• Sparkling wine at sparkling prices. 2005 was a very good year for the bubbly. Brut Zero ($10) and Extra ($7), both Spanish cavas, are not just inexpensive but taste good, too. Also worthwhile: Mumm Napa’s Cuvee M ($19), a much fancier wine than the cavas, but still a value, with a nifty, almost peach-like taste. Perhaps my favorite this year was a $10 champagne-style wine from New Zealand, Lindauer Brut. It has the necessary champagne-style acidity but the fruit and freshness typical of New Zealand wines.

• California cabernet sauvignon that isn’t overpriced: Riboli Family Winery’s lush and flavorful San Simeon 2001 — which, at $26, is about two-thirds the cost of its least expensive cousins from Napa and Sonoma. Best yet, this wine doesn’t have the high alcohol, high acidity and high tannins that other premium California cabernets do, which means you can actually drink it and enjoy it at the same time.

• Newest member of the $10 Hall of Fame: The Italian Falesco Vitiano Rosso (a red blend of equal parts cabernet, merlot and sangiovese), Bianco (viognier and two Italian grapes), and Rose (cabernet, merlot and sangiovese). All are outstanding, and the red blend is even more outstanding than the other two.

• Consistency is a good thing in wine: I don’t often spend $30 for a bottle, but when I do, it’s usually for Ridge’s Lytton Springs Zinfandel. Ridge is probably the world’s best zinfandel producer, and the 2003 vintage — the 25th the winery has made — shows why. It’s a sophisticated wine, yet is typically zinfandel, full of jammy fruit flavors and an earthiness that brings a smile to anyone who tastes it.

• If you happen to have $70 lying around: Consider Benziger’s Tribute 2002, a French-style red blend from Sonoma. This wine stands out not just because it’s worth the money spent, but also because it has been certified as biodynamic — the next level above organic.


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