEST BUBBLIES

Food-truck take-home is a fine excuse to pop open a sparkler any night of the week. Below are some of our top performers.

  • Berlucchi NV “’61” Brut (Franciacorta DOCG, Italy; $30). Excellent balance with crisp citrus and apple and a hint of baked biscuit.
  • Cleto Chiarli NV “Amabile” (Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, Italy; $12). Dark red and fruity, with the slight tannins and sweetness Lambrusco fans love.
  • Freixenet NV “Elyssia” Gran Cuvée Brut (Cava DO, Spain; $20). Sophisticated, rich, and zingy, with yeasty aromas, peach, pear, ginger, and subtle toastiness.
  • Gloria Ferrer 2007 Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Blancs (Carneros; $28). Toast, brioche, apple, and citrus on an elegant frame, delivered with great verve.
  • Laetitia 2007 Méthode Champenoise Brut Rosé (Arroyo Grande Valley; $28). Delicate strawberry, cranberry, citrus, and pleasant yeastiness; focused and crisp.
  • Schramsberg 2004 Reserve (North Coast; $110). Heady brioche, toast, and light cocoa aromas; baked apple and cranberry flavors round out the mid-palate, with a brisk, effervescent finish.
  • Valdellovo NV Extra Dry “Anno Zero” (Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG, Italy; $16). Scents of white peach and melon lead to a full, creamy mouth-feel and a long, refreshing finish.
A tough day of judging

BEST CABS

They call Cabernet Sauvignon the “king of reds.” These earned the title with top-tier scores.

  • Amaro 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley; $30). A pleasing herbal, green olive, and graphite side joins rich cassis.
  • Black Stallion 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $65). Graceful, fresh, and balanced, with gravelly minerals, blackberries, and understated oak notes.
  • Hollywood & Vine 2008 “2480” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $83). Savory smokiness and sweet vanilla frame well-ripened black cherry and currant; rich yet fresh.
  • Midsummer 2009 Tomasson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $44). An extracted, flashy wine, with deep color, toasty complexity, and freshness.
  • Pepper Bridge 2009 Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Walla Walla Valley; $60). Deep and luscious, with blueberries, black cherries, and lively acidity.
  • PerryMoore 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $100). Lovely grip, with concentrated black fruit, crushed herbs, and spices.
  • Riboli Family 2009 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford; $52). Full-bodied and seamless, with ultra-concentrated black fruit and a palate-cleansing close.
  • Sterling 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; $26). Aromatic and darkly decadent with plum, boysenberry, mocha, and vanilla.
Voting for favorite bottles

MOST OFFBEAT WINNERS

Love the unusual? Loathe drinking the same thing everyone else is? Here’s your beverage list.

  • James Arthur 2011 Edelweiss (Nebraska; $17). This white grape was developed to withstand cold winters. Here, it’s slightly spritzy and semisweet, with bright Granny Smith apple flavors and a clean, balanced finish.
  • William Chris 2011 John Dale Vineyards Blanc du Bois (Washington County, Texas; $28). Yes, Blanc du Bois is a grape, too, in this case with characteristic honeyed florals, tropical fruit, and mouth-filling texture.
  • Chiarito 2009 Fox Hill Vineyards Negroamaro (Mendocino; $32). Dried herbs and crispy-edged brownies spice up ripe dark fruit and dusty tannins.
  • Sea Mist NV Cranberry/Raspberry Wine (Oregon; $14). Beautiful definition of cranberry and raspberry fruit, with impressive richness and a smooth finish.
  • Peter Vella NV Sangria (American; $11). If you don’t have time to make your wine punch from scratch, this is the way to go.
  • Eaglemount NV Ginger Cider (Washington State; $14). Clean and long—ginger hits just the right note on the nose with the apple aromas.
Voting for favorite bottles

PERFECT ZINS

All-American Zinfandel is great with a pungent, spicy, fruity turkey dinner.

  • Ancient Peaks 2010 Zinfandel (Paso Robles; $17). Cranberries and cherries are sprinkled with spices and brightened with acidity.
  • Fritz 2009 Estate Grown Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley; $25). Red cherries keep this one bright, but darker berries, licorice notes, and earth keep it interesting.
  • MacLeod Family 2010 Indian Springs Ranch Zinfandel (Sonoma Valley; $28). Textbook Zinfandel: wild raspberries and spicy black pepper in a mouth-filling style.
  • Meadowcroft 2009 Zinfandel (Sonoma County; $34). Rich, deep fruit, with good structure and balance and just a hint of toast.
  • Scott Harvey 2010 Mountain Selection Zinfandel (Amador County; $22). Well-ripened red fruit with a dash of briary spice and a firmly structured, racy finish.
  • Shenandoah 2010 Special Reserve Zinfandel (Amador County; $11). Great balance between fruit and acidity. Brambly berries touched with spice.
  • V. Sattui 2009 Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel (Howell Mountain, Napa Valley; $42). Peppery, with exuberant red and black fruit and a long, spicy finish.
  • Zinfatuation 2010 Zinfandel (Amador County; $10). Shy aromas rebound with mouth-filling texture and firm structure.
The best gift wines culled from the judges' favorites

GREAT GIFTS

Challenging people on your holiday gift list? We’ve got the perfect bottles for your...

  • Brother: Troublemaker by Austin Hope NV “Blend 3” (Paso Robles; $20). A classy response to all those years of his teasing.
  • Old college roommate who’s turned into a wine snob: Goldeneye 2009 Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley; $55). Hedge your bets with a variety that’s hot, but with a bottle that has the pedigree of an illustrious Napa winery (Duckhorn) behind it.
  • Pop culture–obsessed friend: Barrymore 2011 Pinot Grigio (Delle Venezie IGT; $20). With this winning Grigio, Drew Barrymore joins the legions of celebrities jumping into the wine biz.
  • New spouse: Fidélitas 2011 Semillon (Columbia Valley; $18). The name is the message: fidelity, loyalty, honor.
  • Recent college grad: Fetzer 2010 “Valley Oaks” Moscato (California; $8). Don’t waste big bucks on the bottle you tuck in this stocking—22-year-olds know the wine to drink now is the sweet white the likes of Drake and Gucci Mane have been rapping about.
  • Boss: Jordan 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley; $52). A role model of a California Cab.