5 Must-Try Wines Under $20

Wine Feature

Wine is the perfect accent to many evenings or meals, though it can be an expensive addition to any night.  If you want to enjoy a glass but don't want to break the bank to do it, sample these five wines that hit the spot without bruising your wallet.

By Francis DiClemente

If you are not a connoisseur, or as particular as Paul Giamatti's character in Sideways, you can find a variety of quality wines for a reasonable price. These selections are more suited for everyday meals and informal gatherings, as opposed to formal occasions, but most would also be acceptable for an upscale dinner party or a romantic date. And with the global economic crisis showing no signs of letting up anytime soon, these wines are definitely worth considering the next time you roam the aisles of your local grocery or liquor store. More importantly, though, they deliver taste and satisfaction without being pretentious.

Superior Discounts Wine and Liquor Mart is situated between a Kohl's store and a YMCA, tucked away in the back corner of Fayetteville Towne Center shopping mall in suburban Syracuse, New York. Affable and unassuming-and with a warm pink face and a gentle voice to match-owner Dick Jones seems more like a parish priest than a seller of spirits. Yet he wastes no time in pointing out the best buys in his store.

Don Miguel Gascón MalbecMalbec

Hailing from the mountainous region of Mendoza, Argentina, this full-bodied red wine comes with a deep violet color and showcases blackberry, cherry and plum flavors; it also offers a smooth, rich texture and a velvety finish. It retails at about $11.99 a bottle and food pairings include grilled red meats, wild game and pasta dishes.

Jones says it is perfect for entertaining friends, and he adds that these Malbecs “are one of the hottest segments of the industry.” Carmen Castorina, director of communications for E&J Gallo Winery, which distributes Don Miguel Gascón Malbec in the U.S., calls the Malbec variety of wine “the premier red wine of Argentina.”

And because of its international background and sheer elegance, one could also imagine sipping DMG Malbec while reclining on a sunlit patio and reading Selected Poems by the late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

MacMurray Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris

Nestled in the heart of the fertile Russian River Valley in Northern California, amid redwoods and grass-filled valleys, MacMurray Ranch produces wine with a distinct sense of place.

Kate MacMurray serves as spokesperson for MacMurray Ranch Vineyards and Winery. She grew up on the ranch and is the daughter of actress June Haver and actor Fred MacMurray-known for his roles in My Three Sons, The Absent-Minded Professor and the film noir classic Double Indemnity.

According to Dick Jones, the Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris is a “little bit beefier than a Pinot Grigio.” The essential qualities of this wine are peach, pear and honeydew melon flavors, an inviting straw color and a crisp, clean finish.

E&J Gallo Winery owns McMurray Ranch brands, and Castorina remarks the Pinot Gris has tremendous complexity without being influenced by oak. He says, “The wine is dry, yet has a noticeable fruit/floral component and no oak character since it is not aged in wooden barrels.” He adds the Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris is a great alternative to Chardonnay and is versatile in terms of food pairing possibilities. Jones says it works well with most dishes, especially roasted chicken. The wine sells for about $16.99 a bottle and is ideal for almost any occasion.

Martini Wine

Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon

Steeped in tradition, the family-owned Louis M. Martini Winery has been in business for 75 years, and third generation winemaker Michael Martini carries on the legacy of his grandfather and father in St. Helena, California. Today E&J Gallo Winery owns the Louis M. Martini brands.

The Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon is a complex but easy drinking wine. It can also be considered a “man's wine.” Castorina explains: “Cabernet Sauvignon, because of its inherent style-big, red wine with lots of structure and complexity, is often viewed by wine lovers as a masculine wine-as opposed to those wines that can be more delicate in nature.”

The Louis M. Martini website says this Cabernet “offers many layers, featuring aromas and flavors of red cherry, blackberry and fresh sage with an underlying dry creek dustiness.” But Dick Jones does not talk about the wine's subtlety, but instead provides this apt description of its functionality: “You know I like a steak and a nice bottle of red, and this fits the bill for me as much as anything else.” Other food pairings include Italian dishes with fresh tomato sauce. The cost is $14.99 a bottle.

Yellow Tail Chardonnay

While Yellow Tail Chardonnay may be the wine equivalent of a “chick flick,” it delivers tropical fruit and melon flavors and is soft and fresh with balanced acidity. This straw-colored white wine with hints of sweet oak is suited for light meals of chicken, fish, sandwiches and pasta. In addition, Yellow Tail Chardonnay goes well with cheese and crackers and vegetarian dishes, making it an excellent choice for tailgating, cocktail parties and other informal affairs. It can also be called into action for those times when it is necessary to impress a woman.

Yellow Tail Chardonnay is made in Australia by a transplanted Italian family-the Casellas. The founders of Casella Wines, Filippo and Maria Casella, came to Australia from Sicily in 1957. Today, numerous generations of Casellas remain involved in the family winemaking business. Yellow Tail brands are imported to the U.S. by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd.

Yet for all its popularity in America, Yellow Tail Chardonnay sometimes gets a bad reputation from those in the food and beverage industry. One Syracuse restaurant manager referred to Yellow Tail Chardonnay as a “floor” wine-as in it was spilled on the floor at the winery. Even Jones calls it a “lower rung of Australian wine,” and he says its success depends mostly on marketing. But he says his customers keep coming back for it. “It's a good value wine, they know the name, they're confident with it and it's in a good price range,” Jones says. You can find Yellow Tail Chardonnay for less than $10 at most retail outlets.

Carlo Rossi Paisano

Step back into the “old country” with this iconic jug of red table wine featuring the image of the late Carlo Rossi on the label. This light-bodied Chianti-styled wine is easy to drink and versatile with a wide range of dishes-from penne pasta with Italian sausage to Chinese sweet and sour pork or chicken. E&J Gallo Winery also owns Carlo Rossi brands. Castorina says using high quality California grapes, “Carlo Rossi wines are crafted in a fruit-forward, friendly style … that has been perfected for over 30 years.”Carlo Rossi

And while the Carlo Rossi Paisano may not be considered stellar or memorable, consumers can always count on it. The wine's consistency is comparable to Dunkin' Donuts coffee. It is the reliable late '90s Honda Accord LX that racks up miles and rarely needs repairs, or the trusty gray hoodie you turn to when raking leaves, shoveling snow or walking in the rain.

Carlo Rossi Paisano embodies working-class character and has a warm, nostalgic appeal.

Castorina says the wine's “lack of pretense helps people embrace who they are and appreciate the good things in life in a fun, laid-back way.”

The price is also hard to beat. A four-liter jug of Carlo Rossi Paisano contains over five average (750 ml) bottles of wine at a cost of about $10.99. So in these tough economic times, you get a solid, dependable wine with more buzz for your buck. And one more thing-no corkscrew required.