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Lost at the liquor store? These brands may not always give you an Annie Hall, but they're a long way from Gigli

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

I have a roster of wineries I call my Woody Allen list. Ever get stuck in a video store faced with thousands of titles but can't choose one? In desperation you wander the aisles reading back-of-box endorsements from, say, a Fox TV affiliate in Cleveland or a community weekly in Iowa. Then, in disgust, you leave empty-handed. Or, worse, with a Ben Affleck straight-to-video title under your arm.

That's why I try to keep Woody Allen films in mind, old standbys you can trust to be, if not great, at least worth watching.

It can sometimes get that way in liquor stores, don't you find?

So, I put the question to three veteran sommeliers: Name your Woody wines. Not mass-produced stuff that may be easy on the wallet but tastes as if it was mixed from a chemistry set. And not just wineries that make overpriced reds designed to be flipped at auction. Good brands that most mortals can rely on for a good time.

Then I added a strict condition. The brands had to be large enough to have decent distribution across the country.

My impromptu panel consisted of: DJ Kearney, a sommelier instructor based in Vancouver who trains wine professionals across the continent; Rob Smith, the sommelier and cellar manager at Calgary's River Café; and Jamie Drummond, sommelier for Jamie Kennedy restaurants in Toronto.

We didn't all agree on every choice, so it's not a unanimous list. And I should stress it's not a global "best wineries" list. There is no Petrus, Haut-Brion or Gaja. Most of the offerings had to be affordable. And, I should add, I did the final cut.

Errazuriz. Two of this Chilean estate's top reds, Vinedo Chadwick and Don Maximiano, outscored the likes of Latour and Solaia in a European blind tasting in 2000. The mid-range Max Reserva line, at about $18, offers tremendous value and cellarworthiness. And the entry-level Estate line, particularly the $12 chardonnay, should be on every wedding planner's suggestions list.

Yalumba. Australia's oldest family-owned winery, it got its start in 1849 and makes a wide range, from the $110 The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon to Champagne-style sparklers to fortified wines such as a 50-year-old tawny. The Y Series Viognier, selling in British Columbia for about $17.99, is among the best under-$20 versions of this versatile grape that you're likely to find. And the red Y Series Shiraz-Viognier, based on the quirky red-white blends of Côte Rôtie in the Rhône Valley, is scandalously underpriced at $15.95 in Ontario.

Marchesi de' Frescobaldi. The Florentine Frescobaldis have been in the wine business for 700 years, about 675 years longer than most wine producers in the New World. Mr. Smith cited the vintner and the rest of us seconded the motion. Their single-vineyard merlot-sangiovese blend, Giramonte, priced at about $80 when available in Canada, recently garnered 97 points from Wine Spectator. The widely available Nipozzano Riserva Chianti Rufina, at about $22, is carried by every Italian restaurant worth its sea salt and always manages to delight even as it varies from vintage to vintage.

Perrin. Not ringing a bell? Perhaps you've heard of Château de Beaucastel. Or La Vieille Ferme. The Perrin family, one of the 11 members of an exclusive global club called the Primum Familiae Vini (first wine families), owns both. Château de Beaucastel, one of the top producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (at $90), also makes a top $30 Côtes-du-Rhône called Coudoulet de Beaucastel from nearby vineyards. A mid-range line under the Perrin makes a decent organic Côtes-du-Rhône for under $20. And La Vieille Ferme, which includes a red, white and rosé, has garnered more critical best-buy nominations than Paris has cafés. The white ($11.95 in Ontario; the double-sized 1.5-litre format is on sale for $1 off at a recession-friendly $18.95 till April 26) is my favourite. "It's different vintage after vintage after vintage," Ms. Kearney says. "They're not just making two million cases of something that's the same year after year after year."

Penfolds. Sure, it makes Grange, a $370 trophy shiraz. It also makes a top cabernet sauvignon called Bin 707 that compares favourably to much more expensive Napa cabs. But under this same brand you can also find the very good Thomas Hyland series of reds and whites at about $20. And then there's the overachieving Koonunga Hill line, at about $17. Though made for immediate consumption, these last two tiers are able to age nicely for many years, as Mr. Drummond points out.

Trinchero Family Estates. You may be thinking: Who? The Trincheros, originally from northern Italy, struck gold after reviving a moribund winery called Sutter Home, creating, in 1972, the first "white" zinfandel, a sweet, pink elixir that became the training wine for millions of North Americans graduating away from soft drinks. The quality end of the business now is Trinchero Family Estates, and it makes high-end reds that, in blind tastings, would blow away many of those fancy auction-block Napa reds launched by retired dermatologists and filmmakers. Mr. Drummond is a Trinchero fan and so am I.

Villa Maria. Self-billed as New Zealand's most-awarded winery, this 50-year-old company remains family-owned. Named one of the world's 50 great wine producers by Wine Spectator, it's respected for high-end pinot noirs costing upward of $60, namely the Reserve and single-vineyard Taylors Pass, as well as for one of the best value entry-level sauvignon blancs from a country that produces a torrent of great-value sauvignon blancs.

Mission Hill. Yes, Canada can compete when it comes to across-the-board quality. The house that gazillionaire Anthony von Mandl built, near Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley, is nothing if not ambitious. Oculus, a merlot-dominated red that's nipping at the $100 mark, is the flagship. But I look forward to opening anything in the Mission Hill portfolio, even the pinot grigio from the Five Vineyards series ($15.99 in B.C.).

Château des Charmes. Not very big, but with products available around the country, this family-owned Niagara winery makes great reds in good years while also producing charmers such as a red based on the offbeat gamay noir droit grape and chardonnay musqué as well as a top bubbly and excellent gewurztraminer and sauvignon blanc.



I was on the fence here, but Mr. Drummond made a good case for this California zinfandel pioneer founded by Joel Peterson, who remains the creative force even after the  Sonoma winery's takeover by giant Constellation Brands.

From the County series of wines, at about $30, to the $40-and-up Vineyard Designate series, "the quality is undoubtedly there," Mr. Drummond says. Even the widely available Vintners Blend Zinfandel, at $18, "is a solidly crafted example of California zin."

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