“Red wine” is a beverage category so unbelievably diverse it can feel like you have to take a class before you go shopping for it. It’s made nearly everywhere in the world, it encompasses the distinct characteristics of thousands of grape varietals, and people get really fetishy and weird about it. Serious, long-lived reds like Cabernet Sauvignon can command exorbitant prices especially when they come from regions with a high cachet factor (Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy, for example). But there is a vast diversity of really great stuff out there, from Aglianico to Zinfandel, and it doesn’t have to break the bank.
Here are 25 California reds with a really good price-to-quality ratio. They run from light-bodied to very intense, from fruity to leathery, from lighthearted to Extremely Serious. None of them will put you out more than $25. All are excellent dinner companions, friends to grill-tending folk, party-suitable and as reasonable to sip a la carte as to pair with food.
Grenache is a widely planted grape that probably originated in Spain. It likes hot, dry conditions (welcome to Paso Robles!) and produces wines with low tannins and a lot of red berry and spice notes-leathery or tarry notes enter the picture with age. Adelaida’s Grenache is a cherry and tobacco affair on the nose, with accents of allspice berries and a hint of cinnamon. The dominant flavor notes are strawberries, orange peel and oolong tea with a little black cherry. Though it’s perfectly happy to hang out with grilled meat, it’s at least as well suited to lighter dishes and since it’s a versatile character it’s a good pick for continuity with a range of tapas or small appetizer-type things (I think it’s great with smoked almonds). Also a great wine for sipping solo, paired with your back porch and a good book.
I’ve found Zinfandel can provoke a snooty disdain from some people and my contention is that these people do not know what they are talking about. (They might be victims of the dreaded “white zin” that ravaged wedding parties in the 1980s; sometimes prejudice dies a slow, slow death. Properly handled, Zinfandel (Primitivo if you’re in Italy and Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia) is a structured, robust red wine that’s very responsive to microclimate-grapes from cooler zones produce markedly different wines from those grown in hot spots. Zin is the heritage grape of California and there are plantings that date to the late 19th century that are still making incredible wine. Ancient Peaks also hails from the Paso Robles AVA, where summers are hot. This wine has a lot of structure and is on the intense side, with an intriguing blueberry and white pepper nose. It has the kind of texture wine people will refer to as “chewy.” The hallmark flavors of blackberries, black cherries and vanilla are strong and there are some spicy finish notes and a hint of something caramelized. This wine is begging for pizza.
A cool-climate Zinfandel from Mendocino County, whose major exports are fog, chilly Pacific wind, and some of my favorite wines. If you’ve never compared a warm-climate Zin to something like this one, do it, because it’s really interesting. Words like “chewy and “jammy” do not come up with this wine; it’s silken and rounded. The nose hints at pomegranates and sour cherries. On the palate, an eccentric mélange of herbaceous and spice notes (I get nutmeg, and something like fenugreek) accompany a cedar and raspberry core. This wine is luscious but crisp and taut. A good friend to blue cheeses, pasta Bolognese, and anything you happen to be applying to an open flame, including Portobello mushrooms.
Pinot Noir is the classic red grape of Burgundy, and has become a staple of California’s coastal-influence AVAs. Santa Barbara’s Au Bon Climat makes a lot of wines that tend to go for a lot more than $25, but don’t think the more affordable price means the quality isn’t great. This is an incredibly versatile food wine and a major crowd-pleaser, light-hearted and casually elegant, with dominant notes of alpine strawberry and plum. Fruity and well-balanced. Seriously, pair it with whatever you happen to be eating.
Syrah is most famously a Rhone varietal but it’s widely planted in many countries (In Australia and other New World wine regions it is often called Shiraz). It usually makes medium to full-bodied wines with significant tannin. Its flavor profile will depend somewhat on the climate in which it’s grown-this is a coastal climate iteration with sturdy structure (you could probably age it for several years) and an almost meaty character (in fact it’s on the intense side for a cooler climate Syrah). Peppery notes mingle with a bit of olive leaf and a lot of woodsy notes (there’s a hint of earth to it too.) Cranberry and pomegranate are also detectable. This wine’s soulmate is probably grilled lamb, but as always, play around. Good wine is good wine and it’ll tend to tell you what it wants.
