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The Independent Culture
While on a recent trip to Kentucky, selflessly pursuing empirical and theoretical wisdom on the subject of Bourbon whisky (which I'll be reporting on soon), I had the opportunity to sip a glass or two of Californian wine. This is what one does in foreign parts, n'est-ce pas, to drink what is locally grown? Well, they may not grow grapes in Kentucky but they sure have access to what's grown in California.

And I have to say that what we drank was not always good. Cali-fornian wines, like those of Australia, have a reputation for being big in body (ie alcohol) but low in subtlety. They also have the reputation of being expensive. Given that wine-buying is always a matter of balancing cost against quality, and trying to get as much of the latter for as little of the former as possible, California has never ranked high in the average UK shopper's "must have" lists. Admirable, yes; wonderful, no.

But a recent tasting at Majestic Wine Warehouses threw up a few bottles that made me reconsider. Majestic has found some wines that, though not cheap in absolute terms (no pounds 3.49 wonders), are exceptional value at what must now be considered the low end for California: that grey area where pounds 5.49 can shade into pounds 9.99 if you're feeling reckless. They have a Chardonnay (pounds 5.49) and a Cabernet Franc (pounds 5.99) from Krautz-Ironstone, both of the 1994 vintage and both possessing loads of character for Californians at this price. Better still is a group of wines from the Seghesio wineries in Sonoma, especially their Zinfandel 1994 (pounds 6.99), Old Vine Zinfandel 1994 (pounds 9.99), and a perky Sauvignon Blanc 1995 at the irreproachable price of pounds 5.99. And the most intriguing of the lot a seductive blend with an especially unsexy name: Mari- etta Old Vine Lot Eighteen (pounds 7.49).

But it's not only in California that Majestic has some delicious mouthfuls on offer. They're still bringing in wines from their one-off purchase of the Swedish state monopoly stocks, and these are some of the best bargains around. If you're a fan of Germany, you'd be crazy not to pick up a bottle of Eitelsbacher Kart-hauserhofberg Riesling 1992, going for an absurd pounds 4.69. That classically intense petrol nose and full floreal fruit would be worth every penny at pounds 7. Claret-lovers, meanwhile, owe themselves a case of half-bottles of Chateau Coufran, an Haut-Medoc being sold in the 1990, 1992 and 1993 vintages. It says here in my tasting notes that the 93 (pounds 4.39) showed up better than the 92 (pounds 3.29), but it's the 90 (pounds 4.99) that comes closest to well-knit maturity.

And finally ... Please, don't shoot: I have a word to say about Christmas. I know, it seems to start earlier every damned year, and I hate to be the one who gets you thinking about it. Un-less, of course, you've already started buying presents and wrapping-paper - in which case you have problems which need help from someone other than a drinks columnist. BUT: now is the time to think about buying champagne for the festive season. Any good champagne will get better with six extra months of bottle age, and we're six months away right now. As always, the best "multi-buy" offers will be chez Oddbins and chez Majestic. But Bibendum (0171 916 7706), recently featured in these pages, is cutting prices on three of its bubble range without the requirement of multiple bottles. The delicate Pommery NV is one of them, reduced from pounds 19 to pounds 14.99. The serviceable Veuve Delaroy comes down from pounds 12 to pounds 9. And most heartening of all is the grower's champagne Albert Beerens, a hefty wine with lots of Pinot Noir. This is my house champagne and, at pounds 12.99 (from pounds 15), I will certainly be laying in a few units. To keep until Christmas, I promise.

And depressingly ... many prices fetched by the wine cellar of Andrew Lloyd Webber at Sotheby's last month exceeded what you would pay at a wine merchant. A magnum of Chateau Pichon-Longueville 1982 chez Web went for pounds 440 while it's pounds 150 at Lon-don's Berry Bros and Rudd. It makes me think of a Dorothy Parkerism that I quote ad nauseum to friends: "If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people on whom He has chosen to bestow it."