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Low price is winery's crowning ?Jewel'

By: Gary Moffat Sierra Foothills AVA
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The "super-value" category in the wine industry ? the niche under $5 ? has been the hot ticket since Trader Joe's launched its Charles Shaw label with wines priced at $1.99. "Two Buck Chuck" became an instant icon and set the wine establishment on its collective ear. Though I had never heard of the New York International Eastern Wine Competition, wine producers all over California hyperventilated in unison when the 2002 Charles Shaw Shiraz earned a double gold medal there in June and had an even-money shot at being named "Best of Show." This was no doubt a joyful moment for Fred Franzia, head of the Bronco Wine Company, producer of TBC and many other super-value labels. Franzia, who outplays James Garner and Mel Gibson in the role of Maverick, no doubt partied the night away when his 2002 Charles Shaw Chardonnay won gold at the 2004 California State Fair's commercial wine competition. At the risk of being called an "elitist," "snob" or even worse, "a wine connoisseur," I personally refuse to drink the stuff. At my age, I've learned to treat my self better. I won't drive a Kia; I won't buy my shoes at Kmart; I won't drink Budweiser. There is nothing wrong with these products, and many people eagerly line up to purchase them. I just won't. Why? I don't buy much of anything anymore. My needs are simple, and I enjoy what I have accumulated over the years. My 1993 Suburban suits me just fine, thank you. But when it comes to wine, I'm not going to be convinced that a $2 bottle of juice is great stuff, blind tasting notwithstanding. At the same time, even though I own a wine store I don't routinely sip on wines that cost $30 a bottle. I still have to pay for the stuff. In a world where lattes are priced at $3.50 and filling up my gas tank runs $50, finding a stand-up daily drinker for 10 bucks is a home run in my opinion. There are great choices, and here are two: Global Wine Group is a wine producer based in Lodi with a great concept: produce quality wines at a price of $10 where both the distributor and the retailer can make fair margins. The result is the "Jewel Collection," nine wines priced at $9.99 and sold in restaurants and fine wine stores. How good are these wines? If performance at wine competitions is a gauge, the Jewel brand is a winner. The just-released 2003 Jewel Viognier is a good example. It has a huge floral nose and beautiful stone-fruit flavors. A bit of acid and nice structure make this wine a steal at $10. It received a double-gold and 98 points at this year's State Fair and was named best viognier in California. Another brand to search out is McManis Family Vineyards, a huge producer based in Ripon. McManis operates vineyards, does custom crushes, sells bulk wines, and in 1998 started its own label with Jeff Runquist as wine maker. The proposition with McManis wines is basically the same as Jewel ? high-quality varietal wines priced at $10 per bottle, and McManis wines are more widely available in chain stores. Winemaker Runquist scored big in two ways at the 2004 State Fair. Six McManis wines were entered, and five won medals. The 2003 merlot and viognier received gold; the 2003 chardonnay scored a silver; and the 2002 syrah and 2003 pinot grigio brought home bronze awards. Runquist also produces wines under his own label, and he was one of the State Fair's biggest winners. His 2002 "R" Petite Sirah ($25) was named "Best of Show," earning a double gold medal and 98 points, besting nearly 3,000 other wines entered in the competition. His 2002 "R" Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) also won a double gold. Bootleggers launches new menu items It's an Old Town Auburn institution with crowd-pleasing menu items such as Korean skirt steak and fried calamari. While those dishes will remain, an array of new items were launched Tuesday. I munched in on a staff preview at Bootleggers bar on Monday, and here are some of my favorites: * Fried avocado ($7.95). Fried what? Lightly battered and zipped up with jalapeno cheese sauce, this spicy number will wake up your taste buds before the main event. * Tomato salad ($6.95). Heirloom tomatoes buried in Roquefort cheese and laced with red onions and red wine vinaigrette. What impressed me was the Placer-grown fruit. Fresh and flavorful, you want to believe the vines are out back. * Filet au bleu ($13.95). A hefty and tender filet topped with French-fried onions and bleu cheese crumbles on a toasted French roll. * Garlic chili prawns ($22.50). A full three-quarters of a pound of prawns in the shell prepared in red chili garlic butter. Now that's a meal! Gary Moffat owns Carpe Vino, a wine shop and wine bar in Old Town Auburn. He can be reached at 823-0320 and gamoffat@pacbell.net.