Banshee is one of those wineries I kind of don’t like to write about because I don’t want to share. Out of Mendocino County, this red blend contains a wide range of hotter-climate varietals and expresses notes of chocolate and plums, blueberry jam and herbs, tar and baking spice and a blackberry kick that lets you know there’s Zinfandel in there. This is not a light-bodied wine. At all. It’s rich and powerful and frankly kind of a beast-but a charming, elegant beast. It’s a wine that wants to be in a dialogue with red meat, but that doesn’t mean vegetarians should shun it; it will play along beautifully with wild mushrooms, pizza, grilled veggies, and probably a lot of other stuff.
That’s right. I said I didn’t want to let the Banshee cat out of the bag and I am doing it twice because it’s such a good value and it might not stay that way. It is getting hard to find great Pinot Noir at this price point, to be honest. This one is great. The overwhelming impression I get from it is those red-fleshed Japanese plums, but also, cherry and blueberry and a forest floor character, something woodsy and mossy. A little wild strawberry too. There is a bit of a marine funk to this wine, and it is highly intriguing. It is a red that will happily hang out with seafood dishes, but I wouldn’t rule out turkey. Or duck breast.
From the unsexy AVA of Lodi, CA-yes, that Lodi-this Zin comes from vines that are a lot older than you are and the main words that come to mind are “lush” and “high-voltage.” Blackberry for days. Brambly goodness gives way to spice notes, vanilla, and some oaky stuff. Soft tannins, lingering finish. Lavish stuff, and like many a Zinfandel, a great pizza wine. Don’t stop at pizza. At this price you can experiment.
OK: Honesty time. Duckhorn is on my list of wineries I’m not always in a huge hurry to say super nice things about because most of their wine, while very good, is an amazing example of Napa Valley Attitude Pricing Disease, also known as Pretty Damn Big for Your Britches Syndrome. Their Decoy line is a marked exception, so here we go. This is a Merlot based blend, so a velvety texture and a plummy nose are hallmark traits. You’ll also taste blackcurrant, chocolate, cloves and licorice. It’s complex and unfolds beautifully. Another great friend to mushrooms, or if you are someone who like a well-marbled rib eye, you and this bottle have something in common and should get together to discuss it.
When you consider the lifespan of a grapevine and the lifespan of a fad, it is rather incredible to see how prices for Merlot have stayed down ever since they took a knockout punch from Paul Giamatti in Sideways. Truly. People, take advantage of this because it will eventually dust itself off and start pricing itself out of your weeknight dinner range eventually and you’ll wish you’d stored cases of absurdly cheap, super good Merlot bottles. Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma County makes a lovely one, with less plumminess than some Merlots but all the smooth, soft, velvet-like structure. Cherries pop up here, along with blackberry, tea, cedar and cinnamon, a little mocha note on the finish, which is long. This stuff is just so easygoing it’s harder to say what not to pair it with. Have you ever had that thing with the soft polenta and the poached egg in the porcini broth? That. Also pasta. Also anything meaty. Oh. Gazpacho. That’s what I wouldn’t pair it with. I knew there was something.
One day I was riding a bike near downtown Sonoma and came upon a massive annoying hill that I would have skipped had there not clearly been a pretty old winery up there. I told the guy in the capacious tasting room I was on a bike and couldn’t carry much of anything with me so not to bother pouring a whole flight. Nine wines later, I was signing up for the club membership and wondering why I hadn’t heard of Gundlach-Bundschu. Gun-Bun, as it is known around here, is one of Sonoma’s oldest wineries and still among its best. Most of their juice you will not find available at this price point. The Mountain Cuvee is a happy, happy exception. If Decoy’s Red Blend is the Napa version of a Merlot-Cab fusion, these guys have nailed the Sonoma expression. Full-bodied and a bit smoky, with tar and cigar notes alongside chocolate, cherries and espresso, it is specifically crafted to go with whatever and that is how you should treat it. All the red and black fruits, all the herbs and woods, all the soft, lasting voluptuousness-none of the snoot. One of my favorites.
