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Originally published Friday, December 14, 2012 at 11:00 AM

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From California, a few rare wine gems

Wine Adviser Paul Gregutt often tastes through widely available releases in the broad range between $15 and $80. And he reports that it's a pretty bleak landscape.

Special to The Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Kenwood Vineyards 2010 Sonoma County Merlot; $14

RARELY CAN I recommend California merlot at this price, but here's a good one. From a floral-scented opening on through to a bowl of black cherries and a finishing whiff of smoke, this is a delightful bottle. (Distributed by Young's Market)

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IT'S NOT just me banging the drum for the overall value of Washington wines. A recent survey by a California-based wine magazine points out that Washington leads California (as well as France, Italy and Oregon) in both the percentage of wines scoring 90 points or better and the average price of those wines.

A metric often called QPR measures such quality-to-price statistics. And in the three-year period (2009-2011) referenced above, Washington wines outshone the leading competition. Of the Washington wines tasted, 48 percent scored 90 or higher, compared with 33 percent from California. And the average price of these Washington wines was $42. OK, not cheap. But less than half the $91 average price of the high-scoring California wines.

Such numbers are borne out informally by my own tastings. I rarely — and I mean rarely — taste the California cult wines. But I often taste through widely available releases in the broad range between $15 and $80. Let me tell you, it's a pretty bleak landscape. When I'm looking at a $60 or $70 or $80 Napa merlot or cabernet, and it doesn't have the grip or depth of a $30 effort from the Columbia Valley, I'm thinking, "How do these wineries survive?" That $80 bottle is going to cost you at least double, maybe triple that much if you order it off a steakhouse wine list, which wouldn't bring a smile to my face.

But I digress. I came to praise Caesar, difficult though it may be. Some minor jewels are popping up from time to time, and it is almost always the white wines, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, that stand out as California values. The best of them offer the ripe, tropical fruit flavors and full, round palate that denotes California winemaking.

I want them fruity and clean for that $15 price tag. If it's chardonnay, I don't want the vanilla and licorice flavors (from cheap oak chips or powders) to be all there is to taste. If it's sauvignon blanc, I want some hint of varietal character (sweet herb) and enough ripe fruit to stand up to whatever barrel flavors might be evident.

Buena Vista's 2011 Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc sports a retro label and fills the mouth with fruity sweetness.

Rodney Strong's 2011 Charlotte's Home Estate Sauvignon Blanc (a perennial favorite) moves the flavor needle into the lemon-verbena, fresh-herb side of the dial. It's a real gem.

The Rutherford Ranch 2011 Sauvignon Blanc has a sappy, juicy, grassy character that is most enjoyable.

And from Monterey, Morgan's 2011 Sauvignon Blanc serves up a bright core of tangy pineapple fruit. All of these new releases sell for around $15.

A good $15 California chardonnay is like finding a unicorn in a herd of mules, but the Rutherford Ranch 2011 Chardonnay brings balanced, buttery fruit flavors and just the right touch of toast. For a couple bucks more, the Silver Buckle 2011 Ranchero Chardonnay delivers generous, peach-powered, Lodi-grown fruit goodness.

Paul Gregutt's blog is www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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