Wall Street is in shambles and unemployment is at its highest in five years. So if you had your eye on that Bordeaux future, perhaps you should take it down a few thousand dollars. A few more. There you go. $12. Actually, I've long considered $12 to be the sweet spot for quality wine, especially as we make the transition, in this flailing economy, from summer whites to fall reds.

Historically, the majority of wines produced in Europe have always sold for $10 to $15, according to Robin Goldstein, author of "The Wine Trials" (Fearless Critic Media, $14.95), a bible for bargain hunters. It's only in the past decade or two that prestige-brand markups have soared as high as 500 percent, a result of extreme luxury marketing and a 100-point magazine scoring system that smells fishier every day.

So today, I'm providing what I hope will become an annual tradition: The Fall Reds: 12 under $12. The list is culled from me, oenophiles whose palates I trust and admire, and Goldstein's book, where, in blind tastings, 100 wines under $15 outscored $50- to $150-bottles.

Don't be fooled. These wines, one as low as $2, are not second-rate swill you drink when you're too poor to replenish the good stuff. Vintage after vintage, they are consistently well-sourced and well-made. Some are sustainable, which also makes them more economically viable. Others are made from estate fruit, like Tamas Estates' $12 bright berry and black pepper Zinfandel.


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The reason Tamas Estates can make and sell such an inexpensive red is that it is part of the larger Wente Family Estates, explains Amy Hoopes, vice president of marketing for Wente Family Estates. So, while the Zin is a relatively small-production wine made from sustainably farmed estate fruit, it is produced in the same facility where dozens of other wines are made. Glass bottle costs are also lower, since Wente can buy in bulk.

On the quality side, the Wentes have been farming the vineyards where the grapes are sourced for more than 100 years. They own the land, so not only are they debt-free vines, but the family has gained insights about their efficiency over generations.

"If you are able to control the grape from vine to bottle, you have complete control on maintaining quality," Hoopes says.

If a winery doesn't own its vineyards, it can take advantage of a surplus of quality bulk wine available on the market from prestigious appellations, such as Napa Valley. A winery can also keep costs down by contracting out the use of vineyards up to a decade in advance. That's what Paso Robles' Peachy Canyon Winery does to ensure the consistency of its uber-juicy $8 Incredible Red. "Same source. Same style. Same confidence and low cost," owner Doug Beckett says.

For this winery-establishing entry-level red, Peachy Canyon looks to the east side of Paso Robles, where there is less rainfall, yields tend to be higher and consequently, the price of fruit is a bit lower. In 15 years, the production at Peachy Canyon has gradually climbed from a few cases to 50,000 annually.

"Instead of producing a whole lot of wine and then saying 'Buy me, buy me,' we've put a fair price on it and watched it grow," Beckett says.

That said, large production is the obvious reason for many bargain wines, including the king of them all, Two Buck Chuck. The Bronco Wine Company makes 5 million cases a year of Charles Shaw and sells it all to one buyer, Trader Joe's, as a way to keep the retail cost low — $2 low. The Shiraz, with its dark plum flavors and earthy edge, made our Top 12, and the Cabernet Sauvignon made "The Wine Trials" Top 100.

The No. 1 light New World red wine for "The Wine Trials" panel was the $11 Mark West Pinot Noir, chosen for its elegant softness and focused cherry and spice flavors. Blind tasters called it "Pinot for the people," and I feel the same way about the McManis Family Vineyards Pinot Noir, a soft wine with rich notes of cherry and Nutella. It tastes about three times pricier than its $12 tag, and despite being a new wine in the McManis portfolio — 2006 was the first vintage — local retailers such as Farmstead Cheeses & Wines in Alameda can barely keep it in stock.

And there you have it. Not unlike the Wentes, the McManis family has been making wine for four generations. They've established relationships with grape growers in their corner of San Joaquin County, and all over the state. So even when they have three strikes against them — making a new wine from a fickle grape for sale in the value category — they win. And so do we.

Reach Jessica Yadegaran at jyadegaran@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-943-8155. To learn more about Goldstein's blind tastings, visit Yadegaran's wine blog at www.ibabuzz.com/corkheads.

The fall Reds:
12 under $12
  • Peachy Canyon Winery Incredible Red ($9). Bright fruit, good acidity and a surprisingly elegant finish. Great with pizza.
  • Charles Shaw California Shiraz ($2). The fruit for this Two Buck Chuck comes from a vineyard 1,000 feet above the San Joaquin Valley floor. The wine is a dead ringer for quality Cotes du Rhone. Try it with cumin lamb.
  • Guigal Cotes Du Rhone ($10). This Robert Parker darling is big and powerful, with loads of dark fruit in the nose and on the palate, and lots of alcohol to match. Decant and enjoy with turkey.
  • Barefoot Cellars California Cabernet Sauvignon ($5). This medium-bodied wine has balanced tannins and blackberry flavors and a vanilla finish. Rock it with a hamburger.
  • Parducci California Pinot Noir ($10). This wine's got chocolate mint on the nose, ripe berries and more chocolate on the palate. Great with mushroom ragout.
  • Tamas Estates Zinfandel ($12). This Primitivo-style Livermore wine is 100 percent sustainable and is made from all estate fruit. A spicy, peppery value. Try it with beef kabobs.
  • Campo Viejo Rioja Crianza ($9). This blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Mazuelo is the embodiment of rustic Old World-style wine, with tons of bright red fruit. Great with earthy cheeses.
  • Pope Valley Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($8). A trusty, fruit-forward California Cabernet that is full-bodied with good structure and tannins. Have it with steak.
  • Pirovano Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($8). A solid bottle of good old-fashioned Italian sipping wine with a good balance of fruit and earth and a pretty impressive finish. Sip with salami.
  • Casa Rey Malbec ($9). Big and powerful but not over the top, this Malbec has good balance and structure and can stand up to many heavy dishes. Try it with chicken mole.
  • McManis Family Vineyards Pinot Noir ($12): The inaugural 2006 vintage was a local darling, and this year's continues to impress with notes of earth, cherry and chocolate. It goes with everything.
  • La Vielle Ferme Rouge ($8). A Rhone blend that is uber-fruity without sacrificing that savory herbal and chocolate aspect that can only be associated with the Cote. Drink with duck cassoulet.
    -- Jessica Yadegaran (all current vintages can be found at Trader Joe's, BevMo and the Wine Club)