Meanwhile, back in Paso Robles, J. Lohr is turning out excessively affordable for the goodness wines including this Syrah. The last few years have seen severe drought conditions in California-this doesn’t necessarily mean bad conditions for wine grapes. In fact many of them seem to be gluttons for that kind of punishment, thriving on parched conditions and turning out lower volumes of grapes but with higher intensity. So for example, 2014 was a good year for a lot of folks making warm climate wines. In this case, the typical Syrah notes of plum, blueberry and tea, followed by various baking spice characteristics. Cherries and pepper and a little bit of something tart on the finish; cranberry or pomegranate. This is a dense wine with good structure and great depth. If you appreciate bacon, I suspect this wine does too.
Fred and Ginger. Bogie and Bacall. The CA North Coast and Pinot Noir. ‘Nuff said? This beauty has an almost candied or sugary nose but do not be fooled, it’s bone dry on the palate. Luscious, with a lot of cherry and black plum with spicy accents. Coastal-influence classic hints of forest floor, cedar, and flowers (violets?) as well as a tiny hint of stone. Vivid intensity, good bones, a lean but not austere wine with enormous versatility and a high likelihood of making everyone happy. You like salmon? So does this guy. I bet it would have a positive working relationship with goat cheese as well.
Anderson Valley Pinot = yes, please. Ruby color, damson plum on the nose, smooth and somewhat restrained both in aromatics and on the palate. This is a medium-bodied, lithe, slightly ethereal pinot, expressing primarily black plum and dark cherry flavors, a hint of cola and some stony notes. A soft, evanescent finish. If well-structured but not overly intense is your thing, this is your bottle. A friend to fish and poultry, and a good foil for a spring vegetable ragout or roasted young potatoes. Easy, easy, easy.
The name of this Piemontese grape means “little sweet one,” but it doesn’t generally make sweet wines. Dolcetto is not widely planted in California so it’s fun to see this one pop up in the Santa Ynez Valley. Dolcetto is not a wine you would typically age; it’s meant to be enjoyed in the bloom of its youth. Easygoing, light, brilliant ruby tone. While completely dry, some of the aromatics will invoke candied cherries – or cherry candy. Aromatic herbs unfold on the palate (a basil/gardenia thing? And some wintry baking spice note that’s a little hard to pin down). It has a lively, bright acidity, modest tannins and a swift and elegant finish. Dolcetto is one of the world’s most un-fussy food wines, but I’d say try it with dishes from the same region of Italy: it’s the homeland of the white truffle and a haven for cream sauces, eggy things, veal, salumi and other not-so-light fare, but brach out in any direction you like. You can’t miss.
If I miss a chance to talk up my delightful pals at Quivira, assume I have been replaced by a bot and send someone to my house to investigate, please. These Dry Creek superstars make some spectacular wines, most of which you cannot hope to find in the under $25 range. This Zinfandel is a blessing of an exception and an example of what happens when you don’t let Zinfandel come into its overripe expression as a 16% ABV blackberry jam-bomb. This is a Zin with some restraint. Purple, with the ubiquitous blackberry note that lets you know it’s a Zin, and tones of dark cherry, earth, and saddle leather. It’s a rich, rich wine, but it’s not decadent, which I mean in the sense of decaying. It’s one of the more perfect Zinfandels especially for the money, and while you can and should drink it whenever the mood strikes, its true companions are robust, wintry comfort food dishes; think stews, roasted meats, stuffed winter squash.
For those of you who like your wines to be dark, brooding drama queens: I gotcha. Ravage Cabernet is a leather-clad Gothlet with raven-feather locks and a stash of clove cigarettes who likes blacklights, black lipstick, and moonless nights. Ribald full-bodied Cabernet featuring a lot of berry notes with a heavy dose of vanilla and coffee. Little bit of Cherry Coke. Decent structure, reasonable tannins, and a study in deep, dark and decadent. Pair it with game. Especially if you hunted it down yourself, with a handmade crossbow. If you have not fashioned a crossbow, feel free to pair this with a medium-rare hamburger. Wearing a lot of form-fitting black leather while you drink it will enhance the experience. Denim cutoffs and the company of a few friends on the back porch while the grill’s working is equally satisfying.
