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The Independent Culture
CALIFORNIAN wine is just like Burgundy - if you want to drink it, you have to pay over the odds. I'm not just talking about the top, star wines. Those can be amongst the world's best. California's cheap wines - and cheap for California means under a fiver - are over-priced, under-flavoured and increasingly over here. Recently, a slow trickle of American winemakers has been convinced by British retailers that we will never buy their top wines in decent quantities unless we are wooed on to them by good, cheap wines. But few of the tableful I tasted are going to make any converts. About half were pleasant, and I'd have recommended them wholeheartedly if they had cost pounds 2.99 or even pounds 3.60. But with a whole world of scrumptious wines to choose from at pounds 4.99, they simply lacked oomph.

There were just a couple of really good-value exceptions. The real star, brilliant value in world terms, was a concentrated, spicy red, 1993 Cline Cotes d'Oakley, Contra Costa County (pounds 4.99 Wine Cellar), made from 75- to 100-year-old Rhone-type vines plus Zinfandel - a one-off bargain batch. Also good value is the dark, damsony 1994 King's Canyon California Petite Sirah, Arciero (pounds 4.99 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up) made by a roaming Australian in the employ of the English wine wizard Hugh Ryman.

Even Hugh Ryman, though, has failed to crack the cheap Californian wine problem. That Petite Sirah is good, but most of the new range recently arrived in Thresher/Wine Rack/Bottoms Up is unimpressive. Best of the rest by far is the light, bright and flavourful 1994 King's Canyon Arciero California Zinfandel (pounds 4.99), but that sort of flavour made in Australia, Chile or the south of France can easily be found at pounds 3.99. Part of the problem was that 1995 grape prices soared in California. They were already high thanks to domestic demand - America drinks far more wine than it can produce. There's a joke going around that 1996 is "new-mattress year" for grape growers - the old ones were too stiff with banknotes. Grape crops are always huge, and flavours consequently often dilute, in the central coastal part of California where Ryman based his operation. Some of the vines are poor, and some varieties - Chardonnay and Cabernet in particular - never perform well. "In 1996," Ryman says, "we're going to pay a bit more for better grapes from better areas. For example, we'll get our Chardonnay from cooler vineyards further south."

Another man on the lookout for affordable grapes with British drinkers in mind is Jason Korman. A former California winery owner, he has specialised in the last couple of years in designing lower-priced California wines to meet the requirements of British supermarkets and wine chains. "I'm always surprised what can be done in out-of-the-way places within severe price constraints. Fruit that has the potential to make good wine often never gets to a winery that can make it good. A lot of central California wineries are set up like oil refineries." Korman has his chosen grapes delivered to smaller wineries, and made to his specifications. He blends wines from different vintages and areas in a way that wouldn't impress American drinkers, but, he says, "we focus on making the best product we can without worrying about all those things." It doesn't always work, but his wines are often among the best of the under-pounds 5 California bunch. Try the South Bay Chardonnay or Pinot Noir (both pounds 4.99 Sainsbury), or the soft, fruity Apple Hill California Barbera-Cabernet Franc (3.99 Booths and Davisons).

From other wineries, my favourites were two Chardonnays: a honeyed, appley 1994 Glen Ellen Chardonnay (pounds 4.75 Berkeley Wines, Budgen, Cellar 5, Tesco and Wine Cellar) and a pineapply, lemony, slightly oaky 1994 Forest Ridge California Chardonnay (pounds 4.59 Victoria Wine); and three reds: a firm, blackberry- fruity 1993 Ehler's Grove Zinfandel (pounds 4.99 Majestic), the ripely fruity, agreeably farmyardy Prosperity Red, Firestone (pounds 4.99 Bottoms Up, Thresher and Wine Rack), and a soft, cherry-fruity 1994 Redwood Trail California Pinot Noir (pounds 4.99 Oddbins).

Then my husband played a trick on me. "Try this," he said, the label concealed. "It's American and pounds 3.99 a bottle." "Wow!" I said, shocked at the really yummy fruit flavour and value for money. Then he showed me the label. It was not North but South American. It came from Chile.