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The combination of a bum economy and the holiday splurge has turned many of us into cash-strapped connoisseurs.

What's a wine-lover to do? Bargain hunt, of course, and here's the upside: The budget-minded don't have to sacrifice quality.

"People shopping for $5 to $12 wines are often more discerning about quality than people on a high-end basis," said Jason Schneider, the general manager of Santa Rosa's Bottle Barn. "They really have good palates. If they're buying a case of inexpensive wine, they want the 12th bottle to be as good as the first."

Beth Durant was one of those "discerning" shoppers recently scouting at Bottle Barn for red blends and zinfandels.

"We're going to a 50th birthday party and we're wanting to take a boatload of inexpensive wine," said Durant, of San Mateo. "We're thinking of a box for them to serve, anything under $10 a bottle."

Shoppers like Durant are also keeping an eye on alcohol levels.

"After years of drinking over-the-top high-alcohol wines, low-alcohol bottlings are appealing to shoppers," Schneider said. "They go better with foods and people don't feel the effects of the wine as much."

For those watching their alcohol intake, here are several tasty bottlings under $12 in the 13 percent range: Round Hill, 2010 California Merlot; Geyser Peak, 2010 Sonoma County Chardonnay; Estancia, 2009 Central Coast Merlot.

For those looking for a top-notch pinot noir regardless of alcohol level, one of the best is the Decoy, 2009 Anderson Valley. It runs around $22 a bottle, but it's an entry-level wine within the high-quality Duckhorn Vineyards family of brands, and it's decidedly less expensive than their top-tier Goldeneye pinot noir, for example, at $159.

How do producers appeal to people with an appetite for bargains?

"It starts by working with good growers to source grapes that are price-wise appropriate," said Neil Bernardi, one of the winemakers at Duckhorn Vineyards, who oversees the Decoy pinot noir production. "It starts with quality and then we work with growers to see if the price point works for both sides. It's about negotiation."

Beyond that, some estate vineyard grapes grown for more upscale brands find their way into Decoy's Anderson Valley bottling, also cutting costs.

"Between holiday spending and taxes coming up, in these next couple months we see budget wines going through the roof," Schneider said.

Here are the top picks for good bargain wines, with most selling for under $12 a bottle. Just a footnote: They usually show well, but at these prices some bottles may vary in quality.

- Round Hill, 2010 California Merlot, 13 percent alcohol. An approachable merlot with bright fruit and good acidity. Notes of tart cherry, herbs and spice. Tangy.

- Rutherford Vintners, 2008 Napa Valley Pinot Noir, 14.2 percent. A tasty pinot with aromas and flavors of violet, rose petal, raspberry and vanilla.

- Geyser Peak Winery, 2010 Sonoma County Chardonnay, 13.5 percent<NO1><NO>. A bright and lively chardonnay with notes of green apple, toast and mineral. Crisp acidity. Nice length.

- DeLoach, 2010 California Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5 percent. A cab with good bones. Notes of blackberry, plum and tobacco and a hint of cedar. Nice length.

- Estancia, 2009 Keyes Canyon Ranches, Central Coast Merlot, 13.5 percent<NO1><NO>. A merlot with notes of blackberry, plum, toast, herbs and spice. Approachable.

- Dancing Bull, 2009 California Zinfandel, 13.9 percent. A zin with notes of black cherry, raspberry, spice and cinnamon. Chewy tannins. Zesty finish.

- Laurier, 2010 Alexander Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, 12.5 percent<NO1><NO>. A bright cab with notes of cherry, currant, herbs and cracked black pepper. Good acidity. Balanced.

- Apothic Red, 2010 California Winemakers Blend, 13 percent. A juicy red blend with concentrated flavors. Notes of blackberry, herbs and cinnamon. Nice length.

- Decoy, 2009 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 14.5 percent. A striking pinot for the price. Good core of fruit. Aromas and flavors of black cherry, currant, mushroom and spice. Earthy.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.