When Good Friends Bring Odd Wine 

Or, don't judge a Cab by its giver.

I recently threw a party, and among the many bottles of wine people brought as hostess gifts was a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from a winery called Tisdale Vineyards — courtesy of an old friend whom I consider, well, kind of fancy. "This is really good," she said as she handed me the bottle, and I believed her, eager to test what I assumed was a $50-ish Cab against a few tried-and-true bargain bottles in my wine fridge.

Then I looked a little more closely at the label. "Vinted and bottled in Modesto, California," it read. Bulk wine from the Central Valley? Okay, $50 might be a stretch. Still, I was intrigued. Maybe my friend was onto something — perhaps she'd discovered a second-generation Two-Buck Chuck, and had given me the gift of an oenological secret handshake that I could pass along to thirsty Wineaux everywhere.

Or maybe she was just kidding. There are some parallels: Just as the Charles Shaw brand is the budget-friendly brainchild of bulk-wine magnate Fred Franzia, Tisdale boasts its own impressive value-wine lineage: it's made by Gallo. At $4.99 a bottle, it's a hair more expensive than Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon, but thanks to Gallo's distribution machine, it's widely available, unlike Chuck. And, judging from online raves, enough people love it for it to benefit from the kind of viral marketing that made Chuck a superstar.

I found it very drinkable but a little ... weird. The nose impressed: black fruit with hints of rose and vanilla, and more soft fruit on the palate. But the Tisdale was strangely light and sweet for a Cab, and it was generally lacking in structure, with low acid and no finish. It wasn't the sleeper hit I'd been hoping for, but the price and availability add to its attractiveness, and you can't argue against its sip-ability. Just don't expect characteristic Cab flavors — or for this wine to hold up well against Cab-pairing favorites such as steak and good stinky cheeses.

Still, it's a good day for Wineaux when fancy friends show up on the doorstep with $5 bottles of Central Valley vino. And it's an even better day when a prominent wine competition awards all of its top prizes to wines with affordable price tags.

This year's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition pitted nearly 5,000 wines, hailing from more than 1,500 US wineries, against each other in blind tastings held earlier this month in Sonoma. This year's Sweepstakes winners, recognizing the best sparkling, white, red, pink, and dessert wines in the entire competition, ranged in price from $14 to $34.99. Best in Class winners costing less than $10 included the 2008 Motos Liberty Cellars California Chardonnay ($8.99), the 2008 Bandit California Merlot ($8.99), and the 2008 Cycles Gladiator Central Coast Syrah ($9.99). We look forward to tasting these for future columns.

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