After tasting more than 300 affordable American wines, Senior Editor Ray Isle reports on his most exciting red wine finds.
Additional research by Megan Krigbaum
2005 Red Truck Red ($10)
Sonoma’s Cline Cellars started producing Red Truck in 2002, and it was an immediate hit. Now the brand is independent, but Cline winemaker Charlie Tsegeletos still makes it, and the quality-for-price ratio is still high. He blends Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and a host of other red grapes for a juicy red with spicy berry notes.
2005 Stephen Vincent Crimson ($11)
The aroma is muted, but don’t be fooled—there’s a lot of dark blackberry fruit in this structured Rhône-style California red blend.
2004 Robert Pepi Sangiovese ($11)
Pepi was one of the first wineries in California to plant the Sangiovese grape, and that experience shows in this delicate red. A versatile wine, it’s light enough to drink as an aperitif, but with enough cherry fruit to accompany a main-course dish.
NV True Earth Red ($13)
There’s an engaging freshness to the crisp currant flavors and firm tannins in this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Sirah. It’s made entirely with organic grapes from California’s Mendocino region, and bottled with minimal sulfites, a requirement for a certified organic wine.
2006 J. Lohr Wildflower Valdiguié ($9)
This obscure grape variety, grown in the cool, windy Arroyo Seco appellation of California’s Monterey County (and pronounced val-dih-GUAY), produces a zesty red wine with strawberry fruit and light, prickly tannins that recalls a good Beaujolais.
2006 Writer’s Block Lake County Grenache ($12)
Winemaker Jed Steele rounds out the cherry and cola notes of this medium-bodied Grenache with small amounts of two other Rhône varieties, Counoise and Syrah.
2004 St. Francis Red ($12)
Big and intense, this formidable blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel is made entirely with fruit from Sonoma County vineyards.
NV Fess Parker Frontier Red Lot #71 ($12)
A jammy fruit extravaganza made from a whole host of mostly Rhône grape varieties, this very ripe Santa Barbara red is definitely worth keeping in mind as grilling season approaches.
2004 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Tête-à-Tête ($15)
Winemaker Bill Easton was among the first California winemakers to focus on the potential of Rhône grape varieties, and 30 years later, he’s still making impressive wines. For this silky red blend, full of coffee and blackberry liqueur notes—a lot of flavor packed into a tight framework of tannins—he uses Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah from California’s up-and-coming Sierra Foothills region.