Ravenswood is a dependable and easy to find Sonoma County Zinfandel. It’s classic, it’s compact, it’s easy to deal with and it’s available at a great price thanks to other people who make Zinfandel a hangover waiting to happen. It’s warm-but not hot. It’s fruity but not nuts. It exhibits the traditional flavors and aromatics of the varietal: Dark berries, vanilla and baking spices, with hints of pepper and vanilla. Made from dry-farmed old vines that get the benefit of a marine influence, this is a rich wine that is not overwhelming. It probably wants to hang out with BBQ, braised ribs, or possibly smoked fish (I have not tried that personally but it seems reasonable). Structured enough to age for a while; inexpensive enough to dispense with all that and open ‘er up.
A “Rhone Ranger” (the term isn’t reserved for Bonny Doon wineguru Randall Graham any more) blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah and Petite Sirah, this is a wine that will not ever take itself too seriously. It’s lively and audacious and has a charming cherry-berry fruit-forward character with vivid aromatics and a very pleasant, lightly spicy finish. It’s juicy and crowd-pleasing and plain easy to drink. Summer backyard BBQ in a bottle.
7 Moons is Hq’ed in Napa, but the 7 Moons Red Blend sources fruit from the coast and from the Lodi area. It’s a kitchen sink type blend of Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Malbec, Cabernet and Grenache. It has an accordingly eclectic flavor profile: chocolate, strawberry jam, cherries, cola, and a host of subtler little elusive ghost notes; mineral, leather, black fruits. It’s a pretty big wine, with plenty of structure and good balance either in spite of or because of the wide-ranging blend. This is a fun wine to bring to a party. Or to sit with, as the labeling suggests, and contemplate the moon.
Pretty feisty tannins on this Cabernet from Lake County; it’ll age well for a while. Dark garnet color, balanced acidity earthy approach with berry aromatics and a hint of something slightly dusty. Light spice notes, dried cranberry, a decent ration of vanilla and oak on a fairly powerful finish. Cabernet’s drag-and-drop pairing is red meat, but you don’t have to stay in that neighborhood. Vegetarians will appreciate how interested it is in things like squashes, mushrooms, and strong cheeses-it holds up to some really tough-customer veggies, too, like arugula and red cabbage. At this price you can certainly let yourself play around.
From the something-for-absolutely-everyone land of Sonoma County, Steelhead Red is crafted from North Coast fruit and it’s definitely a people pleaser. Aromatics leap out of the glass-wild berries, flowers, something like wintergreen. The texture is silky and subtle and the palate is heavy on cherries with a coffee edge and a subtle caramelized quality. Hippie alert: Steelhead is a great place to spend your wine dollars because in addition to crafting a totally beautiful wine, they are dedicated to sustainable farming and winemaking practices as well as waterway restoration. If you feel label-triggered to actually pair this wine with steelhead, I wouldn’t even try to talk you out of it.
Petite Sirah tends to be inky, opaque, and intense. Which I love. Dominant notes in this one from Paso Robles are chocolate, peppercorn and black cherry, with a little blueberry and currant. Well-structured and very balanced. Plush mouthfeel. This wine will overwhelm extremely delicate foods and would rather hang out with assertive flavors including spicy Thai dishes.
Sourced from North Coast and Central Coast fruit, this Cabernet has firm, fine tannins and a layered palate of leathery, earthy and tobacco-leafy tones overlying a chocolate-covered-cherry thing and a hint of coffee. Plums and dried herbs unfold gradually. Very elegant texture. Its dream date pairing might really be plain dark chocolate and a handful of nuts. However, it will be good friends with crab and salmon, lamb and potatoes, pasta and polenta, and if you’re feeling nutsy, try it with grilled artichokes.
While I love True Myth most for their whites, this Cabernet from Paso Robles fruit should not be ignored. Winemaker Christian Roguenant is a master of aromatics and his wines are full of subtle tensions and intriguing layers. Typical Cab notes of blueberry, blackcurrant and peppery spice lead to cocoa powder, caramel and a significant cedar note. This is a persistent, long-finish wine with good cellaring potential, but that doesn’t mean you should save it. Like a lot of Cabernets, it’s… well, it’ll trigger steak-cravings. But again, don’t stop there. You can drink this kind of wine with a lot of things, and you should.