By Madeline Miller
When wine experts make a “best of” list, it can often be disheartening to the average wine drinker. It is simply not practical for most people to spend $80 on a bottle of wine, unless it is for a special occasion. So what can we drink with dinner without affecting our ability to buy the food, too?

The Sacramento Bee’s Mike Dunne helps to answer this question by offering his list of the year’s best inexpensive wines (so far). Dunne admits that he was bullied into writing this list when readers cried foul because his first list included only very expensive wine. Dunne defined a bargain as a little less or a little more than $10. Sounds like a bargain to me! Rather than include all the wines on the list, which you can view here, if you like, I will include only those that are more widely available. Here’s what Dunne had to say about a few of the wines on his best-bargains list:

Cycles Gladiator 2004 Central Coast Chardonnay ($10): Hahn Estates Winery in Monterey County, which brought us the HRM Rex Goliath line of value wines before selling that label to Constellation Wines, is back with a new series of bargain buys under the colorful brand Cycles Gladiator. The label is what first grabs your attention — a mythological nude nymph riding a winged bicycle, from an 1895 Parisian art poster for Alexandre Darracq’s bicycle company — but the wines are what take you on a pleasant ride through Central Coast vineyards. Most chardonnays at this price point are flabby and one-dimensional, but the Cycles Gladiator shimmers with tropical fruits such as pineapple and guava and refreshes the palate with zippy acidity. A little more than half the wine was aged in new French oak barrels, but the spice is no heavier than a tire patch.

Winemakers Adam LaZarre and Paul Clifton recommend that it be poured with grilled swordfish and a cucumber salad, or barbecued chicken with a sweet and spicy mustard glaze.

The Cycles Gladiator syrah and merlot, also from 2004 and also $10, are other great values.

Fetzer Vineyards 2005 Valley Oaks California Gewurztraminer ($9): At the recent California State Fair wine competition, this exquisitely balanced gewurztraminer won all sorts of awards, topped by being named the Best of Show white wine. We had it with hot dogs on the eve of the Fourth of July, and found its smell of rose petals and litchi nuts, its slightly sweet flavors of apricots and peaches, and its resuscitating spice and acid not at all intimidated by mustard and relish. Incidentally, the Fetzer Vineyards 2005 Valley Oaks California Riesling ($6) is another steal, especially if you like your rieslings pleasantly but not cloyingly sweet.

Pepperwood Grove 2003 California Zinfandel ($8): A brand of Don Sebastiani & Sons, Pepperwood Grove stands out on shelves for its bright green labels and on the palate for its faithfulness in capturing varietal typicity in a way immediately accessible. This zinfandel is a perfect example of that standard, providing fresh raspberry, blackberry and cherry fruit on a lean frame.

Veramonte 2005 Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($9): No surprise here. With every vintage in recent years, the Chilean producer Veramonte turns out the best buy in sauvignon blanc on the market. Every crucial element of the wine — smell, flavor, structure, acidity — meshes tightly into a vivacious whole. It’s lean, but its smells and flavors of fresh herbs and limes persist even when they’re up against a fairly spicy salsa with grilled seafood or chicken.

How about that Cycles Gladiator label, huh?

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